On the N3, travelling from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, just after a long descent from Hillcrest and the Thousand Hills, one passes the bluff on which sits Cato Ridge. To the right of that, out of sight of the freeway and sloping down towards the Msunduzi River, is KwaXimba.
It lies just past the urbanised outskirts of Durban’s suburbs and sprawling townships. Here, surrounded by a classically KwaZulu-Natal canvas of rolling hills, subsistence farms, thatch huts and rural houses, Cape Town City and Bafana Bafana’s late-maturing 30-year-old rightback, Thamsanqa Mkhize, herded his father’s cattle as a child.
Nearby are the cliff faces of Monteseel, a destination for rock climbing and abseiling. KwaXimba has its own mystical and monstrous rock that is associated with earth tremors. Households live in fear of rockfalls, which have smashed through their walls on previous occasions.
In 2016, a hiker cataloguing plants fell into a ravine and was stuck there for three days, squeezing drinking water from his rain-soaked shirt. Once a year, thousands of alien beings clad in lycra, sucking at tubes protruding from plastic pouches attached to their stomachs, tramp paths and negotiate brown rapids in the Dusi Canoe Marathon towards its finish at Inanda Dam.
Mkhize’s muscular frame and mental strength – evident in a steely game that has seen him being perhaps the most influential player for Benni McCarthy’s dynamic Citizens, mentioned as a candidate for the Premier Soccer League’s (PSL) Footballer of the Season award and helping Bafana Bafana secure Africa Cup of Nations qualification by beating Libya in Tunisia – were carved from the heat and humidity that bakes these rocks and dongas.
‘I didn’t go to varsity’
“It’s sort of a rural area. People there can have their own big spaces where they can farm cattle,” Mkhize says. “My dad has cows and goats. But he’s working at the moment, for Lever Pond in Durban. He commutes every day, though fortunately the company has organised transport. He starts in the morning and gets out at around 9pm. My mom is at home.
“Growing up, the family were trying to get somewhere. I didn’t go to varsity, I went straight to football, because I could see there was something promising for me in it. After I made it, I started to help my father renovate our home. Before, he was the only breadwinner.”
Inchanga, Cato Ridge and Table Mountain near Pietermaritzburg were areas that burned with political violence between the ANC’s unbanning in 1990 and the 1994 elections. Families would sleep in their fields to avoid the bloodshed from bullets and pangas. Just a toddler then, Mkhize has no memories of that upheaval.
“Truthfully, I’m being told now about all the things that used to happen, that around 1992 it was bad, there was a war. I guess my parents managed because we still live there.”
Mkhize’s father and uncle were good footballers. There was never really any money in it then, even if they had the chance to go professional. Mkhize had their talent in his genes.
By the time he was a teenager, the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa was looming. The PSL was a decade old and had become a multibillion-rand industry. Clubs such as the newly revived Maritzburg United and Lamontville Golden Arrows in Durban were paying well.
Hard to go pro from a rural area
However, Mkhize knew how tough it is to make it as a footballer from a rural area. Talented youngsters spend a lot travelling to trials. When they have not been spotted from among hundreds a few times, they give up and start to work. Mkhize – emulating what former Arrows buddy Siyabonga Nkosi, the ex-Kaizer Chiefs star, has done in Newcastle in northern KwaZulu-Natal – has started his own tournament in KwaXimba, where talent scouts can come to the players.
“I had an uncle, Sifiso Mkhize, who loved football. I come from a family that played football. But back then they didn’t even finish school. They were forced to go and work and support the family,” says Mkhize.
“My uncle trained a local team called Brains United. I started playing with them at nine and I would train with their first team, playing against older boys and men. My uncle was in love with the game. He had played with two players from KwaXimba, one from Brains who went professional, Innocent Mahlangu, who played for AmaZulu, and Siyabonga Mdluli, who played for Maritzburg and Free State Stars.
“From my early days I had known I wanted to be a pro footballer. And I knew I needed to work hard and always attend trials, like in Durban. I went to a trial for [now-defunct first division team] Nathi Lions and that’s how I got my chance.”
Mkhize credits the coaches he has played under in the PSL for his progression. Having never been the recipient of academy coaching, his game was raw at the start of his career and has been refined by each coach since.
