The Dube Birds Will Fly Again (of love, loss and resurrection)

As I write this, we are in the middle of a national lockdown. It remains to be seen if and when the corona virus-induced impasse will end. Moroka Swallows, meanwhile, remain in the running to earn a playoff berth – lying second on the Glad Africa First Division standings, all the leagues having gone into a sudden and unforeseen recess. For someone who is a diehard Orlando Pirates supporter, many a fellow soccer lover is often surprised to discover what a special place ‘The Dube Birds’, Moroka Swallows, hold in my heart. The reason for this, I always tell anyone who is willing to listen, is my late uncle Jabulani ‘Ma-E’ Mbuli. Malum’ Ma-E was an ardent Swallows supporter, you see, but he was also the reason I fell in love with football. My love for footie has gone on to survive many a hard knock, not least of which was the steady realisation, over the span of my teenage years, that I would not, in this lifetime, attain to any professional success as a football player… Man, my love for idiski even survived the early and heart-breaking death of my uncle Ma-E.

Malum’ Jabulani was responsible for my very first stadium experience, in 1978 at the Rand Stadium, where Swallows held the then-highflying Highlands Park to a scintillating draw. For a wide-eyed seven year-old, it was a priceless experience. The experience was made even sweeter by the guilt of knowing that I wasn’t supposed to be there, watching my uncle’s beloved Birds. You see, my maternal grandmother, Mrs Roselinah Mbuli, had repeatedly shot down the idea of my uncle taking me with, whenever he went to the stadium to watch Swallows. Her reasons, repeated to him with vehemence every time the topic came up, were that I was too small and additionally, stadiums and soccer would still be there when I grew up. There was no need to hurry.

The real reasons, as everyone in that house knew, were that my uncle was a gangster and a known tsotsi, with many enemies, and she couldn’t or wouldn’t trust him to bring me back in one piece. My gran’s place was where we spent our school holidays, my parents having moved to Swaziland (now called Eswatini), shortly after the birth of my older brother. My father, the only son (with three older sisters) of a wealthy Bergville farmer, shopkeeper and butchery owner, had taken lock, stock and barrel and moved to the Swazi side of the Pongola border – after a family rift in which witchcraft had featured prominently. But I digress, and that’s another story altogether. I suspect my poor gran had nightmares about having to explain to my parents, should anything untoward have happened to any one of us on our school holiday sojourns to her Soweto home. And so, the old woman always said no, no stadium football for me. Not just yet.

Consequently, I was at the Rand Stadium on that Saturday afternoon because my uncle had hatched a plan to make it happen. This plan involved me jumping over the back wall of my gran’s Emndeni four-room house, landing in the backyard of the “front-opposite” Moahloli neighbours, where my uncle would be waiting – having bribed old ntate Moahloli to not only turn a blind eye, but also call off his vicious dogs… Anyway the plan had gone off smoothly, and two taxi rides later there I was, at a stadium I’d only read about in newspaper match reports – with my favourite uncle, watching his favourite team. Nothing could dampen my mood, I tell you, not even the thought of the probable beating awaiting me back at home. I don’t even remember what the date was, only that it was a golden-hued, glorious Saturday afternoon. But there is one stadium experience I do recall, detail-by-detail.

I had just turned ten, then, and the occasion was the Mainstay Cup Final on November the 30th 1980, at Orlando Stadium. My uncle had already ascertained and accepted that, despite his best efforts – bribing me with sweets and pies and other delicacies that should have bent a less resolute child’s will – I was a Buccaneer at heart. Moroka Swallows had, at the time, a squad much-feared for its attacking prowess and all-round flair, and they were up against an Orlando Pirates team who were going into the final as surprising underdogs.

The Swallows frontline had been tearing defences to pieces, and their determination had seen them disposing of Kaizer Chiefs – in a semi-final where they’d won the replay after an unforgettable 5-5 stalemate in which recent Swallows signing, Jeffrey ‘Tornado’ Nsibande, had scored four goals and yet still not prevailed against Amakhosi. Chiefs had rallied with a hat-trick from the irrepressible midfield maestro, Patrick ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, and a brace from second-half substitute, Peter ‘Fuduwa’ Mokotedi. And so it was that the Bucs, who were under the care of player-coach Phil ‘Jones’ Setshedi, were going into the final wary of The Birds – even though they themselves had chalked up an impressive run of seventeen games unbeaten, since new Team Manager Irvin Khoza had recommended that the injured Setshedi be given the coaching reigns.

