Khabo Zitha: The girl who effortlessly captained boys

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If Desiree Ellis could recall a former Banyana Banyana star from retirement, it would be Khabo Zitha!

Understandably so, she was cut from a cloth poles apart from many players.

“When she had the ball, two players would mark her so that she wouldn’t do her magic,” the Banyana coach tells FARPost.

You just know she is in awe of her former teammate as soon as she begins to rave on about her skilfulness and eye for goal.

It’s easy though to trace where all the nimble-footedness, the precision in front of goal and leadership came from. As early as seven in the early 80s, football had become her staple in Mamelodi, a township located north-east Pretoria.

Forget that diski was considered a boys’ sport. Zitha was right in the mix. In fact, the then Zamintuthuko Primary School learner always owned the ball.

Boys in the neighbourhood would not dare leave her when it was time to go and play money games. They would stand outside her home and just whistle, signalling that they were ‘ready to go rumble’. She was their trusty ammunition. Their weapon of mass destruction upfront.

“I started playing with boys at 7, my mother, who was a domestic worker, understood and let me play with boys. Those boys wouldn’t leave without me, I was a star among them,” bubbly Zitha tells FARPost.

Obviously, teachers never understood why she spent most of her time with boys at school. But did that ever worry her? By no means. Interestingly, she has never owned a dress her entire life and she is not apologetic about it.

Looking up to women’s football forerunner Gloria Hlalele, she took it a step further when it was all unfashionable. She was 10 the first time she pulled on a boys’ soccer kit at school. Coincidentally, Josiah Kekae, who was in charge of Mamelodi Sundowns’ Chappies League teams, happened to spot her.

It didn’t immediately register with him that she was a young girl. “I saw her playing with boys and I called her to tell her she was good and would make it in my Sundowns team,” says ‘Bra Joe’, who was in charge of the Under 10, 12 and 14 age groups.

Other boys who knew her from ekasi were quick to let Bra Joe know that he was talking to a girl. Not that they didn’t want to play with her. They just wanted him to be aware.

The likes of Japie Motale and Thokozani Mnguni were part of the Sundowns juniors. “I didn’t know how to get her into the team because it was not a girls’ team. But I decided to take my chances and took her under my wing to play for us as I was impressed by the way she played,” he adds.

There was never a year where she did not finish as top scorer in those junior teams. Bra Joe was left with no choice but to make her captain. “I even made her captain,” he says as he stresses how gifted she was.

One season, the young striker, who was nicknamed ‘Wire Chirwali’ after Downs’ former midfielder Ernest Mtawali, bagged 52 goals, according to Bra Joe. She was aged 13.

That same season, she was crowned player of the year for the Under 14s as well as top goal scorer. It then begs no questions why she was appointed captain being the only girl among boys.

“She was deserving to be a captain, besides skill, there were so many things she did. She was always the first to arrive at training. She was better than some of the guys,” Japie Motale tells FARPost.

Maybe it also helped that Sundowns ace Joel ‘Fire’ Masilela, pictured above, was her neighbour, often letting her tag along for his extra training sessions.

When her peers got to a stage where they were advancing to the reserve side, there was no way she could progress. At that level, football was strictly a men’s game. It left her wondering what would become of her passion for football.

“I asked myself where it would end because the other guys had progressed and I couldn’t because I was a girl,” she recalls.

Nonetheless, she remained in and around the Sundowns squad, often traveling with them. It so happened one day that Sundowns were playing Kaizer Chiefs at FNB Stadium. She was going to be a ‘ball girl’ among ball boys on that day.

As fate would have it, there was a picture in the players’ lounge of some of the Sundowns junior players.

Themba Mathwasa, who ran Soweto Ladies, had heard of this 16-year-old girl who led among boys. Seeing her picture at the lounge, he gave her a glance and immediately approached her. He asked if it was her he was seeing in that image.

“I saw her in that picture and I asked if it was her. She confirmed and so I invited her to come and play with us the following Saturday,” Mathwasa tells FARPost.

On Saturday, she took a taxi from Pretoria to Carlton Centre where she had to wait for a good 30 minutes before they picked her up.

To her surprise, the bus they were using was full of girls. In her world, there weren’t as many girls who could play football like her. Her perception was about to be altered.

