BY MIKE MADODA
On the very day that South Africa and the Zulu nation woke up to the sad news that King Goodwill Zwelithini had passed away after he lost his fight against diabetes, Patrice Motsepe was being crowned the new President of CAF. Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu checked out in the early hours of Friday March 12 just a few hours before his compatriot, the billionaire owner of Mamelodi Sundowns checked in as African football’s top man. As media icon Robert Marawa tweeted: “Life and its ironies.. Two gentlemen who’ve had massive respect for one another & worked extensively together..today sees one ascend to the highest position in African football as CAF President and one sadly passes away…”
As I watched King Zwelithini’s funeral procession on Wednesday evening, his hearse accompanied by a regiment of Zulu warriors in full traditional garb, I couldn’t help but admire the fierce loyalty of his people as well as their respect for tradition and authority. Quite oddly, my mind wandered to what football club he supported, if any. Any betting man would put a flatter on Amazulu, one of the oldest football clubs in South Africa – the links are obvious for all to see. Formed by Zulu migrant workers in 1932 and originally named Zulu Royal Conquerors, the club was introduced to his grandfather, the then Zulu king, Solomon kaDinuzulu, who changed the team’s name to Zulu Royals and also introduced the shield to their logo.
The team’s headquarters was at the eMbelebeleni Royal Kraal and the team colours changed to the bottle green and white that has become synonymous with “Usuthu”. But the royal seal of approval and support didn’t last long. On the day of Goodwill Zwelithini’s father’s funeral in 1968, the team made the unfortunate decision to play a cup game against SAPPI Homestars at eMandeni, which they lost 4–2.
The club had been scheduled to escort the King’s coffin but only the team principals showed up wearing the team’s uniform, a snub the royal court was not willing to pass and a slight they could not forgive. How could the king’s team play on the day he was being laid to rest? In the very year that Zwelithini ascended to the throne, Amazulu was told they would no longer be recognised at the eMbelebeleni Royal Kraal.
Perhaps it was one of the Soweto giants, Kaizer Chiefs, the glamour boys who have thrilled and entertained their way to being South African football’s most decorated club. Orlando Pirates, the first South African club to conquer the continent and whose owner, Irvin Khoza is a proud elder of the Zulu nation.
Both clubs are considered royalty in South African football and there’s no doubt the late king at one point or another, must have flirted with, if not courted either of them in their glory years. But those years are gone, and in no small part thanks to Mamelodi Sundowns who have risen to become the undisputed king of South African football. Their rise, both at home and on the continent, has been spurred on by Patrice Motsepe whose passion and vision have been suitably complimented by a business acumen second to none.
No doubt the late king would’ve been immensely proud and joined the rest of South Africa in congratulating Motsepe on his latest achievement, perhaps the most notable of his football career. The rest of Africa did. The South African Football Association led the plaudits, no doubt pleased to have their man at the helm of African football. From political figures like Julius Malema to former footballers like the legendary pair of Samuel Eto’o and Kalusha Bwalya, many revelled in the moment, seeing hope on the horizon after the false dawn that was Ahmad Ahmad.
Even here at home, Highlanders, whose Matabele roots can be traced all the way to KwaZulu Natal paid homage to Motsepe, as did champions FC Platinum, new boys Bulawayo Chiefs and even Division One outfit Golden Eagles.
Conspicuous by their silence as the plaudits poured in was Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) who only belatedly and almost half-heartedly offered their congratulations a full two days later, long after the ceremonial dust had settled.
Just like the warriors who accompanied King Goodwill Zwelithini to his final resting place, Meghan Markle curtseying when she first met the Queen at Buckingham Palace, or even the Italian Mafia who kiss the ring of the godfather, tradition has its demands and prerequisites in any culture. Zifa, in this, the coronation of the new king of African football, missed a golden opportunity to draw near to the throne.
Motsepe’s victory wasn’t South Africa’s alone, but a victory for Anglophone Africa and even more so, for southern Africa. Zifa needed to lead from the front and be more vociferous because of the umbilical cord that joins Zimbabwe to South Africa. But more importantly, because of all the nations in southern Africa that could do with a helping hand, Zimbabwe heads the list. Motsepe has promised to champion youth and women’s football, invest in infrastructure and institute statutory reforms among many initiatives — all of which speak into our current needs.
In public relations, perception is everything and Zifa’s silence, just like Amazulu’s fateful decision to snub the king all those years ago led to their removal from court and the Durban-based club missing out on all the likely benefits that the king’s patronage would’ve brought, Zimbabwe may well find itself looking in from the outside, as the rest of the region leverage on the proximity and access they now have to Motsepe. Zifa must learn that there’s a price to be paid for failing to pin your colours to the mast. To the victor go the spoils and those that sit at his table.