As a youngster, Akhona Makalima aspired to play for Banyana Banyana, but a lack of opportunities curtailed her dreams.
However, instead of being despondent about a shattered dream, Makalima (30) pushed her way up on to local football’s biggest stage.
She is the PSL’s only woman referee on this season’s Safa panel, following in the footsteps of Deidre Mitchell, Baitse Manca and Titi Matankiso – the first women to officiate locally more than a decade ago.
The other women on the Safa panel – four of them – are assistant referees.
Originally from Engculu village in Ngqamakhwe in the Eastern Cape, Makalima takes after her parents when it comes to sport.
“I inherited my sporting genes from my mother, who was a netball player, and my father, who used to play football,” the Fifa-accredited match official told City Press.
Makalima did duty as the fourth official in the Telkom Knockout final between Baroka FC and Orlando Pirates at Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium last weekend.
The attention shifted to her each time there was a substitution or when she had to calm down the opposing coaches – Wedson Nyirenda and Milutin Sredojevic – on the touchline during the tense final that Baroka won on penalties last Saturday.
However, it was not the first time that “She Ref”, as Makalima is known among her peers, was involved in a high-profile fixture.
She has handled a few Absa Premiership games, some involving powerhouses Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs, and she held the whistle at the 2016 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations.
“I played football for most of my youth and I badly wanted to play for Banyana,” said Makalima, a former winger for Thunderbirds Ladies and Litha FC.
“At the time, the Eastern Cape didn’t even have a competitive team. There was a lack of development structures and I stopped playing soccer in 2011.”
Makalima participated in almost every sporting code in her school days, including athletics, where she was a rated sprinter.
“I was this popular girl at school because I excelled in sport and everyone, including my grandfather, would be there to see me cross the line,” said Makalima, who ventured into refereeing seven years ago.
The opportunity presented itself when Safa conducted a referees’ programme in Queenstown, Makalima’s second home.
“The programme was specifically for women,” she said.
“We started with 20, but some fell by the wayside. I persisted and that was the beginning of my career in refereeing,” she said.
A few assignments in regional promotional tournaments, as well as in the Sasol Women’s League, SAB Regional League and the ABC Motsepe League (then known as the Vodacom League) paved the way for Makalima.
“I started as the assistant referee. It was hard to be a referee and even harder in a male-dominated space. But we are here to change the mind-set – everyone can do it,” said Makalima, who aspires to officiate in the Women’s World Cup one day.
She got her Fifa badge in 2014, the same season she was nominated for the national referees’ panel.
Although she describes herself as a village girl, Makalima is a trailblazer of note off the pitch.
In her personal space – or life after 90 minutes as she refers to her pastime – Makalima is a fitness coach, hosts a weekly radio show at her regional station and has her own website.
Makalima hopes to use her status in society to fight for the emancipation of women.
She was recently invited to the Global Sport Mentorship programme in the US, where she was one of the delegates.
As a parting shot, Makalima – who holds a diploma in human resource management – urged women to work hard to meet the high standards.
“We don’t have to be done a favour,” she said, adding that she commanded respect from professional players and their coaches.