Akhona Makalima: The accidental referee who became the first of her kind

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Akhona Makalima has had to ‘wage war’ all her life.

When she was a young girl growing up in the rural village of Nqamakwe in the Eastern Cape, where her grandfather raised her in a five-bedroom home occupied by more than 25 family members at times, she had to fight for her dream to be a footballer.

Without a doubt, the importance of a good support structure for any budding footballer that wants to make it to the top cannot be overemphasised. It takes a community to raise a diski star after all, but for women, the kind of support needed is much harder to come by than it is for boys.

In a country where football is still very much a man’s game, parents are reluctant to give their girl children the green light to pursue a career in the sport. Female footballers certainly do not have it easy. They face different kinds of challenges from their male counterparts and all kinds of accusations are made against their names.

These painful insinuations would take the toll on any parent and it is understandable why a few would fully support their children and put them in possible harm’s way.

Much as football may be adorably known as the world’s most beautiful game, countless times it has shown that it can be hostile to the delicate female touch. For this reason and others, Makalima, had to fight. Despite her avid passion for the game, nothing was going to be handed to her on a silver platter. And so began the first of her many battles.

“I was not convinced it was the right path for her, I thought of men who undermine any woman who come into that space (football). I wanted to stop her…,” Makalima’s mother, Vuyokazi Dalasile, recalls. From the outside looking in, a mother standing against her daughter’s desire to play soccer might seem cruel. When one takes a closer look however, it’s clear there is more to it than meets the eye.

A woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa and while that gruesome statistic might seem like it has little to do with the game, one needs to bear in mind that football, like all sports, exists in the context of a South Africa that is dangerously hostile to women. Viewed with that in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand how a mother would jealously guard her daughter, afraid to let her go, lest she gets suffocated in a male dominated sport.

“When she started, I didn’t really want her to play. I discouraged her, I tried to stop it and I feared she would change into something else. One day I saw a note she had written, and it read, ‘ukuyekiswa into uyithanda’ (being forced to stop doing something you love).” 

And so home became the scene of one of Makalima’s many battles. At the age of 17, it seemed that she had lost that particular war, as she gave in to her mother’s wishes and hung up her boots at a time when she was supposed to start flowering into an accomplished player. This loss, this early departure from the game that she so dearly loved, would not last.

“My mother did not like the idea of playing football,” she tells FARPost as she sips her water. “I stopped playing football for two years when I was about 17. But in college, I decided to go back against her will. When mom heard I was playing football she came to watch and realised how good I was. I actually think if I were in Gauteng (with good exposure) I’d have played for Banyana.”

On that fateful occasion that Dalasile saw her daughter for the first time on the pitch, she finally realised that her ‘Zidane’, as she was affectionately known, might be onto something with this football thing after all. The flame of unconditional parental support was reignited within her and she wanted her daughter to succeed. After all, with a mother who had played netball and a footballer father, she certainly had been gifted with a favourable set of genes. At school, she excelled in several sports.

“When it was athletics time kids would hide each time, I was part of the race so teachers would hide me until everyone was on the starting line. I’d then be brought when everyone was ready. I was faster than all of them, so they feared me,” she says, adding that she went as far as representing the province in athletics.

And then at some point, the five-sport athlete had to choose between baseball and soccer.

“I had to pick one because they practiced at the same time,” says Makalima, who also tried out rugby at school.

It was during her days at Thunderbirds Ladies and Litha FC that she discovered her next fight in the world of football. Unlike in the men’s game where the cream can rise to the top pretty quickly and achieve diski stardom, the structures in the women’s game were not clear cut, particularly in the Eastern Cape.

“I played for Thunderbirds in Eastern Cape as a left winger,” says the 32-year-old.

Like any other footballer, her utmost desire was to don the national team jersey but as soon as she realised her vision of playing for Banyana was not going to happen, she divinely stumbled on ‘Plan B’. While the end of her Banyana dream might have shattered her, the soft-spoken Makalima quickly picked up the pieces. A chance encounter with SAFA representatives would give her an early indication on what her next step in the world of football would be.

“I’d been running tournaments at the department of sports where I was working as a human resources officer. At one of the tournaments there were people from SAFA, and they said they were looking for women referees. Anyone who wanted to be a ref was asked to come forward. Funny enough, refereeing was never even in my plans, I never thought about refereeing at any point in my life. But it later turned out to be something I love once I started doing it,” says the effusive ref.

