Siphesihle Ndlovu’s mother, Fisani Gracious Ndlovu, wants a cupboard from Teko Modise.
This is not because the woman who gave birth to the Orlando Pirates man needs charity. NO!
It’s because when her son was a football crazed 11-year-old, he drew an image on her cupboard.
It’s common knowledge that most black mothers have almost a spiritual attachment to their furniture, be it sofas, cupboards or the famed “room dividers”.
So Fisani was righteously unamused when her son’s untrained amateur hand drew the likeness of a footballer on her white cupboard. The sketch was of the then Sea Robbers stalwart, Teko Modise. “Please tell Teko Modise I want my cupboard,” she tells FARPost at the start of a telephonic interview.
“One time I found Siphesihle had drawn a footballer on my cupboard and written Teko Modise when he was about 11. He loved Teko so much. That’s when I knew he was really passionate about the game.”
In Ashdown, a poor, little township southwest of KwaZulu Natal’s capital Pietermaritzburg, a cupboard was perhaps one of the Ndlovu family’s most prized possessions.
Most people in the township have to make do with the little and the Ndlovu family was no exception. Thulani Nene, the owner of Ashdown Young Bucks, remembers the one day that Ndlovu turned up and asked him for help. The young football hopeful had no shoes.
“I bought him shoes because he was desperate, he was asking me as a father. I’m very happy for him, he knows that. I even tell him when he comes to the township. I tell him to watch his steps. His career means a lot to us. There are many boys who got lost but he is dedicated,” says Nene.
Everyone who talks about Ndlovu speaks about the boys from Ashdown, who got “lost”. Indeed, the lost boys of Ashdown is a recurring topic amongst those that witnessed Ndlovu’s rise from the dusty township to the big football stage.
It is not a hard thing to get “lost” in Ashdown, an area noted as one of the crime hotspots of KwaZulu Natal. The crime statistics from last year alone make for grim reading.
The area was the fourth worst in the country for house robberies with 1 219 cases — a rate of some 23 per week. In terms of murders, it was the ninth worst in South Africa, while in terms of sexual offences and rape, it made it 19th and 16th on the list, respectively.
It was eighth worst for illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, with 123 cases while it was ranked 27th in the country for malicious damage to property with 470 cases. Amidst such crime and squalor, Ndlovu was not supposed to make it. In fact, many did not and even development coaches lost heart.
“I was running a development team and the senior players started drinking and doing drugs, so I decided to leave,” says Nene. “I only decided to carry on with the youngsters for the sake of the young boys. There were few who were exceptional,” he adds.
Regarded as a dedicated and humble man, Ndlovu’s romance with football began in the humble surroundings at the Mgungundlovu Academy of Sport, where he spent four years under the watchful and caring eye of Mpho Mhlanzi. Even in those infant years of his football journey, Ndlovu’s career was in danger, as the drugs and crime that engulfed Ashdown drowned everything and everyone around him.
Sometimes all it took for Mhlanzi, a man dedicated to saving the young through football, was a whiff of one’s breath to tell him he had lost another one. The lost boys would have gained a new member in their ranks.
“He doesn’t come from a holy community – there was drugs, alcohol and crime around him, but he survived. I was very worried about him. Although he was showing maturity, I was praying that this boy must not involve himself in alcohol and drugs.
“Some of the boys I coached you could see from their teeth and the way their mouths smelled that they were doing drugs. I know two who had so much potential and were signed by AmaZulu, but they were messed up by drugs. AmaZulu kicked them out. They are finished, they are nowhere to be seen,” Mhlanzi says.
Even with such a torn social fabric that kept young people in a vicious cycle of crime and drug abuse, Ndlovu was a different breed. He had that fire in the belly, that thirst that separated the pretenders from the real Diski princes.
“We found Siphesihle in Imbali while scouting for the academy in 2006. The boys called him Mbesuma,” says Mhlanzi. “You could see flames of fire in his eyes, he was so passionate. I’m not lying – he was the first player to master any drill at training. We used him as an example because he grasped things so quickly. He was a brilliant player and a brilliant listener.”
Perhaps the would-be Sea Robber’s drive and discipline came from home, where his mother admits she did not spare the proverbial rod.
“I never spared the rod – he knew I’d discipline him if ever he was mischievous. It gives me joy to see the young man he has grown to become. A lot of his peers are finished now because of drugs and alcohol, but he used to listen,” says Fisani.
Despite a strict upbringing, Ndlovu had the odds stacked against him from the time he was born. Very few make it out of Pietermaritzburg, let alone Ashdown, and even those that make it out flounder at a time when they are expected to flourish. Pietermaritzburg has earned a reputation for producing its fair share of ill-disciplined and ultimately doomed stars.
Mbulelo Mabizela, Khulekani Madondo…the names roll off the tongue. All were gifted players whose abilities were matched only by their appetite for self-destruction.
“It’s a local area that is full of everything, and it’s a small area so it is very difficult to come through there,” Ndlovu says as he speaks of Ashdown.
While he had to battle demons off the field, life on it was also not always rosy. A failed trial at SuperSport United was one of the lowest points of the 23-year-old’s career. But he is on record as saying the Matsatsantsa botched test “hurt but it didn’t break me”.
Discipline at home and off the field is all well and good, but one still has to deliver where it matters most – on the football pitch. It was here, away from the misery of his township, that Ndlovu proved he was indeed a special breed.
While fans today know him mainly as a midfielder, in his younger days he played almost every position. It is that versatile flair that saw a free-scoring young Ndlovu sometimes play in defence for his youth team.
At times, he’d bang in goals as a forward, earning himself the nickname Mbesuma after the Zambian marksman Collins Mbesuma, who made a name for himself at Kaizer Chiefs.
It takes a community to raise a child, the adage goes and perhaps Ndlovu would not be where he is were it not for the help of mentors who knew they had a gem in their hands and did everything to protect it.
“At 13, Siphesihle was playing for the Under-17s,” says Nene. “The way he played showed he had a future. I had to guide him from that age until there was the SAB League. I then sent him to Maritzburg City to play in the Vodacom League.”
It was at Maritzburg United where Ndlovu, who once played ball-boy, knew for sure that he wanted to be on the biggest stage. Maritzburg were playing against Kaizer Chiefs at the Harry Gwala Stadium on 11 March 2015 when Ndlovu played ball-boy. The atmosphere was amazing, he recalls. The teenage starlet felt like he was “in the wrong place”. He just wanted to be on the field and not on the sidelines.
But on that particular day, his mind was made up. He would one day don the colours of Maritzburg United. After he made his first team debut 19 months later, Ndlovu never looked back, becoming a vital cog of Fadlu Davids’ side that finished a historic fourth in the league, becoming the first ever Maritzburg player to be crowned the Absa Premiership Player of the Month.
He went on to win the Young Player of the Season as well as Midfielder of the Season to cap a memorable term in the topflight.
“He is a special player,” Davids said at the time. Davids, who also played for the Team of Choice, further admitted he didn’t know whether Ndlovu was a better attacking player, or he is better defensively.
“He is an all-rounder, really good at both. He is so flexible. You can play him on the left, on the right and on the centre based on how tactically you want to go at the opponent, whether to stop them or attack them. His understanding of the game is his main strength.”
For a player who overcame such great adversity, Ndlovu still has a lot to accomplish. After escaping the drugs, the death and the crime of Ashdown, it would be a shame if he was brought down by the pressure and fame of playing for one of the so-called big three.
By Mthokozisi Dube