The Swallows PRO at the time, Jack ‘Big Daddy’ Sello, boasted in the days leading up to the final that his strikers “could tear apart any defence in the country”. Also, if such a thing was humanly possible, my uncle Ma-E was even more confident than Big Daddy… There was no elaborate plan hatched to get me out of the house, this time around. I had grown into a rather headstrong young boy, and my gran had all but given up on banning my stadium forays with my uncle. On the day of the final, all I could hear coming out of malum’ Jabulani’s mouth was how they were going to thrash us, how nobody could mark ‘Ace’ Mnini, and how ‘Tornado’ was gonna send our goalkeeper, Patson ‘Sparks’ Banda, to hospital. It was not to be.

I was in maroon and white just like my uncle, of course. In those days, opposing fans sat apart and violent confrontations at the stadium were nothing unusual. I would have to sit with my uncle in the Swallows grandstands, and all the way to Orlando he kept reminding me how I shouldn’t let slip that I was rooting for the Buccaneers. “Otherwise uzos’bulalisa ngabantu, Kozi. Uyezwa?” And so on. So I was both excited and terrified…

Mind you, the Swallows striker I feared wasn’t the new boy, the much-talked-about Jeffrey ‘Tornado’ Nsibande (he would later leave Swallows to join Pirates). No, the guy I was scared of was a wily old fox called Frederick ‘Congo’ Malebane, who always seemed to score against Pirates. I was hoping and praying the veteran would have an off day. Well, what do you know? ‘Congo’ Malebane opened the scoring early in the game, and the Swallows stands exploded with whistles and screams of “Shaya! Swai Swai! Shaya!”. My uncle was up on his feet, in a trance, enraptured in the ecstasy of the moment – like every other Swallows supporter at Orlando Stadium on that day. As for me, my little Buccaneer heart was breaking. The great Jomo, Ephraim ‘The Black Prince’ Sono, was having a hard time escaping the tentacles of a Swallows defence that wasn’t letting him so much as breathe.

And then Pirates got a free kick outside the Swallows 18 area, and I distinctly remember malum’ Ma-E saying “Eish” and burying his head in his hands. Jomo had been scoring every other Pirates free kick that season, and a deathly quiet fell over the Swallows faithful. An unusual thing happened. Jomo didn’t go for goal, like everyone in that stadium expected him to – well, everyone except his teammate Johannes ‘Big Boy’ Kholoane, that is. Instead, Jomo delicately chipped the ball over the Swallows wall, sending it curling strangely away from goal, and the Swallows defenders, their backs now turned to the free-kick taker, then watched in horror as ‘Big Boy’ came out of nowhere and easily slotted the loose ball home. 1-1. Game on.

I had somehow managed to not jump up in celebration… But there was more coming. Oscar ‘Jazzman’ Dlamini rattled the Swallows crossbar with a thunderbolt, and just as the Pirates fans, up on their feet, rued the close miss, the ricochet fell to Jomo – lurking just inside the Swallows eighteen area. Before the rebound could kiss the ground, the ‘Black Prince’ let rip with an inch-perfect volley that sent the Buccaneers into the lead. 2-1. The Pirates stands roared as one, manic with jubilation. My uncle kept saying “eish”, over and over again, while beside him I struggled to contain my delight.

But the drama of that day was far from over. Not long after Jomo’s strike, Joel ‘Ace’ Mnini, the twinkle-toed Swallows winger who could run with the ball like it was glued to his feet, cut through the entire Pirates defence like a hot knife through butter and, finally, the only way to stop him was a lunging tackle – a foul that was clear for everyone to see. Without hesitation the referee pointed to the spot. Penalty. The industrious Andries ‘Six Mabone’ Maseko, deadly calm, stepped up to take the kick. Silence enveloped a packed Orlando Stadium. In Pirates goal, the legendary shotstopper, Patson ‘Sparks’ Banda, wagged his finger as if to say, “no way you’re scoring this one”. Maseko shot, Banda leapt with cat-like agility and saved, the Pirates stands erupted in a volcano of glee – and the Swallows supporters, my uncle included, looked on in disbelief. And then the ref ordered a retake.