Since that accidental beginning, Makalima has gone on to pass the fitness test in the men’s game, becoming the first woman in South Africa and only the second in Africa to do so. It is a gruelling, demanding test which even experienced referees like Jerome Damon and her mentor, Lwandile Mfiki, have failed to pass at some point in their careers. And yet, such a test is not the only challenge the female referee must deal with.

Dumisani Nokhekhe, the Buffalo City Referees Chairman, remembers how, when he first brought Makalima to other referees, he had to swat away other colleagues who might have started buzzing around her if he had not given them a stern warning.

“She is very soft spoken, very down to earth and very fit. I told the referees ‘I’ve not brought you a cherry (girlfriend), she is your sister, the minute you propose to Akhona you’re gone’. She has motivated other girls. She applies the laws of the game to the letter, that’s the type of girl she is,” Nokhekhe tells FARPost in a telephonic interview.

An unshakeable determination to succeed is what got Makalima to the top and she is determined to keep that spirit for the battles that lie ahead. “I failed the men’s fitness test thrice, but I kept trying till I got it right. I told myself ‘I’m gonna run this test even if it means being the first woman to run and pass this test’. I needed to change my mentality and mindset. So, I told myself I was running Category 1. I had to train twice as much as men, I’d run twice every day to pass the men’s fitness test. After passing that test now I got into a habit of writing everything I want to achieve. My life is not haphazard. I write down everything I want to achieve,” says Makalima, who got her first FIFA badge in 2014.

People like her mentor, Mfiki, might attribute her rise to that rugged determination to come out on top whatever it takes while the naysayers might say it is all purely down to luck. But for Makalima, her climb from a Banyana wannabe star to a top referee is part of an elaborate grand plan.

“After passing that test now I got into a habit of writing everything I want to achieve… My life is not haphazard. I write down everything I want to achieve. I look at my vision board every day and say I am going to achieve this. I must write it down if I want to see it come to pass,” explains the rosy-cheeked Makalima popularly known as “SheRef”.

2018 was perhaps the year that proved the life changing magic of scribbling goals for her. “I wrote that I want to ref in finals. I was involved in the ABC Motsepe League, Multichoice (Diski Challenge) as main ref, the Telkom Knockout and Nedbank Cup as a fourth official that same season. People think I just wake up and things happen, but I’ve mastered the art of writing everything down. I wrote I’d be in the cup finals, when I saw them coming up, I was amazed,” says Makalima who led a team of match officials in the high-profile Tokyo 2020 Women’s Olympic qualifier between Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire last year.

“When she decides to do something she gives it her all, you could see she wanted to go far with her refereeing,” says Mfiki, who met her in 2011, the same year she started refereeing. Mfiki is a former PSL referee of 15 years. Interestingly, Makalima debuted as a centre referee in a Premier Soccer League (PSL) match between University of Pretoria and Mpumalanga Black Aces on her mother’s birthday five years ago on 28 February, 2015. “It was the best birthday gift ever for me,” her mom recalls.

DID YOU KNOW

The first woman to referee a PSL match was Deidre Mitchell on 22 April 2007 at Telkom Park Stadium, Port Elizabeth. Santos beat Kaizer Chiefs 3-1 on the day.

In 2016, Makalima founded what she calls her “baby program,” Inter-Refs. Inter-Refs teaches girls in her home province, Eastern Cape, aged 7 and older about the laws of soccer.

While she imparts her knowledge onto the next generation, she wants to excel locally before conquering Africa and, indeed, the world. “I want to see myself refereeing at the FIFA Men’s World Cup. The one time I said this they said, ‘she is daydreaming, but I say anything is possible,” she says boldly and unapologetically. The FIFA accredited match official has held the whistle at the 2016 Women’s AFCON, but missed the 2018 edition after opting to attend the Global Sport Mentorship programme in the US.

With dreams of refereeing the Soweto derby and other big matches in Africa and around the globe, for now, it seems the human resources management graduate’s desire for success cannot be tamed.

RELATED STORY: Makalima wants fans to help get football back on the pitch

By Mthokozisi Dube

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