Friends, family members and mentors share their experiences of the dedicated footballer who was ‘full of fun’
When slain Orlando Pirates and Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa was in his early teens, he came up against the first serious obstacle to achieving his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
His parents, Samuel and Ntombifuthi Meyiwa, like most, wanted their son to focus on his studies at KwaMgaga High School rather than on football, which they didn’t view as a viable career choice.
The Meyiwas also needed their son to work in the family tuck shop after school and, like his siblings, play his part in making the family business work.
Meyiwa and Thompson Phoswa, his then coach at the Umlazi-based London Cosmos FC, came up with a plan: when they had money, the team would buy all the stock in the shop so Senzo could close.
When they didn’t, his brother Sifiso would cover for him until he finished training. Either way, the striker-turned-goalkeeper was going to get to training.
Phoswa recalls the day Meyiwa made the transition from striker to the number 1 jersey, which Pirates retired this week in his honour.
“Senzo was playing in the Under-10s at London Cosmos as a striker. We didn’t have a goalkeeper for some reason. He jumped in and took over as goalkeeper and he was marvellous. I saw straight away that he was going to be a very good goalkeeper.”
Phoswa, along with Meyiwa’s principal at KwaMgaga, former AmaZulu goalkeeper Vuma Mfeka, managed to convince the Meyiwas their son had a real shot at the big time.
“Even then, he was very determined, very disciplined and very patient,” says Phoswa. “At this very young age, he was already a great motivator and his leadership skills were right there.”
Meyiwa already had the patience and dedication to football for which saw him through long spells warming the bench at both Pirates and Bafana.
Mfeka remembers how, while waiting for a gap in the school’s famed first XI, Meyiwa helped coach the girls’ team just to be involved in the game.
“Two of our teachers – Fikile Makhathini and Mam Makhoba – were training the girls in football. Senzo was still not playing for the senior team. They didn’t know much about football but this youngster would come and assist them. He ended up coaching the girls’ football team,” says Mfeka.
When Phoswa saw an advert for trials for the Pirates development programme, he scraped together the money and took Meyiwa and a few other youngsters up by bus to Mayfair, central Joburg.
“It took about five minutes for them to realise he was the one they wanted. However, there was a big problem in that Senzo had nowhere to stay and Pirates would only give him accommodation after two weeks. The other boys stayed with him and they would sit all night at Park Station until eventually he got somewhere to stay,” says Phoswa.
Phoswa recalls the only time he ever saw his youthful charge angry.
“We were going to Johannesburg at the last minute. There was no taxi. Senzo was still very young. He was angry, panicking, arguing with me because you could see he felt like crying,” says Phoswa. “The rest of the time he was very organised, always singing and dancing and leading the others. He was full of fun and very disciplined. Even then, his colleagues respected him.”
After five years playing for the Pirates development side, Meyiwa joined the first team in 2005.
Pirates’ development coach, Augusto Palacios, talks about how he’ll never forget his first interaction with Meyiwa back in 2001: “I remember a small boy from KwaZulu-Natal with a smile on his face.”
Lebogang “Cheezeboy” Mokoena recalls the 12?years he spent with Meyiwa at Pirates. “He was with the Under-15s, while I was with the Under-17s. Senzo had a big appetite. We used to be served samp and beans at the Pirates youth academy quite a lot and he was always ready to ‘help’ anyone who struggled with their ration.”
SA junior teams coach and Bafana assistant coach Serame Letsoaka says Meyiwa impressed while he building a national Under-17 team for the 2003 African Youth Championships. “He made the squad after impressing while in goal for the Orlando Pirates academy. We played them in a friendly match that also served as a scouting window for the national team.”
Agent Mike Makaab, who first met Meyiwa as a 13-year-old playing with his son Michael in a KwaZulu-Natal junior side, worked with him from the time he signed professional papers with Pirates, for whom he made his professional debut against AmaZulu in November 2006.
“The guys in the team became friends and when he went to Pirates development, I kept tabs on him. When he signed professional forms, Prosport in effect managed the majority of his career,” Makaab says.
