Themba Zwane: Kasi King who never forgot his roots

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Painful as it might be to admit, we all lose ourselves in success at some point.

For some, it happens immediately. You know the type. If it were in the corporate world – they’re promoted and immediately put their name on the door. And before you can even ask how their day’s going, they’re spouting off orders and belligerently ordering people around like a ruler on a high horse. They’ve taken to their new title and like to remind others of their status often.

For many a diski prince, the “lost in success” process is slower. It happens more gradually as their stock rises. It’s not their ego that becomes inflated, as much as it is their shift in habits. The once hungry and dedicated diski star becomes the lazy and overindulged success story.

He instantly forgets his roots; the friends he grew up with ekasi are no longer good enough and, at times, even their families.

But not when your name is Themba ‘Mshishi’ Zwane.

If you live in and around Tembisa’s Ecaleni section, popularly known as Kalambazoo, you’ve probably spotted the Mamelodi Sundowns star seated on a black drinks crate by the corner surrounded by several of his peers who understandably hero-worship him.

While they are undoubtedly in awe of the man he has become and his achievements, he still sees himself as a part of them. Nothing has changed at all.

“You’ll be emotional if you see the people he spends time with. His status hasn’t changed him at all, he’s still the same ‘Mshishi’ we grew up with,” says his childhood friend, Gift Mashiachidi, pictured above with Zwane.

Some of the peers, often clad in Puma shorts and t-shirts courtesy of the Bafana Bafana star, wash cars in Tembisa while some are often slurred as nyaope boys because of their appearance.

“You’ll find him seated in a corner on top of a crate, he’d buy the boys some soft drinks and we’ll all play ludo (a strategy board game for two to four players, in which the players race their four tokens from start to finish according to the rolls of a single dice).”

And if you’ve been to an amateur tournament anywhere in Tembisa, it shouldn’t be a surprise that 15 of the boys are wearing Puma soccer boots given to them by the recently crowned 2019/20 Footballer of the Season, Zwane.

While many have an initial impulse to be generous, only to talk themselves out of it, Zwane knows no other way to do life than open-handedness.

“In a tournament ekasi you’ll find 15 to 20 boys wearing boots given to them by him. He’s the one PSL player I know when you get to his house, you’ll find he only has 2 boots, which is unlike so many of them. You’ll find some of them with 20 pairs because they keep piling them up.

“But with Mshishi, the moment he knows he won’t use it again, he gives it away. Even if it’s a t-shirt or tracksuit, he gives it away,” says Mashiachidi, who serves as manager of Sekhukhune United.

His closet, he reveals, is full of Puma regalia given to him by his superstar friend, who was the biggest winner at the PSL awards on Thursday night, picking up three major awards. Besides the top player award, the 31-year-old star walked away with the Players’ Player of the Season and Midfielder of the Season accolades, pocketing a whopping R500 000.

“I don’t wear anything besides Puma because of him. I have the latest Puma gear – from takkies, tracksuits to t-shirts and it’s not me alone. It’s six or seven of us. I can’t even explain the kind of person he is. For a person playing at his level, he’s just too humble,” adds Mashiachidi.

Perhaps Zwane understands the struggles of a young diski prodigy tussling to make their way to the top. Or maybe he appreciates the challenge of his unemployed peer back in Tembisa, who has to clean someone’s car to carry a loaf of bread back home.

After all, he’s been there before. His football journey started off right in the proverbial ‘dusty streets’ of Tembisa.

After his lessons at Tembisa High, Zwane would run straight to Tembisa Classic’s training sessions. At Classic, Sinky Mnisi has previously revealed he needed no more than 15 minutes to see he had a gem of a talent on his hands.

And then his former schoolmate, Sibusiso Mahlangu, who played for Jerry Sikhosana’s M-Tigers, recalls how Mshishi was “always two steps ahead” of his age-mates. He was always the prototypical football wannabe, often used as an example to his age-mates by coaches.

In fact, Mahlangu, who long quit the game, says while they were busy fighting for playing positions in the primary school team, the soft-spoken star had already tasted action in the Tembisa High School team in a tournament where they were representing Gauteng in Bloemfontein.

“He never really played with us his age-mates, he was way ahead of us and we could see he was destined for great things in football,” says Mahlangu, a neighbour to the Downs star in Kalambazoo.

The club was playing in the Vodacom League (now ABC Motsepe) at the time.

“That’s where he honed his football skills. He would never disappoint. I can’t remember any day where he played badly,” adds Mahlangu, pictured with him below.

After Classic, his next home was M-Tigers, under the tutelage of former Orlando Pirates striker, Sikhosana.

“I’ve known the boy since he was born, he was born just a year before my first born. His father and mother were my close friends as we grew up in the same street. We used to play together,” says the former Bucs marksman.

“He was a quiet boy, like any normal youngster. But I started knowing him closer when he was older and running around the streets playing football.

“I’m blessed with a street full of footballers. It’s a football street with many boys his age. I still believe they were inspired by me.”

At M-Tigers he rubbed shoulders with talents like Swallows FC wing back Thabo Matlaba, ex-Sundowns left-back Punch Masenamela, former Platinum Stars winger Tintswalo Tshabalala, Strydom Wambi and Lebogang Manyama’s older brother, Thabiso.

While his other peers like Mahlangu did not go as far as he did with football, Zwane remains their pride and he continues to embrace them.

“We’re proud of what he has achieved, it doesn’t matter to us that we didn’t go as far as he did, we feel he represents us where he is now.

“Luckily, he’s always been a guy who lives with people. The same friends he had from high school; he is still with them even today. He spends most of the time with them,” Mahlangu says, as he shouts Zwane’s mobile numbers off his head to someone who was asking for it.

It came as no surprise to his peers in 2011 when Sundowns came knocking for his services. At the time, he was now with third-tier side Vardos.

Interestingly, his move to Chloorkop coincided with Teko Modise’s arrival from Orlando Pirates. Straight from ekasi, a 21-year-old Zwane would now share the dressing room with World Cup stars Modise, Katlego ‘Killer’ Mphela and Surprise Moriri.

But the first two seasons at the Brazilians would be nothing to write home about with only one goal in 15 appearances in the 2011/12 season and then one assist in 12 games the following season.

The 2013/14 season saw him loaned out to Mpumalanga Black Aces where he showed signs of improvement after scoring four goals and making two assists in 28 games.

He was back at Chloorkop the following season – 2014/15 – featuring in 27 games and managing three goals and three assists. But South African football followers saw the best of him last season when he was instrumental as Sundowns captured a treble in style.

“The way you see him play is exactly how he was as a youngster. He has just matured over the years,” says Mateo Mahwayi, a development coach who first saw him as a 10-year-old.

With his fancy foot work and deft touches, the nimble-footed star unlocked stubborn defences with ease and created scoring opportunities for his teammates.

The Bafana Bafana ace played 42 games during the 2019/20 term and reached double digits after notching 14 goals and 12 assists across all competitions. His goal tally was the best at the club despite coming from a midfield position.

“I want to continue to fight for the team, I want to achieve more. Some players, such as Surprise Moriri, have played for the club before me, and players like him inspire me. They are legends of the team and I too, one day want to be a legendary Sundowns player,” he told his club’s website.

Whatever the case, Mshishi remains a legend to his peers back in Kalambazoo Section in Tembisa for wanting the best for them rather than trying to harbor all success for himself.

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