South Africa: Mkhonza's Emotional Return to Springs Home Sweepers

The former Banyana coach played a big role in the growth of women's football in South Africa. Away from the spotlight after leaving the national team, he is still doing what he does best - nurturing future stars.

Joseph Mkhonza will always be remembered as the first Banyana Banyana coach to guide the senior women's national team to the Olympics. But equally meaningful, especially for bragging rights and the positive influence it infused in the team, is that it was also under his tutelage that the team beat Nigeria for the first time after years of trying.

That victory came in the semifinals of the 2012 Women's Africa Cup of Nations, with the team fresh from their Olympics exploits in London. The Olympics debut and win over Nigeria are connected. They laid the foundation for the growth that Banyana has undergone since then. The team went on to qualify for the Rio Olympics and the 2019 Fifa Women's World Cup. Also, they now boast a growing number of players who are shining in professional leagues overseas.

By returning to Springs Home Sweepers, the amateur club where he cut his teeth before joining Kaizer Chiefs, Mkhonza is continuing with his positive contribution to women's football in the country.

The death of former Sweepers coach Moses "Sputla" Nhlapo in the early 1980s pushed Mkhonza to play a more active role at the club even while he was at Chiefs. "When Chiefs were not training, I would train this club," Mkhonza said. "That was until the guy who was my manager died. That guy is Sputla Nhlapo's father. Sputla played in this team too. I took him to Chiefs when other clubs wanted him. I told him, 'Your father gave me a chance, I'm also going to give you a chance.' I had to take over the club because there was no one. But I was not alone, there were other players who were playing in the professional league and I talked to them: Teenage Dladla, Bhuda Mathate and Jimmy Mahlangu."

Mkhonza's road to women's football

Mkhonza not only coached the East Rand club that has boys' and girls' teams while he was playing for Amakhosi, he also gave Home Sweepers half of the R25 stipend he received at Real Katlehong City during his playing days there. This is why the decision to return to the club when his contract wasn't extended by the South African Football Association (Safa) in 2014 was easy.

"In 1992, I established the ladies team. I used to watch Soweto Ladies, they used to play curtain raisers at Ellis Park with boys. I would envy this," he says.

"There was an athletics club here in KwaThema. There were ladies who were runners [in the club], we used to train together at the stadium. One day their coach didn't turn up and they came to me and said, coach can you train us? I said I would give it a try. I gave them a ball to play with because I was training the guys, but they said they wanted to do what the guys are doing. They told me they want to play football."

To fend them off, he told the five athletes to recruit other potential players, thinking that it would be a tough challenge. But they came back with 10 more girls and that's how Home Sweepers' women's team was born.

"It was difficult because people, especially men, didn't understand [that women can also play football]. Some of them were swearing at me saying I was sleeping with these girls, saying it's not football. But I knew what I wanted," Mkhonza said.

"I spoke to my wife and she said she would support me in whatever I wanted to do. Those players were more committed than myself. They would come to my house when it was school holidays to go train. They would not complain like boys. The first team that I had was not the most skilful but the commitment, enthusiasm and courage they had was incredible. I still tell them when I see them."

Development role

South Africa's most capped footballer of all time Janine van Wyk, Banyana's kit manager Aletta Ngidi, Nomathemba Ntsibande, Eudy Simelane, Nkele Mthombeni and Thoko Skhosana are some of the players who have come through the club's ranks. Home Sweepers may not be a feared team in the Sasol League in Gauteng but their work in developing future stars makes them a force.

They are one of very few women's teams in the country that have different age divisions in their structure. Their youngest player is a six-year-old girl who started tagging along when her brother went to training sessions. The club has Under-12s, Under-15s and seniors. But, because they tend to lose some of their seniors to tertiary institutions, some of the players taking part in the Sasol League come from the Under-15 team.

"Sasol plays a big part because they give us the travel grant. Most of these girls stay in Duduza and others in Tsakane. Every day we have to give these girls transport money, and that money comes from our own pockets. When the money [from Sasol] comes, we can't even use it for anything. Home Sweepers is an institution because it's the only club in Springs that has seven teams. Five of them are boys and two girls. But in the five teams of the boys there are girls that play in the Under-11 division, so that they can develop quickly. If we can get a sponsor, we can go very far," he says.

Even though women's football has made strides over the years, with more players moving abroad and Hollywoodbets sponsoring the country's premier women's league, more still needs to be done to grow it.

"Now, I love women's football more than I do men's. But the only problem is that women's football is not taken seriously. That's my worry. Even now Banyana is doing well but when you see the returns, there's a big difference," he says.

Mkhonza took over the Banyana hot seat after coach Augustine Makalakalane was fired by Safa following allegations of of sexual harassment and homophobia in late 2010. "Skheshe", as Mkhonza is affectionately known, transformed Banyana from an afterthought to a side that has consistently brought joy to the nation.

"It was easy to coach the players I had because 90% of them were university students. We used to have an environment that was conducive for everyone. There were no favourites and where things were wrong we would try to fix them. When we were happy, we were all happy," he says.

Talent spotting

Mkhonza has a sharp eye for talent. Scouting with former coach Jerry Laka, he found some of the best gems in the country, including Jermaine Seoposenwe, Kaylin Swart, Silindile Ngubane, Refiloe Jane, Nomvula Kgoale and Memory Makhanya.

"We had Sasol roadshows that used to go look for talent all over the country, sometimes two times in vast provinces like the Western Cape. I used to tell Dumisani [Mbokani, former Sasol sponsorship manager] that I want to go to rural areas because that's where we would find players," Mkhonza said.

"Those players would travel 20km to school and back, they had endurance. It was good because at one stage Banyana had two teams. One went to play in Mozambique in the All Africa Games and the other went to Ethiopia for the Olympics qualifier. We called 60 players for the camp.

"I am grateful that I coached Banyana. During my time at Banyana, I played Nigeria three times, beat them once and drew twice. We even drew in Nigeria but it wasn't me, it was the togetherness that we had with the players and technical team. We told the players that the Nigerians are strong but they are rigid so we used to encourage the players to dribble them. That's how we beat them. When we drew with them in Nigeria, the supporters made a guard of honour and clapped for us."

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