The evolution of Zakhele Siwela: from striker to ref

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In his younger days, Zakhele Thusi Siwela always thought he had a fair shot at making it professionally as a striker.

After all, living just three houses from the celebrated Isaac ‘Shakes’ Kungwane in Alex meant there was an inspiration overload.

Add to that, seeing his kasi brothers like Brian Baloyi, pictured below, and Maimane Phiri rising through the ranks to excel in the game meant it was very much possible for a boy from Alex to hit top gear.

Perhaps his selection by a French organisation to travel to Paris and Nantes for a three-week tour ahead of the France ‘98 World Cup propped up the prospect that he was the future.

The ingredients for success were in abundant supply. He had the pace, an eye for goal, a touch of versatility and the physical profile.

Gladwin ‘Banjo’ Vilakazi, who had stints with Tembisa Classic and FC AK, says his ‘homeboy’ could play on the shoulder of the final defender and possessed a bit of penalty box prowess.

“I have no doubt he had a bright future as a striker. He used to score goals, he was quick. He was the kind of striker that runs a lot with pace,” Vilakazi, now a goalkeeper coach at Wits, tells FARPost.

Interestingly, former Kaizer Chiefs midfielder Joseph ‘Tight’ Molangoane, pictured below, says he owes it all to Siwela. When he was nine, Siwela, six years his senior, would pass by picking him up for training, igniting a passion he still holds today.

“He’s the man who made me become who I am,” the Marumo Gallants midfielder says.

Even on days when he felt like playing other games that occupy kids ekasi other than football, ‘big brother’ Siwela just knew how to persuade him.

At that point, the Fifa accredited assistant referee was not yet a ref. Neither had the thought crossed his mind. He was just another talented striker for Alexandra Blackpool. A forward with blistering pace who sometimes would be deployed on the right side of midfield.

“‘Chicken’ was so fast. I’m sure when they do [refereeing] tests now he shows them flames. He was the most disciplined in our team, quick to grasp the laws of the game.

“I don’t know how he made that decision because at some point he would be [alternating] playing and also refereeing. But I think he made the right decision because he is one of the best [assistant] referees in Africa now,” Molangoane tells FARPost.

As fate would have it, Siwela out of the blue found himself refereeing. While turning out for Alex’s Blackpool in the Alexandra Football Association league, the team badly needed someone to ref. Each team had to provide a whistle man.

Think of how the ordinary kasi boy loves playing diski. Who would agree to forego the joys of playing the game to be a referee at just 16?

“I started refereeing in September 1998. I was 16 years old at that time. The main reason I joined refereeing was to represent my football team in the local football association referee’s house.

“Every team needed to have a referee in the house so they would get a referee in their matches as well. None of my teammates were willing to take up the responsibility,” Siwela tells FARPost.

Failing to provide a match official meant the game would be postponed and they would have a backlog of fixtures. “So, initially I agreed to be a ref for the mere fact that I wanted the team to have a ref, but eventually I grew into it. I developed very fast.”

Molangoane recalls how the owner of the club, the late Paul Ngwenya, had so much faith in Siwela. He always knew he could count on him. He trusted him to do it with diligence and master the laws of the game.

The Israel Mnguni midweek lectures on laws of the game came in handy while he also credits Abby Letele for supporting him in his early days as a ref.

When officiating was gaining momentum, Siwela didn’t necessarily understand the demands it would come with. “I had to sacrifice playing football in the end. Our game would be at 3pm and by 2pm I would have done two or three games. I’d be exhausted,” he says.

If you’ve seen the 39-year-old assistant referee in action, then you will have an idea just how much he exerted himself. And the more he blew the whistle, the more he drifted away from playing a game he had loved for so long.

Having started at 16, by the time he was 19, an age where his peers like Patrick Phungwayo were making inroads into Orlando Pirates’ structures, he was deeply engrossed in his newfound passion.

There was no turning back. Even the lure of good salaries offered by football clubs wasn’t enough to stop him. The uncertainty of refereeing as a profession was also never an issue. Passion dictated at that point.

“I remember my first year in the NFD, referees were paid R80 a match which later increased to R500,” says Siwela. The gap between what players and referees pocketed was dispiriting especially for anyone with the kind of possibilities he had.

However, what made his switch sweeter was the discovery that his late grandfather [Thusi Rampoto] was actually a referee in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Maybe it ran in the family. “When I spoke to my granny I discovered that my grandfather was also a referee,” the multi-award-winning linesman says.

To ascend from grassroots refereeing all the way to the topflight is likely to take even the best performers close to a decade. Luckily, Siwela could easily ride on the shoulders of great men of the whistle like Sylvester Ndaba and Moses Giya Hleza, popularly known as ‘Chairman’.

“We nurtured him simply because we saw talent, but more importantly to me there was passion, commitment and a desire to win,” Ndaba, a revered former Fifa match official, tells FARPost.

“He was very young and our main aim was to get them away from looking up to the wrong role models – the guys who steal cars and do drugs because they have the money, they have the flashy cars.

“So we wanted to instil the culture that says ‘hard work pays’ and, more importantly, you must be on the straight and narrow and build up your moral values. So that’s why the Chairman and I mapped the journey for him.”

Three years after starting his linesman duties, he made his National First Division debut before his PSL debut came in 2005. In 2010, the international floodgates opened followed by accolades that now add up to four Assistant Referee Awards and Gauteng Technical Official of the Year.

Ndaba, who is convinced Siwela would have equally excelled had he chosen to specialise in being a centre man, also remembers when they threw him into the deep end to run the line at an international tournament that had the likes of South Africa and Wales. Like fish to water, he swam heroically. “We took him into the matches, he took off like a bomb,” recalls Ndaba.

Since then, the PSL assistant ref’s career has been on a wild run. The highest honour, he says, was officiating at the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia.

He became the sixth South African to officiate at the world’s foremost sporting spectacle, following in the footsteps of the likes of Jerome Damon and Enock Molefe.

“Footballers dream of playing in the World Cup because it is the biggest football event. My name is in the 2018 World Cup archives forever. It appears in the 2018 refs list,” says Siwela, who has also officiated at six domestic cup finals.

With countless Caf finals under his belt, he continues to humbly share his knowledge of the game with upcoming refs under the auspices of the Alex Referees Union.

“I make sure referees are fit and they apply the laws of the game accordingly,” he says modestly. His influence stretches further to Hammanskraal, some 93km from Alex, where he runs a festive tournament that has become a melting pot for budding talents.

Cape Town City and Bafana Bafana left back Terrence Mashego got his breakthrough at the tournament.

Siwela wants to continue offering his broad shoulders to the next generation of refs and footballers. After all, it took the shoulders of those that went ahead to get him where he is today!

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

By Mthokozisi Dube