All hell broke loose. Banda had left his line too soon, the ref insisted, and pandemonium ensued. For the first time in that stadium, even with my uncle Jabulani at my side, I was scared. He of course was up on his feet, celebrating the ref’s decision. ‘Sparks’ Banda in our goals was having none of it. Remonstrating wildly, he abandoned his goalposts, urged on by the Pirates grandstands that were, to put it mildly, in a frenzy of rage. Caretaker player/coach ‘Jones’ Setshedi pleaded with the enraged goalkeeper, and he eventually returned to goal. Cool as a cucumber, ‘Six Mabone’ hit another low shot, again to his right, this time beyond Banda’s outstretched hands – and my uncle was on his feet, screaming with excitement. 2-2.

And yet, even with the scores level, it became clear as the game wore on that the Pirates duo – of midfield dynamo Neo ‘Webster’ Lechaba and the livewire himself, Jomo Sono – were causing Swallows headache after headache with their relentless forays forward. Somehow, above the din of the raucous crowd as Pirates launched wave after wave of attack, I could hear the worried sighs of my uncle. The game remained fast-paced, the second half seeming headed for extra time, but soon enough the inevitable happened.

Amos ‘Heel Extension’ Mkhari, the tricky Pirates winger famous for his trademark back-heels, pulled out a cheeky little pass from his bag of tricks, sending ‘Webster’ Lechaba clear on goal. The midfielder, a constant thorn in The Birds’ side on that day, was fouled just outside the Swallows six-yard area. Clear penalty. Who else but Jomo, to step up and take the kick? Always a player for the big occasion, Mjomana sent the animated Swallows goalkeeper, Moses ‘Skepe mketule’ Khenyeza the wrong way. 3-2 to the Buccaneers! My ten year old self suddenly let the mask slip. I remember my uncle pulling me down, asking what the hell I was doing, celebrating a Pirates goal slap-bang in the midst of distraught Swallows supporters? Was I mad? I would surely have gotten a few warm klaps, maybe even a belting or a whipping, that day, if it hadn’t been for my uncle.

As we exited the stadium, not even waiting for Pirates captain, Andy ‘Jesus’ Karadjinsky, to hoist the trophy up in triumph, I realised there was a group tailing us – promising to deal with “the boy who supports Pirates”. My uncle had me firmly tucked under his shoulder. “Intwana yam’ le! Intwana yam’ le!” he was bellowing. “Niyangazi! Ningazi kahle mina!” He was cautioning them. And yes, I was “his boy” and yes, they knew him. They knew him too well. They left us alone.

I remember that we went to a “spot” of his that evening, where he had a few beers and bought me a bottle of Sprite. Soon enough he was laughing about the defeat. But then again, that was my uncle Ma-E, laughing in the face of trouble and terror alike. A soft-spoken man, a Maths genius who hadn’t gone far in school, a tsotsi who was inside prison as much he was out – his defence against a hard life was to laugh at it. A man who loved me deeply, without restraint, with an entirely unjustifiable bias – as if my three siblings didn’t exist. A man who had thought nothing of taking a five-hour road trip, while still recovering from a bad stabbing – because he simply had to come and see me.

Malum’ Ma-E, who laughed as he told you about how the cops had once shot him, on Fox Street in downtown Jozi – during a robbery gone wrong – and then went with him, bleeding, to a braai in Mayfair where they put him in a corner of the yard and set their dogs on him. I remember that after we beat them that day in the Mainstay Cup Final, late in the night after my gran was done shouting at us, he was laughing and telling me, “Aargh, ak’na nix. Sik’jwayele ukusokola thina ma Swallows” … My uncle did not, could not, have lived a long life. His body was always a grave waiting, mouth open, to be fed. The scars of too many knife fights, too many shootouts with the chasing police – had long marked him out for an early demise.

Because I wish that my late uncle’s spirit would, if it could, celebrate while I am in these living years, I hope to see again something I saw too long ago: Moroka Swallows, the ‘Dube Birds’, holding aloft a PSL trophy. For once, not suffering. Not every time uk’sokola. Not always the infighting, financial woes and demotions to the lower leagues. Sometimes, I imagine malum’ Ma-E smiling already, wherever he is, because the revival is already in full swing. Nothing can rouse my uncle from death, that deep and final sleep, but for his beloved Swallows I suspect that the restoration of a full resurrection is near at hand.

Panyaza Lesufi, that tireless Swallows supporter, is leading the charge. The Birds are on the verge of regaining promotion to the Premier Soccer League. Yes, because of that man – my uncle, a criminal to the law, a danger to his enemies, a terror no doubt to many an innocent victim, a product of his place and time – and a man who showed me nothing but love, I know the Dube Birds will fly high again. One day is one day. And this, this Buccaneer’s heart will always have a place, deep within it, where it bleeds maroon and white. Up the Birds!

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