‘It’s been a great 80-year ride’ - Mokone

2012-03-17 15:05

It seems like only yesterday. It was October 21 1955 and I had just boarded a gleaming BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) plane from what was then called Jan Smuts Airport.

I was on my way to pursue a career as a professional footballer with Coventry City in England.

It seems like only yesterday when Dr Willie Nkomo and Dr Peter Tsele of the African National Congress came to my farewell party at my home the night before my departure and asked to speak to me privately.

Dr Nkomo said to me: “Kala, remember every goal you score will bring us closer to our freedom and independence, and don’t drink and get drunk in the street because it will reflect negatively on all of us here.”

It seems like only yesterday when I was kicking a tennis ball in those dusty location streets, perfecting my craft – not to play professional football abroad, but to defeat my playmates in the street games we played late into the night.

It seems like only yesterday when Dr Mtimkulu, the principal of Ohlange Institute (in now KwaZulu-Natal), called me into his office to give me a telegram from Mr Dan Twala, the president of the South African Football Association, in which he informed me I had been selected to make my debut with the National X1 at the young age of 16 years and 10 months, thus becoming the youngest player to have ever been selected to play for the national side at that tender age.

Before that, Vusi “Stadig my Kind” Makhathini of Bushbucks was the youngest to have been selected to represent South Africa. “Stadig” was 20 years old when he was first selected.

I can still visualise the two goals I scored in my first match for the national side at Curries Fountain in Durban. Whoa!

It seems like only yesterday when I scored my first goal in my first game for Coventry. I can still hear the deafening roar of the crowd when the ball hit the back of the net.

I can still hear the crowd shouting “give the ball to Steve, Steve, Steve”.

What an experience it was to get into the change room and be the only black person taking a shower with white players. I didn’t know whether to address them by their first names or to call them “Baas”, as was customary in apartheid South Africa.

All those memories come floating into my mind as I approach turning 80 years old on March 23. What a wonderful ride it has been for a young black kid from the dusty streets of apartheid South Africa.

I recall meeting Queen Wilhemina and Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, Princess Grace Kelly Ranier of Monte Carlo and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of what was then West Germany.

I had never been coached on what to do or how to behave when I met royalty or famous folk.

I recall my visit to Kiev in the old Soviet Union and being confronted by a mob, who up to then had never met a black. I recall my visit to a department store in Moscow. I recall meeting Pele for the first time and wanting to talk to him, but not being able to do so because he did not speak English.

Here was this kid from apartheid South Africa visiting countries he had only read about in geography classes at school.

I recall meeting Tom Mboya before he became deputy president of Kenya under President Jomo Kenyata, and strategising on how to organise to get white South Africa expelled from the International Olympic Committee.

It seems like 1957 was only yesterday when I was listening on the radio in London to President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana declaring “today we celebrate the independence of Ghana, but Ghana will never consider herself free and independent until the rest of Africa is free and independent”.

Where did the time go?

I recall my visit to Barcelona to meet with team officials to discuss my joining the team. I could not understand what they were saying most of the time because they spoke Spanish and a smattering of English.

I recall my visit to Holland to meet with officials from Heracles, the team I decided to join because Dutch is very similar to Afrikaans, and since I spoke Afrikaans, communicating with them was not difficult.

I can still remember the two goals I scored in my first match for Heracles against Frankfurt of Germany.
I can still remember looking at the newspaper after scoring five goals in Italy.

The heading read “Kalamazoo vale Eusebio”, and the article went on to say “if Pele is the Rolls-Royce of soccer players, Kalamazoo, lithe and lean, is surely the Maserati of soccer players”.

Today, almost 60 years later, I look back and wonder, where did all that time go?

I recall meeting my former classmate Desmond Tutu in New York a few years ago. During our discussion, he asked me: “Kala, did you know when we were still at school that one day you were going to be a world-renowned football player?”

I responded: “Did you know you were going to be a bishop and win the Nobel peace prize?”

Yes, who of us knows the destiny fate has in store for us?

Yes, today I turn 80, but I look at age as only a number. I still religiously walk 1.6km six days a week, swim three times a week and attend gym at least three times a week.

I still drive myself around, and shop and attend Quaker services every Sunday.

I had thought with age my memory would fade, but not so. I watch football games every Sunday and at times find myself playing with the players on television.

As I look back at my life, I note that I have been inducted into three Halls of Fame, had a street named in my honour, Steve Mokonelaan, a football stadium named in my honour and a movie has been made of my life story titled De Zwarte Meteoor.

I’ve had an auditorium of a large publishing company in Rotterdam, Holland, named in my honour – Steve Mokone Auditorium. I was awarded the South African Football Presidential Award, was awarded a CAF award, was awarded the Steve Tshwete Lifetime Award, and was awarded an Exceptional Achievement Award in the field of soccer and outstanding contribution to the development of non-racial sport.

As I sit back, I say to myself, yes, it has been a great ride.

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