Tebogo Moloi remembers with fondness the Wednesday afternoons back in the 1980s in Soweto. This was during the days of apartheid, with the leaders in the fight against black oppression in South Africa either in exile or locked up.
The hour is darkest before dawn, the popular saying goes, but in those days, with Mandela rotting away in prison and Chris Hani hunted by apartheid assassination squads even beyond his homeland’s borders, there did not seem to be any light at the end of that bleak tunnel.
In Dube, Soweto, however, Wednesday afternoons were totally different. The midweek afternoons were that rare ray of light amidst the darkness, that glimmer of hope that brightened the lives of a people living under the shadow of apartheid’s crushing boot.
That ray of light came from Theophilus ‘Doctor’ Khumalo’s boot. On those Wednesday afternoons, Dube would gather to watch Daliwonga Secondary School play and they were only there to see one youngster shine. The skinny, gangly Doctor would give, in front of adoring fans, an entertaining prescription. At his command, defenders would be anaesthetised, midfielders would be subdued into temporary paralysis, just by the mere stroke of Doctor’s boot.
On the stands, the masses would scream their lungs out and shout their voices hoarse. Sure, the shadow of apartheid would return after the final whistle was blown. Life’s problems would again blow in with the evening winds. But for that one afternoon, on Doctor’s orders, their load on their shoulders would have been lightened.
“Each time Daliwonga Secondary School was playing the whole school would go out and just watch him play,” remembers the Orlando Pirates legend, Moloi. “He was already a township football hero. He was a kingpin. Usually they played on Wednesday, and the ground would be packed as they all went to watch him. They knew there was this skinny, light skinned young boy from Dube, Soweto.”
Although still very much wet behind the ears, in Dube, ‘Mdokisi’ was already a legend. In the past, he himself has said it was in Daliwonga where he played his best football. Even on those dusty fields, anyone with any footballing sense could tell that they were in the presence of a diski royalty.
“I attended school with him at Daliwonga. He was down to earth. I learnt most of the things from him although he was a year younger than me,” says former Kaizer Chiefs roommate Abel ‘Chacklas’ Shongwe, who shares a birthday with the man popularly known as ‘16V’.
“I was shocked when I saw the ground packed at school, he would be doing his thing on the pitch. He was a great footballer. He was untouchable on gravel.” So good was Doctor that, according to Shongwe, he would mesmerise even his own teammates who would be caught ball watching as they stopped in the middle of the park to stare as he curved apart opponents with surgical precision.
“You’d literally stop and watch him playing when he was your teammate. It was a God-given talent. When he had the ball, he wouldn’t lose it easily. His feet were as though they had magnets. I’d be lying to you if I say I’ve seen a player better than him in SA. He was unbelievable. After he retired, I haven’t seen any ‘doctor’. I don’t see anything like him. The boy was marvellous. He was a player that would bring the team into play.”
That field in Dube was the Doctor’s operating table and despite the joy he brought to hundreds of hearts, he could not stay in that loving nest forever. The time would come for him to spread his wings, fly and when he did, he would leave behind a lot of people. Those people on the touchline, seeking 90 minutes of joy and relief from a teenager would be left behind. And so, would the teammates who had dreams just like he had.
“He played with good players at school although they never made it to the highest level like he did,” Moloi tells FARPost. “They tried their luck in the NSL, but they didn’t make it. Everyone knew him from school football when he went to the Moroka Swallows juniors. He didn’t stay long there; he went on the Kaizer Chiefs reserve team. It was known that there was a sizzling hot youngster.”
His late father, Eliakim Khumalo, a renowned yesteryear soccer star, served as his mentor. As childhood friends, Moloi and Khumalo never let each other go, even as their career prospects blossomed. They looked destined for the big time and along the way they met the late John ‘Shoes’ Mosheu, another Soweto-bred football prodigy. School football and life in the topflight are worlds apart and what had worked on that gravel pitch in Dube would be harder to replicate on well-manicured turf of some of the biggest arenas in Mzansi. However, the trio never lost sight of who they were. They were football artistes, gifted with the rare ability to deliver victory, joy and beauty in equal measure.
“He was brave. He had a big heart. He wasn’t afraid to try something new in a game. What he would do at training, he would take it to a game. We were close with John Shoes. We used to go and play five-aside at Sherworld and we would copy skills from each other. So, training and working together helped us improve. When Shoes was at Blackpool, he wasn’t watched by a lot of people. Most of the time I would not even get game time at Pirates or I was overseas. Doctor was playing regularly at Chiefs and he would do these things in games being watched by a lot of people. We tried out the skills at Sherworld, but Doctor did it in front of multitudes.”
Moloi remembers Doctor’s debut for Kaizer Chiefs, a baptism of fire against arch-rivals Pirates. “He was nervous the first day we made our debut. The whole week it was a big story that we were making our debuts. We didn’t disappoint, we went out there and performed. Of course, it was nerve wrecking for him, but he was outstanding. His debut came against Pirates which made it worse,” Moloi says.
Doctor was told he played street football by British coach Jeff Butler, triggering a tiff that required the intervention of the hierarchy at Chiefs. But what if Butler was right? After, many a diski prince has failed to make the step-up when under the close attention of hard as nails defenders in the topflight.
Motswana author, Olebile Sikwane, who penned a book about Doctor, remembers him from his early days as the most popular South African after Chris Hani. With a towering giant like Mandela in prison, there was no other black figure that could give black people as much pleasure and joy as Doctor back in those days.
“I was motivated by Doctor Khumalo’s popularity as I had never seen such a powerful and influential player, and brand. Even here in Botswana, he was big. I was further attracted to him by his ability to lure multinationals to his brand as brand ambassador for BMW, Puma, SportPesa, Debonairs, MTN and many others,” he tells FARPost.
Doctor Khumalo’s crowning glory probably came in 1996 with Bafana’s triumph at the Africa Cup of Nations. But it was probably during the dark days of apartheid that he proved his mettle. To bring such joy to a nation that was constantly in tears, whose people’s collective hearts were always drowning in grief, took a special kind of talent.
“That for me was enough inspiration and I wanted to chronicle this journey for generations to look back on, to understand the genius Doctor Khumalo was. My father and uncle used to talk about other South African greats like Jomo Sono, Ace Ntsoelengoe and Botswana legends, Teenage Tlhowe and Ryder Rammala. Khumalo has managed to stay relevant, more than a decade after retiring from the game.
“His rise, in a country that fought years of white minority oppression under apartheid, was inspirational. He gave people the smile and hope. After apartheid fell, he was projected as a symbol of black success. This book encapsulates all that; the toil, the grandeur of life of a superstar and the difficulty he had to go through to achieve his goals,” he says.
“He was a genius,” says former Bafana captain Neil Tovey. “One of the best midfielders of all time. When he was in the team and you were in possession, you could not wait to get the ball through to him. We knew that his magical touches would soon get the crowd behind us.”
There was something both scientific and magical about how Doctor played the game. He was that rare footballer who could combine the silky skills learnt on the streets and the burning desire to win that can only be acquired from a high-pressure dressing room. Many a times a new dribbling wizard has been christened the “new” Doctor Khumalo but heavy is the head that wears that crown.
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By Mthokozisi Dube