Her heroine Gloria Hlalele was the star in that Soweto Ladies team. She was their trump card. Commandingly, Hlalele, pictured below, asked: “uyalazi noma uyalithanda [are you good or you just love playing?]”.

Hlalele was soon to find out. Zitha’s Soweto Ladies debut was at the Rand Stadium where they played a Turffontein Masters Select Side. Oh boy, the girl was on song, Mathwasa waxed lyrical. She was unstoppable!

“I’ve never seen a girl as good as she was. I know we currently have players playing abroad, but I’m yet to see a woman as good as her.

“When some women play, you can tell they are women, but with her, you just couldn’t tell,” he tells FARPost.

After that game, Zitha’s cap was full of coins. Fan after fan threw money into her cap in appreciation of her unsullied talent.

While Soweto was a good 108km from her Mamelodi home, the catch was an upcoming tour to Sweden. She wanted to fly to the Scandinavian country and play in the Gothia Cup in 1993.

This would be her first flight and the first time she was leaving the borders of South Africa. While it was difficult for Bra Joe to release her, he understood it was for her better good.

At Soweto Ladies, the quick-fire forward would rub shoulders with equally talented ladies of the game like Sibongile Khumalo and Hlalele.

“We travelled all night to Sweden, played and lost in the semi-final because we were fatigued. But we came back with clothes and I was fascinated at how many opportunities there were in football,” she says.

Upon her return from Sweden, she was drafted into an interprovincial squad which played in the East Rand. At that tournament, which also served as a national team trial, she was part of a group of 200 girls eager to represent their country. Ellis was one of them.

“I actually made it to the first eleven and was part of the team that beat Swaziland 14-0 [in 1993]. I scored in almost all the games I was playing,” she says.

Her international career spanned from 1993 to 2005, but was hampered by nagging injuries, forcing her to retire at 29.

“In 2000 I started struggling with injuries. I tore a knee ligament in camp a week before a major tournament. A traditional healer told me it was someone who did it. I wasn’t even running when I got injured,” she explains.

Luckily, she had retraced her steps at some point after getting lost in the game to do her matric. Passing by the skin of her teeth, she got a scholarship at the Vaal Technical Institute [in 1997] where she studied Sports Administration and Marketing.

While at Vaal Tech, she turned out for the college’s team and was crowned Sportswoman of the year for three successive years.

Augusto Palacios, who coached her in the national team, then recommended her to Orlando Pirates where she was given charge of the Under 13 team.

The Peruvian regards her and Portia Modise as the best players ever to don the Banyana jersey. “She had so much skill and was very intelligent. Not to undermine anyone, but her and Portia’s abilities, strength and technical awareness were unbelievable,” Palacios tells FARPost.

Perhaps that is why he recommended the ex-Banyana duo to Bucs where Zitha coached the likes of Senzo Meyiwa and Brighton Mhlongo. That stint, however, only lasted four years as she set her sights on working at the Department of Correctional Services.

“I loved DCS because my dad and uncles worked there. I loved the uniform and the fact that I could wear trousers at work. I’d been applying for a long time. In 2006, when I left Pirates I got the job,” she says.

At DCS, she was moved to the recreation, sports, arts and culture wing after starting off as a correctional officer. There, she got to put her skills to use, representing the Correctional Services national team, which she now coaches.

Perhaps the most incredible thing she has done for the community around Zonderwater Prison was scouting for talent and forming a team.

“Refilwe is an area about 10km from Zonderwater and so I realised the talent was flocking into prison [through arrests]. They would all do well in prison [playing football] so I thought of going there to find good female players and forming a team just to keep them away from the many social ills. I went door-to-door looking for players and I got 14,” explains Zitha.

She recalls how she had to borrow R1 500 from a loan shark to get them registered to play in the promotional league before Covid-19 hit.

However, Zitha has the opportunity to go back door-to-door letting the players’ parents know she is taking them to Dubai next month. But before that, she must raise R600k to get them on a flight and have them feel what she experienced the first time she flew off to Sweden about three decades ago.

RELATED STORY: Desiree Ellis: The extraordinary girl who shattered football’s glass ceiling