Banyana Banyana camps will never be the same. The death of Aletta Ngidi, the team’s long-serving kit manager, will dramatically change the mood. Ngidi filled any room she stepped into with laughter, song and dance.
“Her ululating will be sorely missed. And, of course, her bringing me water when it’s very hot and an energy bar before the start of every game,” says award-winning photographer Sydney Mahlangu, who has been many places in Africa and the world with Ngidi and the Banyana team.
“She was our mother in camp. It’s gonna take time to accept that she is no more, it just cuts deep for me. We made it to the World Cup because of her unwavering support. She would be shouting even alone on the stands, raising that South African flag with pride. It meant a lot for her to serve Banyana Banyana.”
Ngidi – who died on 13 July, just over two weeks before her 50th birthday on 1 August – was the players’ and staff members’ trusted confidant, too. She was a shoulder to cry on. Her room during camps was a source of comfort for players who lingered on after dropping off their kit, seeking counsel from the woman who had seen it all in the senior women’s national team. Some of those chats were crucial in convincing former captain Amanda Dlamini to stay on the team in her early days.
“When I got to Banyana, a lot of people didn’t really know who I was because ngangiziphumela emakhaya (I was from a rural area). And, of course, you sort of get that kind of treatment when people don’t really know what you are about and what you’re going to offer. That really intimidated me. It made me feel like I didn’t want to be there,” says Dlamini.
“She found me, one time, crying. She told me, ‘Look, you have to believe in yourself. Kumele wenze sure, skhokho, ukuthi ustrong (you must make sure you’re strong). Abantu (people) are not going to take your talent away from you and that’s all you got.’ She’s always been that person that I cried to even about my family, my mom’s illness. She’s just a pillar of support and strength in the change room. She’s the live wire.
“We win a game, she’s celebrating. We lose a game, she’s encouraging. If I was a Banyana coach, I’d probably say I have lost the change room by not having Aletta there. She was passionate about her job. You could see the passion that she had and always wanted us to look smart. It’s really sad. She played her part. She fully existed as herself. She was really enjoying the job and for me that makes me happy. We’ll never be able to replace usis’ Aletta. She’s always had my back. I probably wouldn’t have stayed at Banyana, honestly, if she didn’t have the conversation with me,” says Dlamini.
Way more than a kit manager
Life without Ngidi begins in September for Banyana, who travel to Nigeria for the Aisha Buhari Invitational Women’s Tournament. South Africa face Nigeria, Ghana and three other nations in the tournament in Lagos. A new kit manager will join the team. However, it will be difficult to find anyone to fill the roles Ngidi played outside of her job description.
“We are going to have to come together before we start with anything related to the camp, just to have a bit of closure,” says Banyana coach Desiree Ellis. “It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be like that for a while. We couldn’t even go to the funeral because of the Covid protocols. Whoever comes in as the new kit manager, I don’t know. It’s going to be tough. She was not just a kit manager. I am going to miss her being there. I am going to miss her positive energy, her ululating when we’re singing. The first camp is gonna be difficult.”
The loss of Ngidi has left a gaping hole in the lives of many, but Banyana’s security officer Frans Malatji has been hit the hardest. They have known each other for 19 years. Ngidi, who tried out for Banyana but didn’t make the squad, started as an assistant kit manager in 2009.
“Ne ke motlwaetsi okare ke ngwana wa ko gae, nkare ke (I had such a strong bond with her, she was like a family member, she was like) my sister. She was part of my family, she was no longer just a colleague. Me and her have shared our lives together, we have spent our lives together. I am still devastated. I cannot believe it. There are many memories for me and each memory brings sadness,” says Malatji.
“Ha ke sa hopola (I don’t remember) the date when the news of her mother’s passing came … We were in camp. The physiotherapist Ma-Eleven [Lizzie Mohodisa] woke me to tell me that Shuffle is leaving the camp. Her mother has passed on. Of course I knew her mother, I knew her sisters, nearly every member of the family because when we were in camp, going to games, they would come to cheer Banyana on. And I’ve been to her house, you know. We have spent our lives together in many ways.”
The last time Ngidi was in the Banyana camp was in June, ahead of the friendly with the Netherlands that was supposed to be played on 3 July. The trip was called off because of five positive Covid-19 tests in the camp. Ngidi tested negative, but would later succumb to the coronavirus.
“She was healthy, she was strong. We had meals together. We went to training together. It’s a normal procedure now that when we go to camp, you first have to go for tests before [the camp], we all [tested negative]. Even the test testified that she was well. I’m battling with myself, I’m battling with the thoughts that I won’t see her again. The jokes she used to do, the teasing won’t happen again. It brings tears. I cannot stand the pain,” says a sombre Malatji.
Ngidi and Malatji were the team’s longest-serving members. The pair travelled to five continents with Banyana. Malatji’s fondest moment was when the team qualified for their second Olympics appearance, beating Equatorial Guinea in their own backyard to book a ticket to Brazil.
“I was in the kit room, I didn’t watch the match because I was taking care of the dressing room. I saw Equatorial Guinea supporters leaving the stadium in numbers, it was towards the last minutes of the game. I realised that we are winning. A little while later, Shuffle came into the dressing room to take the T-shirts to say that we have won. She was over the moon. She was jumping, she was hugging me and then she told me the news. She told me we have won and we are going to Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m gonna miss her smile. I will miss her singing. She was the one who would start a song whenever we were singing. I am gonna miss taking walks with her. After she had collected the laundry, I would help her take the clothes to the laundry for washing. We would walk to the shops to buy chips or sweets,” Malatji adds.
Although she will be mostly remembered as a kit manager for the senior national team, Ngidi served women’s football fully. She was one of the founding players of Springs Home Sweepers, a club that campaigns in the Sasol League. She and her former teammates convinced Joseph Mkhonza to start a women’s football team in Ekurhuleni. Her passion for the game, especially Banyana, is what many with whom she shared a laugh will remember. Ngidi is survived by her son Bruce and grandson Siyabonga.