“Whenever we spoke or met it wasn’t as agent or player. It was more of a family relationship. That’s how I saw him, as an extension of our family.”
Umlazi Football Association president Sikhumbuzo “Fish” Jamarie, who co-owned the Jamarie Sports Academy with Meyiwa, says Meyiwa’s combination of dedication and warmth carried him through life.
“We worked really hard. When he came down for tournaments he would train with the youngsters, buy them food, motivate them. Senzo would sit with the boys and talk to them about eating like professional athletes. He would invest his time in them,” Jamarie says, adding that while Meyiwa might have lived a celebrity life in Joburg, he left it behind when he came home.
“I think Senzo was okay. He was in Joburg, so there are things I was not aware of. Here in Durban, he wasn’t a person who had been changed by money. Senzo would train with the boys at Mangosuthu University of Technology in Umlazi. His lifestyle didn’t change to us. Maybe elsewhere but to us he was still Senzo. Money did not take him away from us.”
Meyiwa’s cousin, Brenda Mhlongo, was among the family members helping to deal with the flood of mourners who came to pay their respects at the modest Mgaga Street home in Umlazi’s K Section.
Mhlongo’s help was needed – from Monday morning the crowd at the house swelled and shrank as people came and went, from KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu and Safa president Danny Jordaan, to Meyiwa’s homeboys. Even David Shelembe, a wild-eyed holy man from Umgababa on the south coast, walked all the way after hearing of Meyiwa’s death.
By Thursday, a stage had been set up outside the house for local artists and church groups to come and perform in tribute to Meyiwa, not far from a police caravan that was towed in from the Bhekitemba Police Station on Monday morning when the first wave of mourners hit the usually quiet street.
“Senzo grew up in front of me,” says Mhlongo (40). “When Senzo was about 10, he used to pass our house every day to go train. Senzo wasn’t a fussy child, if it was sugar water and brown bread he was fine. Senzo loved jeqe [steamed bread].
“Senzo was a quiet child when he was small but when he got older he was full of fun. He was also very respectful and loved his mother. Senzo used to call her Mhlobowami.
“When I last saw Senzo it was in April and he came to give his granny R2?000 to buy meat.”
Among the mourners who braved the blazing sun on Wednesday were local hospital matron Siwo Ngcobo and her son Sphiwe Gonya (24) from L Section, who played for rival club Peacemakers.
“Senzo was such a cool guy,” recalls Gonya, who grins as he speaks of slotting a penalty home past Meyiwa as a youngster.
“He would come down and organise tournaments, and still play with us. Senzo didn’t have a big head. He was somebody, but he was still our homeboy.”
Ngcobo remembers a “loving, respectful boy” who was in and out of her house.
“If you scolded him he was disciplined and he listened,” she says.
Mfeka recalls the last time he saw Meyiwa.
“I was at Umlazi Megacity mall. Senzo stopped his car, jumped out and came up to me and gave me a hug. I congratulated him on his recent form and the progress he was making.
“Senzo was happy and excited about his career. He never forgot about us. When Pirates won the Vodacom Cup, he brought the shirt to KwaMgaga. For me, what Senzo represents is that with determination nothing can come between a young person and their dreams.”
He made friends in the senior team as well.
Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba says the goalkeeper “was a bundle of energy”.
“I don’t remember a time when there was Senzo and there was sadness. Senzo Meyiwa was a great singer. He would insist on carrying the big bag that carried all the soccer balls.
“Senzo was a great link between the players and the technical manager,” adds Mashaba.
Makaab believes that despite the headlines that accompanied Meyiwa’s personal life, he still managed to stay focused on his career.
“We all tend to make certain errors in our lives. None of us is perfect. One thing I can tell you about this young man is that he was totally dedicated to his profession.
“Senzo was in great physical condition and I have no doubt that given the right circumstances and no serious injuries he could have played for another decade,” says Makaab, whose agency was busy preparing a new campaign to market Meyiwa’s brand. He believes Meyiwa could have become the new face of South African football.
“I watched Doctor Khumalo and Lucas Radebe emerging and growing. Senzo had that same charisma, that passion and that ability to really do fantastically well in his career going forward,” he adds.