The walk from the crease back to the pavilion after missing out on reaching a century is long and painful for a batsman, especially when they were on 99.
This, though, is not a cricket story. It’s a football story. It’s a story about Bidvest Wits, who after 99 years of existence will not get to a century which they would have celebrated next year. Instead, the club will relocate to Thohoyandou and be called Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila (TTM) after Masala Mulaudzi bought Wits’ status.
By the end of September, the 29 employees at Wits will be without a job, including the coaches in the development side, such as club legends Ashley Makhanya and Charles Yohane. A select group of first team players, still to be revealed, will join TTM in Limpopo. Those who aren’t part of that group, or haven’t been signed elsewhere but still had contracts with Wits, will have to be paid out by the Braamfontein-based side.
The players in the club’s development side have been given their clearances and can start looking for teams elsewhere for next year. A few of the MultiChoice Diski Challenge (MDC) players, such as Rowan Human, Keenan Phillips and Mpho Mathebula, have been promoted to the first team, but TTM still has to make a decision on whether to keep them.
“With the players in the development, we gave them their clearances,” director and board member George Mogotsi says. “We had age groups from Under-13 to 19 and we had the MDC team. There are boys who will stay at Sturrock Park until the end of the year because they need to go to school.
“These are the boys who are in grade 12. There is a driver who will take the boys to school and fetch them and then there are ladies who will be cooking for the boys. They have to eat. Coach Caesar [Maphala] will keep training the boys to keep them busy, so that they just don’t sit there doing nothing. So, Bidvest will keep paying them until the end of the year. They [Bidvest] are saying that they want to be out of football and sport in general. We will still be here after the last game sorting things out, but we will see what God has in store for us.”
He continues: “Everybody is feeling bad, because it’s obviously something we did not expect. All of us, the 29 employees, don’t know where we are going. We have our jobs until the end of September. We are hurt, from Gavin Hunt down, all the departments.”
The final game for Wits will be on Saturday 5 September against Polokwane City. It will be an innings worth celebrating and applauding, but it will also come with the pain of knowing that the club did not get to the milestone that no South African club can boast about reaching.
A family affair
“It’s going to be sad [to watch Wits’ last game]. To sell a club at 99 years and not let them have their centenary year is extremely sad,” former Wits defender Neil Winstanley says. “It’s both very weird and sad at the same time. It’s the end of an era. I was speaking with someone [at the club] and they were planning on doing legends tournaments and other things for their centenary year. That would have been something to look forward to, seeing all the players who played for the club over the years.”
You cannot talk about Wits’ journey in the Premier Soccer League era without mentioning the towering Winstanley twins, Neil and Ivan. They are a big part of Wits’ history. Neil was rock solid at the back and his brother Ivan was a constant threat upfront, with his height causing problems for the opposition defenders. Winstanley played for the club during its Wits University days and in the early years of Bidvest as owners of the club.
“I was actually telling my wife that my fondest memories are playing with my brother. Out of everything in football, that’s probably the thing I miss the most. I got spotted relatively quickly while I was still playing for an amateur club. Obviously, you always want to play with your twin brother, so it just happened to work out like that,” Neil recalls.
“I spent the majority of my football career at Wits. I think I ended up going to Wits when I was 14. I remember playing for the youth and going on to play for the first team. I think I am the only one in the PSL to go back to the same club three times. That’s how much I loved the club. It was an amazing club, but it’s a pity what has happened. We made the 1995 BP Top 8 and Coca Cola Cup final the same year. The club was not too successful in the cups while I was there, but they won the Nedbank Cup the year I retired, in 2010.
“The club was fairly successful, but they were more of a feeder for other clubs. There are tons of players who came from Wits and ended up at bigger and better clubs. It was not like a Chiefs or a Pirates and I think that’s why a lot of young players did well there, because there was no real pressure. Obviously as the years went by the club got bigger and bigger.”
Another man who will be watching Wits’ last game with a sore heart is Mike Ntombela. He played for the club from 1981 to 1985.
“I was not the first black player at Wits. There was a black player who was there, but he was never signed. His name was Moffat Zuma. Mike Mangena was the first to be signed and then I joined him thereafter,” says Ntombela.
“In the township they were unfriendly to us because they would say we are playing for a white team. When we played, they’d give us names like ‘kitchen boy’ or they would say ‘you are a sellout’. But we didn’t mind that much. It was tough for black players playing for white teams back then.”
Ntombela’s most memorable moment while in the colours of Wits was in 1985, when he scored in the final of the JPS Cup against Kaizer Chiefs.
“Chiefs supporters didn’t like that. I had failed at other clubs. I went for trials at Chiefs and at Highlands [Park]. But Wits gave me an opportunity to play. Hence when I scored, I thought it was me repaying the faith that they showed in me. Scoring against Chiefs after failing there was bittersweet. At least I had proved a point that I was a good player.
“I also remember when we won the BP Top 8 against Moroka Swallows [in 1984]. It was a two-legged final. We beat them 2-1. There was also a time we played a league game against Chiefs at Orlando Stadium. We beat them 1-0. We had to be escorted by the police that day. We had to first stay in the dressing room for some time after we had beaten Chiefs. The late Ace Ntsoelengoe got a red card that day and many felt that he did not deserve the red card. The fans were unhappy that we beat them at their home ground, so we had to be escorted.
“Wits looked after us very well. The players were accommodating. Okay, you had one or two there who were not accommodating, but by and large they were accommodating. It was a great club. It’s very painful that we are not going to have Wits going forward. After the game, it will be the end of it. But maybe there will be people who will resuscitate the team and people like me will be keen to help, because history is very important. You can’t just eradicate it like that.”
Multiple cup winner with Wits
Sifiso Myeni’s story with Wits is quite extraordinary. He was there when the Clever Boys won their first- ever trophy in the PSL era, as they claimed the 2010 Nedbank Cup and, after spending four years with Soweto giants Orlando Pirates, he returned to form part of the team which won their first-ever league title in the 2016/17 season.
“If it was not for Wits, maybe I would have ended up just playing in the township and maybe I would have given up,” Myeni says. “Moeneeb Josephs always used to remind me of when I first came to Wits, saying I was carrying a plastic bag and boots. Even when I was at Pirates, he would remind me. That story shows that football changed my life.
“It’s true, I came with a plastic bag (for trials at Wits) and the boots were not of someone who plays football on grass. You could see I was playing on gravel in the township. But I went there and got my first contract and first salary. My first salary went straight to my mom, all of it. Wits gave me a break. I could help my family and everybody.
“As a boy from Soweto, having dreams of playing for Chiefs or Pirates … you never think of playing for Wits. But they gave me that chance that I wanted in life and I grabbed it. After I signed for Wits, a day or two after that I lost my father. So [former coach and CEO] Roger [De Sa] and [then head of academy] Eric [Tinkler] played a big role for me.”
He continues: “In 2010, we opened FNB Stadium and we won the Nedbank Cup. The one that stands out for me is that I left the club and then came back. That will always have a special place that I went back to. I’ve always felt like it’s home because they gave me my first big break. I won more trophies at Wits than I did when I was at Pirates. I won three with Wits and two with Pirates. I got to go overseas and have trials and I also got to captain the team and I won Player of the Season while I was there. It will always be a part of me, and it will have a special place in my heart. I know Wits won’t be there anymore, but you can’t erase history. If I had the money, I’d buy the team just so that the team can stay with the name and stay there at Sturrock Park.”