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All signs point to The Birds soaring high again

With an admirable history of winning trophies, Lucas Ledwaba wonders if Moroka Swallows, who were recently promoted to the PSL, will once again become a force to be reckoned with
Author: Lucas Ledwaba
Mon, Sep 28, 2020
  • Moroka Swallows midfielder Sulie 'Bump Jive' Bhamjee in possession during a cup match against African Wanderers in the 1980s, which is considered the club's golden decade. Next to him is Thomas 'Who's Fooling Who' Hlongwane. Photo: City Press Archives
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We are standing around the battered white Nissan E-20 kombi, the official team bus for Moroka Swallows, in the parking area outside the Berea Park stadium in Pretoria. It's a Sunday afternoon and the year is 1987.

Our beloved Moroka Swallows has lost against Arcadia Shepherds in a NSL Castle League match.

I'm a little boy in shorts, standing among elders resplendent in the maroon and white shirts, pants, hats and blazers of The Beautiful Birds. We are all dispirited by the defeat. But the prospect of being among the players and perhaps shaking the hands of our heroes makes up for the disappointment.

After a lengthy wait the players emerge from the stadium towards the waiting crowd. They too look downhearted. Some of the fans applaud and offer words of comfort. Others shout at coach Rodney Bush, demanding to know why he made substitutions they feel cost the team the game.

Bush, looking overly upset, angrily tells one fan to "come and coach and I will sit in the grandstand", as he walks away briskly to his car.

One man reaches out to Andries 'Chaka Chaka' Mpondo, who stands against the kombi facing the fans.

"Ah, captain of the captains. Why sidliwa kanje?" the fan enquires with concern.

"Hayi, nami angazi," Mpondo, visibly disappointed, responds calmly.

But as more players approach the kombi the devastation of defeat is soon forgotten. It's replaced by the usual jovial camaraderie between the supporters and the players, our heroes, the men who can make the ball dance and talk and sing and even weep at times.

They are all there, the goalscoring machine Thomas 'Who's Fooling Who' Hlongwane, the midfield maestro William 'Khura' Makhura and partners in pulsating, fast flowing carpet football, Aubrey 'The Beast' Seboko, Ernest 'Master' Motloung, Paul 'Four Man Power' Motaung and the terrible twins, Joseph 'Manelo' Rapelego and Steve 'Jomo' Sekano.

The supporters encourage the players to work harder and do better next time. The gathering is nothing new. It's a part of the Swallows culture. Even at training sessions at the ramshackle George Goch stadium, the supporters would gather to watch the team train and chat to the players after sessions.

The bond between the players and the fans is like that of a nesting bird and a tree that provides a safe haven. Swallows then was revered for its brand of short passing, fast flowing, carpet football dished out with cheeky skill and carefree township swag.

In the 1980s, Swallows cemented their place among the country's top four football clubs – alongside Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns.

Perhaps the highlight of that golden decade was the victory in the epic 1983 Mainstay Cup final against Witbank Black Aces when Joel 'Ace' Mnini's late extra time thunderbolt almost brought down the Ellis Park stadium.

Between 1984-1987 Swallows reached four other cup finals and featured in numerous semi-finals but failed to win any silverware. It was only in 1989, when they humiliated Sundowns 5-1 in a replay of the Bob Save Superbowl, that they broke the six-year cup drought.

They followed this up with the 1991 Bob Save Super Bowl, the 2004 Absa Cup and 2007 Nedbank Cup. From there the club's fortunes, blamed on poor management under Leon Prins, declined terribly until they were relegated at the end of the 2014/15 season.

Sekano, who scored the equaliser in the first leg of the '89 final against Sundowns reflects on the golden '80s with a tinge of sadness.

Then the club was under the chairmanship of the dubious, Machiavellian character David Pine Chabeli. He was notorious for reneging on player signing-on fees, refusing to pay win bonuses or invest the funds pumped into the club by erstwhile sponsor Mobil into the playing personnel.

This was part of the reason that although Swallows was a big club, the players travelled in a kombi that was so battered it looked as if it had been pulled out from under an earthquake rubble.

Sekano, who now runs the Steve Sekano Foundation in Meadowlands, Soweto, was one of the youngsters in that star-studded team and he still loves Swallows to this day. He grew up supporting Pirates even though his late father was a die- hard Swallows fan.

A nippy forward with a knack for scoring crucial goals and setting up his teammates, Sekano watched 80% of the club's home games in the GladAfrica Championship last season and is convinced The Birds will rise high again.

"Swallows will be one of the top teams again. The management have spent sleepless nights to ensure the team does well. They have done so much for the team. The players are camping [and] getting their salaries on time. They have also invested in very good players," Sekano says.

This is a completely different environment to the one in which Sekano and his peers played under, when win bonuses were a paltry R88 and R44 for a draw which they still had to hassle Chabeli for.

Sekano says the past five years after Swallows were relegated from the Absa Premiership have been tough.

"Everywhere I went people would be asking me about Swallows left, right and centre. It was really tough having to hear fans wishing to see the club back in the PSL," he says.

Now under the stewardship of Panyaza Lesufi and David Mogashoa, who have fought court and boardroom battles to restore Swallows back to top-flight football, it is expected The Birds will emerge an even stronger force to reclaim their place among the giants of SA football. The club is, after all, an integral part of the heritage of Soweto and the country.