When the South African Premier Soccer League season kicked off on the first weekend of August, several players will be looking to revive their careers at new clubs. There is perhaps one Polokwane City player who has more to prove than anyone. Here, then, is the footballing story of Siyabonga Elliot Nontshinga.
It looked like the worst selection ever. Not that we wanted to believe it at the time, even if we had our suspicions. He was from our patch, and we cherished the thought that our unpromising pixel of the planet might produce something special. One day we might say that we had seen him score on debut for South Africa, “a screamer from thirty metres out.” Some would remember his early career, playing for Despatch Pioneers, Mazi Millions, Rainbow Stars and Nathi Lions. A few would claim that they saw him long before, as a little boy kicking a bald tennis ball around the township. He always had it in him, they would say.
Siyabonga Elliot Nontshinga was born on the 4th of February 1987, in the town of Despatch, twenty odd kilometres north-west of Port Elizabeth. The place’s name comes from the ‘despatching’ of locally-made bricks to other centres. A satellite settlement, Khayamnandi, resembles thousands of other ash-block and corrugated-iron villages around South Africa. In the dusty streets, amidst the rubble and crows, the young Nontshinga played football for the first time. Curious to know more, before the Ivory Coast game I phoned the one Nontshinga listed in the Nelson Mandela Bay telephone directory. The woman had heard of the Jomo Cosmos player, and wondered whether he might be a relative, but couldn’t say for sure. If truth be told, nobody really seemed to know much about him. His surprise inclusion in the national squad caused a buzz among locals, though. Speaking for many, fan Mzoli Foster told The Herald: “I’m happy because our home boy Nontshinga is in the team.” If the ideal of football as a kind of social tonic has any merit, perhaps this was a case to prove it. Our hard-up city needed good stories then, as it does now.
One hears so much about over-hyped wonderkids believing their own publicity, but that certainly wasn’t true of Nontshinga. As secret weapons go, he was pretty secret. So hush-hush, in fact, that when the Soccer-Laduma paper approached him with news of his inclusion in the group for the games against the Ivorians and Zimbabwe, he thought it was all a lark. The look of acute bewilderment never seems to leave his face.
A word about the context of Nontshinga’s selection: For Bafana Bafana, the final third remained the final frontier. The team’s perennial goal-scoring troubles had reached crisis proportions, and coach Pitso Mosimane had appealed to the nation to draw players to his notice. Finding the elusive striker became a greater obsession in conversations at taxi ranks and taverns than joblessness or electricity price hikes. The South African top flight did not appear to offer a ready solution, either. Recent seasons had seen foreign players dominate the scoring charts. In searching for the needle in the haystack, the rusty needles of Benni McCarthy and Siyabonga Nomvete had of course been suggested. But neither represented an investment for the future. And so, Mosimane pulled a rabbit out of the hat.
It looked like a fairytale outcome for Nontshinga. Rather touchingly, the unheralded forward dedicated his selection to his late mother. But, even the most parochial of us would have had to concede that things did not quite add up. The player had not been among the second tier’s top scorers during the previous season. When his team Bay United failed in their play-off against Jomo Cosmos, he had been transferred to the promoted club. At the time he was picked for South Africa, he had scored just three league goals. These three goals were said to constitute good form, and, admittedly, were half the total for quickly-floundering Cosmos. What hidden attributes had earned him a chance at glory?
To be fair, Nontshinga came with good references. Discovered by a legend of South African football, Mlungisi ‘Professor’ Ngubane, he had also been good enough for Jomo Sono, spotter of more southern African talent than just about anyone else. The man who nurtured Benjani Mwaruwari, Katlego Mphela and Christopher Katongo, and who oversaw McCarthy’s starring role at the 1998 Afcon, might own a yo-yo club, but he is no dingbat at scouting players. Now Mosimane, too, had shown faith in Nontshinga. We were told, rather darkly, about the player’s movement off the ball. So, we nodded wisely, and waited to see.
The names of the visiting Ivorians were anything but obscure. Apart from Drogba, who was injured, they had brought all the leading lights of their golden generation, and a crop of young stars. Kolo and the imperious Yaya Toure were in the squad. So, too, were Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora, Gervinho, and Salomon Kalou. Didier Ya Konan, of Hannover, and Wilfried Bony, of Vitesse, were setting their respective European leagues alight with their goal-scoring. At the time of the game, CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia was the season’s top scorer in the UEFA Champions League. It would be a baptism of fire for Nontshinga, if he got on to the pitch.
Our stadium’s unusual design is supposed to look like a sunflower opening. On Saturday, November 12, 2011, blazing sunlight fell on the sunflower as the crowd streamed in. Most of the spectators had come in hope of finally seeing an unfurling of South Africa’s finishing skills. Orange-shirted Elephants supporters were everywhere, too. The mix of yellow and orange shirts around the stands, and the blaring of the trumpets, turned the ground into a raucous golden carnival. My seat in block 217 was directly behind a little family, all wearing Bafana shirts with the name ‘Erasmus’ on the back. These were the relatives of the exquisitely-named Kermit Erasmus. Like Nontshinga, Erasmus is a product of the Greater Port Elizabeth area, and was one of four players Mosimane could choose to lead the line. When the pint-sized amphibian reformer appeared on a big screen, his family rose in a proud little Mexican wave.
