The Strange Case Of The Mmabatho Stadium

Mmabatho Stadium, Mahikeng, South Africa. Illustration by @Stadiafile

(This article originally appeared in Box To Box Football)

These are tumultuous times, and in a world with so much to divide us it’s not as if we need one more thing on which to disagree. We already have Messi or Ronaldo to chew over. To European Super League or not to European Super League to consider. Not to mention, is Mmabatho Stadium in South Africa a beautiful jewel of a football stadium or some kind of hideous monstrosity foisted upon us as some kind of cruel joke? Okay, so we have one more thing to disagree on. And we do disagree. We know there’s some debate on the subject because Mmabatho Stadium is a mainstay on the internet’s odd stadium/beautiful stadium listicle circuit. Descriptions of the 59,000 seat multi-use structure range from “unusual” and “curious” to “most definitely bizarre” to “among the most beautiful.” And not without reason. To gaze upon Mmabatho Stadium for the first time is to squint and contort one’s face and ask why. But then, in spite of yourself, to then ask why not. It’s unconventional, to say the least. A denizen of the island of misfit toys for sure, but the place just has that certain something.

With its sharp angles and geometry that yearns to be described as abstract, at Mmabatho Stadium form and function appear to have met and then disagreed wildly. Mmabatho’s most glaring rebuke of traditional stadium architecture is its seating bowl, which in places looks like a dare more than a design. Certain sections sit at odd angles and appear to offer fans better views of other fans and the sky than whatever action might be happening on the pitch. At a glance the stadium looks to have massive solar panels attached. It doesn’t. Those are the stands. Love the stands or hate them, what isn’t up for debate is that they’re too far from the pitch. Mmabatho’s designers committed the cardinal sin of stadium design by placing a running track around the pitch. Or did they? Perhaps we’ve become too puritanical about our football stadiums by demanding they not be surrounded by athletics tracks — see debate over London Stadium, home of West Ham FC. Mmabatho’s track and football pitch combo along with rainbow color scheme, angular shapes reinforce its whimsical circus vibe.

Another of the stadium’s notable foibles are the precarious egresses. “Form follows function” is a principle of modern architecture, but with Mmabatho it seems that function followed form. It seems as if the strange layout was devised and then the long, circuitous ramps were erected for circulation purposes. The same goes for the sight lines, which can generously be described as poor.

Located 300 km from Johannesburg in South Africa’s North-West Province not far from the border with Botswana, Mmabatho Stadium is today a multi-use facility. One is just as likely to attend a carnival, concert, or art installation there as a football match. But with no permanent football tenant a carnival might be the more likely bet. Confounding in its way and, at the time, nearly 30 years old, Mmabatho Stadium unsurprisingly sat silent during the 2010 FIFA World Cup and is useful these days as neutral ground for the odd South African club match. Last year Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns played a charity match there, for example.

For a time Mmabatho Stadium was the home of the Mmabatho Kicks of the now-defunct Bophuthatswana Professional Soccer League, an unrecognized regional league organized by the Apartheid-era bantustan government and notable for having been the place where the career of South African football legend Lucas Radebe began. So endeth the sporting pedigree of the proud Mmabatho.

Dear sweet Mmabatho is also notable for having been built in one city — Mmabatho — and residing in another — Mafikeng. The two cities merged in 1994 to form the new capital of South Africa’s North-West Province. Just to further muddy the matter, Mafikeng is actually the former, yet more common, name of the town. In 2010 the name of the city was changed to Mahikeng as part of the healing and reconciliation process following South Africa’s transition from minority rule.

But how did we get here? Why should this misshapen tulip of a stadium have sprung up in this veritable sporting hinterland? It’s largely unclear. It was built in 1981 by an Israeli construction firm when Mmabatho was the capital of the former Bophuthatswana bantustan. As the world was not exactly clamoring for South African exports in the 1980s, it’s possible that time and place conspired to consign Mmabatho’s design to the dustbin of history and ensure that it would remain forever (so far) a singular achievement (possibly dubious) in football stadium architecture. Whether because of the ubiquity of certain architecture firms, restrictions designers are forced to adhere to for safety reasons (See: the Green Guide), or some combination of the two, the fact is most stadiums look more or less alike. So if there’s a stadium mold, Mmabatho Stadium didn’t so much as break it as it did drop it on the floor and stomp on it. So, mold breaker, yes. But Mmabatho remains an outlier, as it has inspired exactly zero imitators.

So in spite of what some might call design flaws — including but not limited to its circulation and site lines — and perhaps because it is so unique, Mmabatho has a special quality about it. Because of its unconventional design, and given the overall lack of diversity worldwide in stadium design, Mmabatho Stadium should be celebrated, if not entirely understood.