Will The Birds Fly Above The Dead Men?

Forbes Africa
Published 6 years ago
Will The Birds Fly Above The Dead Men?

He is the number one fan of one of the oldest teams in Africa, Moroka Swallows, commonly known as the Birds, from Dube, not far from Nelson Mandela’s home in Orlando, Soweto, South Africa’s most well-known township.

His home is hard to miss; the Moroka Swallows emblem is painted in maroon on the outside wall. Inside his home is a shrine. Old team photos and portraits of him with players, commentators and presenters are stuck to the walls. No mistake, this is the home of Thomas ‘Rasta’ Mokhari in Pimville, Soweto.

“I was born into Swallows; my late dad was a Swallows supporter. We went to stadiums all the time and I knew nothing about soccer. I was about six years old,” says Mokhari.

By the age of 10, in 1965, Mokhari was a devotee; this was the year that the Birds won the league. He is a diehard Moroka Swallows supporter, even though he hasn’t seen a league win since.

Over the years, as Mokhari grew older and wiser, he sold rubbing ointment to Swallows players at stadiums for pocket money.

“My dad was a nurse and would come home with a big tin of rubbing ointment. I would warm it up and pour it into smaller containers to sell,” he says.

His love for the team never diminished. Mokhari got his first Swallows membership card in 1982 at Orlando Stadium. There weren’t any application forms, he says, just a stamp and your name.

“When it comes to the playing on the field, they used to amaze me. If you were playing Swallows you would be scared, it was impossible for you not to be scared,” he says.

He recalls a match between Swallows and Durban City. The opponents were five goals ahead but Moroka Swallows scored six in the last 10 minutes. Then there was the game against Orlando Pirates. Pirates were leading by three goals but the game ended 4-3 to Swallows.

Mokhari can’t remember too many table topping wins, but can recall how much he paid to watch.

“Six cents, 15 cents, R2.60 right up to R40”.

Mokhari has a sense of humor, being a Swallows fan, it helps. He speaks proudly of the team and its history but is not impressed with its current state.

“We are the first team to make history. It is the first team to have a sponsor, the first team to have a membership card, the first team to have a brass band, the first team to have cheerleaders, first team to have branches, also the first team to get relegated today and again tomorrow,” says Mokhari.

See what we mean about a sense of humor?

The last two seasons were no laughing matter. In 2015, the Birds were relegated from the Premier Soccer League (PSL) to the National First Division (NFD) and this year they dropped to the third-tier ABC Motsepe League. For the upcoming season they are to play a number of teams that don’t get paid, like Orbit College, Apollo XI and Kings United.

The current state of Swallows has saddened many of the club’s fans; their dignity so crushed that it was difficult for many to talk to FORBES AFRICA.

I asked the Birds’ number one fan what happened to his team, a team that has a proud history stretching to 1946.

It began with the departure of its chairman.

“May his soul rest in peace Mr David Chabeli, he was a tired man, and he wanted to sell the team. For five years he sang the same song and people were dodging, the white people came and bought the team,” says Mokhari.

In 2001, Chabeli, known as ‘Bra Pine’, sold his majority shares to German investor Dieter Bock and Leon Prins, who became managing director of the team.

The Birds flew high, winning the Nedbank Cup in 2009 and the MTN8 in 2012.

Bock’s death in 2010 ushered in the dark days; the team wasn’t doing well even after the 2012 cup win. Bock left everything with the inexperienced Prins, says Mokhari.

But light flickers at the end of the tunnel. The Gauteng MEC for Education, Panyaza Lesufi, heads a group of investors who have bought 92% of Moroka Swallows, according to Mokhari, also a club official.

The new ownership of the team could bring change; but can Swallows, wallowing in the third tier, return to the big time in the PSL?

Mokhari suggests if the minority owners are bought out, the team will do better, so the current buyers of Moroka Swallows should buy 100% of the shares.

The word is that the new owners want to buy PSL club Free State Stars, and with them a way back into top flight football.

That is likely to take time. Luxolo September, the spokesman for the PSL, warns that buying a club and being accepted into the league is a lengthy process. First, the PSL executive committee has to accept the idea, if so, it is passed to the legal department to check the veracity of the club and its new owners. It is similar to the due diligence carried out when you buy a house or a car. If the legal department is happy, the matter is sent back to the executive for a final decision.

“But so far we have heard nothing officially,” says September.

With the new season set to kick off on August 22, the Birds need to hurry up and take wing. Otherwise they’ll be coming home to roost at Orbit College.