When the Dutch journalist Tom Egbers first decided to find out what happened to his father’s footballing hero, he could never have imagined where it would lead. Almost 40 years had passed since the South African striker Steve ‘Kalamazoo’ Mokone spent two seasons playing for Egbers’ hometown club Heracles Almelo in Holland’s third division. But in 1993 no one had heard from him since.
“My father always used to tell me about this wonderful player who joined the club in the 1950s who was a black man – something that was unheard of in our part of the country,” he remembers.
“At that stage nobody had really taken any interest in his football career. Steve left Heracles in the middle of the night in 1959 and people hadn’t heard from him ever again. He sort of went up in smoke, which of course added to the mystification of this star.
“I decided to try and track him down but of course this was in the pre-Google age so it was not an easy task,” adds Egbers. “I eventually traced him to New York where he lived at the time working as a doctor in psychiatry and political science at a hospital. At first he was a little bit reserved and wanted to know who I was and why I wanted to talk to him. It was only years later that I was able to find out exactly why.”
After spending time with the man who had become the first black African to play professionally in Europe when he signed for Coventry City in 1955, Egbers published ‘De Zwarte Meteoor’ (The Black Meteor) – a novel based on Mokone’s successful spell at Heracles that saw them win promotion at the end of the 1957-58 season. It was remarkably well received and ‘Kalamazoo’ was invited back to the provincial town close to the German border for the first time in almost four decades as the club named the new stand in their Polman Stadion in his honour. Within five years the story had been turned into a film, too.
“There was a big premiere in Amsterdam and Ruud Gullit, Guus Hiddink and Frank Rijkaard were among the famous people to attend,” remembers Egbers.
“Five days after the premiere there was a story in the newspaper by a Dutch journalist who had spoken to a South African who had told him that Steve had been in prison for years in America.
“I found out he had spent time in jail for assaulting his wife and wife’s lawyer, with whom he had been in a custody trial over his daughter. I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it. I called him and said, ‘Listen, this is in the Dutch paper. Please tell me that it’s not true’.
“We had become friends and he had never mentioned it to me. Eventually he admitted it had happened but said: ‘I was sentenced. I’m not guilty but I don’t want to talk about it.’ I said: ‘You can’t do this. There’s been a book written about you, we made a film about you and there is a street named after you and we have travelled the world together. I thought we were friends.’
“But he didn’t want to tell me. So I decided I would write another book to try and find out what happened.”
Egbers spent 18 months trawling through the archives looking for information on Mokone’s arrest and trial. Having also enjoyed brief spells at Cardiff, Torino, Barnsley, Salisbury, Marseille, Barcelona and Valencia, he had moved to the United States in 1964 and began studying psychiatry. Thirteen years later, having separated from his first wife and endured an acrimonious but eventually victorious custody battle, Mokone was accused of throwing acid into her face before a similar attack the following week left her lawyer blind in one eye.
“I had promised myself that, if I had found out that Steve was indeed guilty, I would write it down,” Egbers says. “But I became convinced more and more that he was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit.”
In 2002 he published Twaalf Gestolen Jahre (Twelve Stolen Years), which alleged that Mokone had been framed by the US authorities in collaboration with the South African Department of Internal Affairs (DIA). Egbers detailed the lengths they had gone to ensure a conviction – a story that dated back to Mokone’s arrival at Highfield Road in 1955.
“The reason why Steve had to be behind bars was that he had fled South Africa because he was a rather prominent member of the ANC, which even by the 1970s was considered to be a terrorist movement by the US government,” he says.
“He was friends with Desmond Tutu and Miriam Makeba, who went to the same teacher training college in Pretoria. When he felt it was all getting too dangerous, that’s when he fled to Europe. As soon as Steve got to the US and started to study, he became more and more politically active.”
Mokone is believed to have caught the attention of the authorities when he was involved in the successful campaign alongside prominent African-American sports stars of the day including Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe to stop South Africa competing in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He continued to voice his opposition by writing articles about South Africa’s apartheid regime for a respected left-wing journal in New York throughout the 1970s and Egbers found evidence that the FBI had been asked to keep him quiet.
“The ‘framing’ becomes clear when you hear the clips and read the correspondence that was used or deliberately not used during his trial,” he says.
“I managed to get hold of a hypnosis interview done by the CIA with his ex-wife and it is really incredible to hear how things are manipulated. After about 30 minutes of the interview, she is convinced that it was Steve who had attacked her but she is terribly led by the investigators. Those tapes were never used in the trial because it was obvious they were not admissible. There is also correspondence that shows the FBI and CIA dug into this matter. Now if you commit a crime, that doesn’t usually happen. You will be arrested and you will go to trial but why would the CIA look into Steve Mokone? Everything was done to make people testify against him.
“For instance, Steve’s son Ronnie Sello didn’t have a US passport but was living there. They told him that, if he didn’t testify, then he would be thrown out of the country and that’s what he had to do. It was terrible. He had to testify against his own father.”
Sentenced to between eight and 12 years in prison, Tutu – who had been the unlikely goalkeeper for their college football team – was among several prominent members of the ANC to write to the US government asking for Mokone’s early release. However, he had to wait until August 1990 to be granted his freedom, under the strict condition that he never spoke about what had happened to anyone.
“Steve was married to an American woman called Louise, who is now his widow, and they wanted to stay in the US,” says Egbers.
“He feared that if he ever said anything about what happened then he would have to leave. So he never spoke about it.”
Mokone’s death at the age of 82 in Washington last month after a prolonged illness was covered extensively in the Netherlands and South Africa’s players wore black armbands in this week’s friendly against Nigeria to commemorate one of their most important pioneers. Following a ceremony at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium – the venue for the 2010 World Cup Final – next week, the ashes of the man described as “our flag bearer in all the corners of the world” by the sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, will be scattered in his homeland. For Egbers it will be hard finally to say goodbye.
“He meant a lot to me, not just over the last 20 years but before then as well,” he reflects.
“I was inspired by the stories of my father because he was the favourite player I never saw. When you don’t have any images or even pictures then you can make this mythological player as brilliant as you want to. This was the man that my father had told me stories about before I went to bed. At the time I thought about him as just a football player but he was so much more than that.”