Certain distinct impressions stand out from the game that afternoon. They include Igor Lolo’s kung-fu lunge that seemed certain to end the Masilela family line. Then, Tsepo Masilela’s injury-enforced withdrawal, resulting in the introduction of Siboniso Gaxa at left back. Next, an own-goal from a moment of uncertainty when South Africa’s goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs came off his line precisely as Gaxa headed the ball back to him. There was a great through-ball from ‘Yeye’ Letsholanyane for Katlego Mphela, but the striker failed to make much of it. One remembers Steven Pienaar and Daylon Claassen combining well in midfield, but also the lightweight Claassen literally bouncing off the giant Ivorians. It was impossible to ignore the simmering discontent on the terraces, particularly as half-time drew near without Bafana – and Mphela in particular – having been able to restore parity. Like an audience at the Coliseum willing the end of an unpopular gladiator, the crowd erupted, demanding Mphela’s substitution. “They want Nontshinga on,” I said to the man next to me. “They just want Killer off,” was his response.
The treatment of Mphela was unfair. South Africa’s paucity of goals could not be blamed on him; his record of one goal in every two games at international level speaks for itself. Mphela’s sobriquet of ‘Killer’ is apt, because, like an assassin, he seems invisible until, bang, the damage is done. It was no different on that bright Saturday, when, in the fifty-third minute, Mphela scored with a lethal sharpshooter’s free kick to level the scores. At this point, Mosimane rammed the rabbit firmly back into the hat.
Nontshinga’s token debut came only in the ninetieth minute. Later, he reflected on the moment he was asked to warm up. He was nervous, he said, but resolved to keep it simple. He wished his Mom was alive to see him playing. How much can you display to the world in a few minutes of referee’s optional time, though? Not enough for opinions to crystallise. I thought that perhaps, with his few touches, he had shown the Ivorians too much of the ball, but I wasn’t sure.
Within days, there was a further opportunity for Nontshinga. Mosimane took a largely experimental squad to Harare to face Zimbabwe. The floodlights at the Rufaro Stadium had the combined wattage of a bicycle’s headlamp, and both sides could be excused for not seeing the ball. Attempting to watch the game on television, I took the commentator’s word for it that Zimbabwe had won 2-1. Nontshinga got twenty-two minutes at the end. The consensus of those with better vision than mine was that he had struggled. He travelled to Equatorial Guinea with the national side in early January 2012, playing the second half of a goalless draw. In a 1-1 draw with Zambia in Johannesburg on January 11, Nontshinga failed spectacularly. “Siyabonga Nontshinga wasted a glorious chance to fire the hosts into the lead in the 67th minute as he fell down before he could shoot, with only Mweene to beat,” said the post-match report.
Meanwhile, there was no improvement in his early season goal tally for Jomo Cosmos. Despite Bra Jomo’s optimism, the club made the inevitable plunge to the grungy National First Division. A lifeline was handed to Nontshinga, though, who signed for Bloemfontein Celtic and remained in the top flight. Celtic’s chief executive announced: “We are extremely happy to have acquired the services of Siyabonga Nontshinga. He is a prolific young striker and we hope that he will score goals for us next season. Nontshinga has predatory instincts and anticipation around the penalty area. His first touch is also marvellous.” Contrary to all empirical evidence, as with the Emperor’s new clothes, a myth seemed to have taken root.
Nontshinga got a goal in an early season game with Platinum Stars, tapping in from a perfect cross. But things quickly fell apart, and by the time Celtic won the Telkom Knockout trophy, he was not even on the bench. You can read the highs and lows of a player’s career by the column-centimetres devoted to him in the press. A football weekly that gave an entire cover page to Nontshinga when his star was mystifyingly at its zenith, now offered a tiny statement, like an obituary notice, about his next move: “Mpumalanga Black Aces have bolstered their squad with a number of new players, including former Bafana Bafana striker Siyabonga Nontshinga.” Like Cosmos, Aces are an up-and-down side, in the second tier at the time of Nontshinga’s loan move during the transfer window.
For once, though, the Despatch man seemed to find some form, scoring five goals as Aces fought their way into the play-off places, and ultimately gained promotion to the top tier. Bloemfontein Celtic were quick to cash in, and sold Nontshinga to Polokwane City, the new morph of his earlier club Bay United, and winners of the National First Division. The Polokwane badge bears the cheerful motto ‘Rise and Shine.’ In the townships and shanty-towns of the Eastern Cape, multitudes will be hoping that their home-grown hope, Siyabonga Nontshinga, finally manages to do just that.