The joy and pain of Jabu Mahlangu

He entertained millions of fans with his talent, but the skilled footballer struggled to beat his addictions as effortlessly as he did opposing defenders.

Twenty whole years have passed since Jabu Jeremiah Mahlangu made his Premier Soccer League (PSL) debut for Kaizer Chiefs. This fact may come as a bit of a shock to South African football followers raised in the 1990s, for whom “Ngwana wa Tshwenya” is still synonymous with the defiance of youth.

Who does Father Time think he is, shuffling “Shuffle”, of all people, into the mists of uncledom?

Jabu wore “Pule” on the back of his shirt back in 1999, his mother’s surname. He strolled into fame straight outta Daveyton, already a smooth diamond when he donned the gold and black.

Mahlangu had cartoonish pace to go with his vision and trickery in the midfield, and all that talent was matched by a bumper stage presence. A hell-raising pleasure in life was written all over his face. He reminded us all of that ungovernable class clown at school, only this clown could turn killer at the drop of a shoulder.

Most of us remember how Shuffle made the game fun, but being Shuffle wasn’t much fun. He only told us as much in 2013, when he was re-emerging after having hit rock bottom. Broke and prematurely retired from the game, but recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, Mahlangu showed massive courage to reveal publicly how messed up he had been, even in those heady days of the millennium.

As he explained to me in an interview for the Sunday Times in 2013, he was the son of gregarious, charismatic, alcoholic parents. They were loving to him, but fought violently with each other and were separated for long spells. By his mid-teens, he was such a passionate drinker that he had to be fetched from a tavern to appear for his school side.

“They would notice I wasn’t at school and go and look for me at the tavern, just before the game started,” he said. “Sometimes they would get me, sometimes not. But if I came, drunk as I was, I would score two goals, create goals, entertain people.”

‘I could now afford to drink at another level’

When fame arrived, he saw it as a golden ticket to a paradise of dop. “My first thought when I was promoted to the Chiefs first team was that I could now afford to drink at another level,” he told me.

He would bribe hotel barmen, paying them R200 to smuggle beer to his room the night before a match. “I’d say, mamela [listen], I just want 12 Heinekens. Tomorrow we’re playing, but forget about it.”

The vortex of hangers-on and adoring women didn’t help. “People would cry just because they saw me.”

He had three cellphones because his battery couldn’t last a morning, he got so many calls.

“As a teenager, I wasn’t that interested in chasing girls,” he said. “But I was pretty. And as soon as I scored for Chiefs, they went crazy for me. They just came up to me and said they wanted to sleep with me.”

Enter cocaine, and the consuming grief that followed his mother’s death in 2000. He dropped R10 000 on coke in one weekend (back in the days when R10 000 was R10 000) and nearly died during another binge; he was saved by a Tembisa doctor who put him on a drip for two days.

For about five years at Chiefs, despite this hedonistic undertow, Mahlangu played scintillating football. It was only after a doomed move abroad to Austrian side SV Mattersburg that his descent as a player began. But at Chiefs, then coach Muhsin Ertugral was baffled as much as he was enraged by his protégé’s mysterious capacity to shrug off his toxic bloodstream at the moment of kickoff.

‘Why don’t you all drink?’

Ertugral couldn’t understand how his sober players couldn’t hold a candle to a drunk Mahlangu. As Mahlangu recounted: “At one point coach Muhsin said to the guys: ‘I don’t know what to say, but this guy performs better than the guys who don’t drink. So why don’t you all drink?’”

But such defiance of the laws of biochemistry couldn’t last, and Mahlangu’s eventual decline came to epitomise the failings of the post-1996 generation of South African footballers. Too many major talents in that cohort – Mbulelo OJ Mabizela, Junaid Hartley and Katlego Mphela, to name just three – couldn’t control their minds and bodies well enough to maximise their gifts.

There have always been dissolute, reckless footballers, of course. But the South African football boom of the turn of the century was a perfect storm for decadence. Sponsorship and adulation flooded into the game, but there was also little of the careful cosseting and monitoring of young players that is so routine nowadays. Stars were allowed to be grown-ups, to be themselves – and that was dangerous.

Meanwhile, millions of us were deploying oceans of booze and mountains of drugs to medicate our national trauma and/or celebrate its supposed end. It should have come as no surprise that many of our footballers were as fucked up as we were.

We’re still fucked up, of course. But there are some heartening signs that men’s football in this country is recovering from the maelstrom that almost killed Mahlangu and curbed the potential of his generation.

New, sober generation

Bafana Bafana’s long winter of shambolic mediocrity might soon be over, with the advent of a new generation of impressively focused figures such as Percy Tau, Lebo Mothiba, Thulani Hlatshwayo and Kamohelo Mokotjo.

And the blossoming of Mamelodi Sundowns as a continental force – proven yet again by their demolition of Al Ahly – has set an inspirational standard for the national side. We’ll discover exactly how inspirational at the Nations Cup finals in Egypt.

It seems South African clubs, coaches and families are looking after their footballing sons better these days. Those sons, in turn, seem stronger and wiser and better prepared for the psychological minefield of fame. Instagram addiction is stupid, but it won’t leave you dead in a gutter.

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Mahlangu has praised highly the new wave of South African football talent.

“I feel like the players of today are more talented than players of my generation in terms of skill … they are far better than us,” he said at a recent Copa Coca-Cola youth tournament press event. “The only difference is that we had confidence and character.”

The current generation of coaches is curtailing free expression and the South African football identity, he said.

This is a wobbly old theory, periodically wheeled out by successive generations of nostalgic former stars. It’s difficult to make the case that Tau doesn’t express himself freely on the pitch.

But who would begrudge Mahlangu the right to romanticise the bad old days? He made them good.

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