Joining Arrows in 2010, he found Manqoba Mngqithi – now Mamelodi Sundowns’ assistant coach – and Abafana Bes’thende assistant coach Mandla Ncikazi, a pair known for being among the few coaches who go to KwaZulu-Natal’s rural areas to source talent, because they recognise the toughness of players from such backgrounds.
“Manqoba played a huge role in my career. I was a midfielder when I arrived at Arrows. He said, ‘You are still young and you can learn, so I want you to play as a rightback.’ Arrows had a lot of experienced players then in midfield, like Kagisho Dikgacoi.”
Current Chiefs coach Ernst Middendorp and Muhsin Ertuğral can be much maligned for having been notable journeymen on the PSL coaching merry-go-round. But when those two had stints at Arrows, the raw Mkhize experienced a technical refinement.
“When Manqoba left and Middendorp came, then he left and Muhsin came, I learned a lot from those coaches. They changed my mindset because they had that approach of European football.”
From 2013, at Maritzburg United, Mkhize became a 20-match-a-season player under Steve Komphela and Middendorp. His game took off at City where Eric Tinkler – who steered the Citizens to third place in their first PSL season after John Comitis bought the franchise of Mpumalanga Black Aces – immediately liked what he saw from the robust rightback, who now was a technical defender and had the skill and power to maraud forward.
Becoming a Citizen
“I came on trial. It took him one session to recognise that I’m a good player,” says Mkhize.
“Leaving Maritzburg, I had been approached by someone in management at Orlando Pirates. I wanted, before I retired, to see on the wall as a professional footballer that this was what I had won. When that opportunity didn’t happen [at Pirates, where he was deemed surplus before playing an official match], I was very disappointed. But I saw City as an ambitious club.
“Whenever you talk to John Comitis you see he understands football completely. I think what separates him from other chairmen is he knows the type of player he needs in his team. And he brought in an inspiration not only for us players but the whole of South Africa, because coach Benni is loved by everyone.”
This season and the last, it has been a privilege for City’s players to arrive at their training grounds surrounded by plush offices at Malta Park in Observatory. After Comitis took a chance on the recently retired McCarthy – the 2004 Uefa Champions League winner for FC Porto under Jose Mourinho and second only to Didier Drogba in the list of top scorers in the English Premier League in 2007, when playing for Blackburn Rovers – the Bafana legend raced to the highest coaching qualification, the Uefa Pro Licence.
Mkhize has since realised his dream of silverware, with the Telkom Knockout won under Tinkler in 2016/2017, the season in which the rightback got a Bafana call-up and played well in a 3-1 World Cup qualifying win against Burkina Faso at FNB Stadium. Under McCarthy, City were MTN8 finalists in 2017 and won the competition this season with Mkhize wearing the armband.
The Citizens are in the battle for the Absa Premiership, buoyed by a fighting spirit that sees them come back when everyone has written them off. They’re also in the quarterfinals of the Nedbank Cup.
On 31 March, they face Kaizer Chiefs with a place in the last four up for grabs. Mkhize will come into that match buzzing, having already done enough to ensure he is part of the Bafana squad that will travel to Egypt for the Africa Cup of Nations.
“I remember when coach Benni said in the change room when he first arrived, ‘You know, I was a player before. I’m a coach now. I might make mistakes as a coach, but then, since you guys are my family now, I will also need you to help me wherever I might make mistakes’,” Mkhize says.
“That message stuck in my mind, because it showed that as much as he has achieved in life, he’s humble. It inspires us, just him being who he is.”
It says something about Mkhize, this now urbanised, sophisticated footballer, that he remains true to rural traditions such as his wealth being his father’s. There is something likable that, even though he now drives a footballer’s flashy Golf 5 in Cape Town, he still owns his first car, a rusty old Toyota Corolla.
“I needed a car when I went to Maritzburg,” Mkhize says. “I got that Corolla cash from a friend, and didn’t need a bank loan. I think it’s a 1994, 1.8-litre. The mileage is over 300 000-something. It’s in Pietermaritzburg, I don’t think I will ever sell it.”
McCarthy might be humble, but humble enough to still own his first beat-up Corolla? Surely not. On that score, there is only one Thamsanqa Mkhize.