Growing up in Khayelitsha, located on the Cape Flats, between Table Bay and False Bay, Thembela ‘Tera’ Maliwa dreamed of making it as a football star.
After all, many youngsters like Benni McCarthy had emerged from his hometown – Cape Town – and were making waves on the global scene.
For the longest time, that dream never looked anything far-fetched. But aged 24, having had stints with a few amateur sides, Maliwa decided to call it quits. However, his love for the game, birthed at age 11, remained intact.
One sweet afternoon, he walked into a school in his neighbourhood, Uxolo High School, to watch boys from ekasi tussle it out against Kwamfundo High School.
“I realised Uxolo started the game without a teacher [coach], and because they came from my area, I decided to coach them. The coach came in the second half, and we were leading 3-0. So, he asked me to help him whenever he was not available,” Maliwa tells FARPost.
That marked the beginning of his flirtation with coaching. Interestingly, the captain in that team was Alfred Ndengane, who now plies his trade with Maritzburg United.
“We won that game 4-1. It was a good start to my coaching; I was over the moon,” he recalls.
For the next three years, he continued honing his skills by mentoring Uxolo boys before another happenstance landed him at Vasco da Gama in 2005.
“One of the boys from my area was playing for Vasco da Gama. I accompanied him to watch him train. For some reason, the coach had to leave before the end of the game; he asked me to take over for the last 15 minutes.
“I decided to come back on Monday because the boy had to train again. The guy who was the general manager asked me if I wanted to take the Under 15 B-team. I agreed,” he says.
After doing well with the Under 15 B-side, he was handed the Under 17 B-team the following year.
But the Vasco thankless job meant commuting for hours using the train, sometimes getting home as late as 11 pm.
His twin sister, Tembi, remembers those days vividly. Of course, many things didn’t make sense to the family, but they supported him.
“We allowed him to do what he loved. The thinking was that it would keep him away from social ills. We could see he was passionate about football,” she tells FARPost.
But there was no pay to show for it. Mom, who worked as a domestic worker, would often give him R10 for a return ticket for the train.
Nonetheless, he started enjoying coaching there because it was boys from all corners of the Mother City.
“My friends thought I was wasting my time because ‘white people’ would not reward me. But I knew what I wanted.”
He has not forgotten how the arrival of the last train in Parow, where Vasco trained, at 7 pm meant dropping everything – cones, balls and bibs – because missing it would spell disaster. That was not just for him, but for every boy who came from ekasi.
In his third year at Vasco, the late Ian Towers, who was running the Tiny Tots programme at Ajax Cape Town, needed someone to help him scout for township talent aged between 10 and 12. The programme unearthed talents like AmaZulu utility player Abbubaker Mobara and Riyaad Norodien, who turns out for DRC side DC Motema Pemba.
That is where searching for that one hidden rough diamond to be polished for display in some of the world’s major arenas started.
Thabiso ‘Shooz’ Mekuto, who recommended Maliwa to Ajax, says he had an eye for neglected talent in the townships.
“Tera was that link of those players in the townships who didn’t get a chance,” Mekuto tells FARPost.
After coaching at Vasco and helping Ajax, he eventually left to join the Urban Warriors. A marketing job at Ajax at least gave him a bit of income.
“I was able to rent a place near Ikamva. I then volunteered to work as the Ajax Under 15 assistant coach [under Shawn Bester]. I made it clear I didn’t want to be paid because I knew they weren’t looking for someone,” he says.
But after paying rent, he’d be left with R400. The struggle was far from over. “I’d make means to get to work,” he adds.
In that Under 15 team were the likes of Bantu Mzwakali of Swedish side IK Brage and Maritzburg United’s Travis Graham. That stint, he says, helped him understand what an Ajax player was.
The following year, he moved to the Under 17 team, travelling the world with players like Thulani Hlatshwayo, Thulani Serero, Mkhanyiseli Siwahla and George Maluleke.
“We learnt how they did things at Ajax Amsterdam, so we brought it back home.”
Marteen Stekelenburg, the club’s head of youth, remembers Maliwa approaching him asking for the head of scouting job. The position was left vacant after the departure of John Rawley.
After initially turning him down, he was later impressed by a 22-paged scouting proposal he put together.
“He was ever willing to learn. He’d sacrifice to make sure he develops himself,” Stekelenburg tells FARPost from his Netherlands base.
His appointment meant he would become the first black head scout at the now-defunct club. But that didn’t matter to him; he was just a man on a mission.
Maliwa was part of the famous ‘First Touch’ programme during Stekelenburg’s time. It optimised the ability to spot talented young players with great passing and ball control superiority between 9-11 across Cape Town. Without a doubt, its success remained the cornerstone of Ajax’s youth scouting fabric for many years.
“Those players are 20-21 now. Jayden Adams [Stellenbosch], Luke Le Roux and Tashreeq Matthews, who play in Sweden [for Varbergs BoIS].”
He attributes much of his growth in scouting to Corné Groenendijk, who replaced Stekelenburg seven months after his appointment.
“If it were not for the way Corné Groenendijk treated me, I’d not be where I am. Every 30 minutes, he would knock at my door. At some point, I thought he hated me. But he wanted things to be done properly. He was always pushing me.”
One of the most taxing but fulfilling projects he had to do under Groenendijk was creating a new scouting policy for Ajax. It took him five months to prepare the 52-paged policy.
“One page would take five days to put together,” recalls the 43-year-old.
When his time was up at the Urban Warriors, he embarked on a learning expedition, interning at Dutch clubs SC Heerenveen, Ajax Amsterdam and AZ Alkmaar for over 16 months.
“I decided to go to Holland; I realised they were the best in youth development. So, in 2015 and 2016, I was in Holland. I was attached to SC Heerenveen, where I spent two months. I then went to Ajax Amsterdam doing scouting with them to check how they do things.” His last stop was at AZ Alkmaar.
Upon his return, he visited Ghana, where he spotted 22-year-old Richard Ofori turning out for Wa All Stars FC, a club based in Greater Accra.
Walter Steenbok and Pitso Mosimane, who were both at Mamelodi Sundowns at the time, recommended him to the club.
Steenbok says his track record attracted them.
“He had done well at Ajax as a scout, and he has a proven record of scouting good players like Rivaldo Coetzee.
“He understands the scouting process; Ajax has also trained him to perform the role. He’s also dedicated and travels quite extensively. He doesn’t shy away from responsibility,” Steenbok tells FARPost.
In July 2017, he joined Sundowns. He insists his dream is to continue sharpening his abilities and scout for a top European side one day.
“He’s a dreamer; he doesn’t relax until he achieves what he sets out to accomplish,” his twin sister says.
Maliwa, on the other hand, admits Sundowns has been an excellent learning environment for him.
In his travels, he has had the privilege to learn from accomplished men like top Dutch scout Piet de Visser, who unearthed talents like Neymar, Kevin De Bruyne, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo and David Luiz.
“He’s a top scout, excellent. I had coffee with him in 2015 in Amsterdam; he brought me his book where he wrote his notes. He’s got a PA; they have a sign to track a player. He has a special way of finding players.”
Maliwa, who has the knack of seeing a player’s future rather than their early shortcomings, is still fine-tuning.
“I see a player in the future; I don’t look at a player that will help you today; I see a player who will help you in the next three to five years. Rivaldo was not considered good, but I saw a brilliant player in the future.”
As the journey continues, Maliwa wants to use his eagle eye to spot some of the best talents on the continent.