Untold Stories

The Chiefs clear-out that opened a door for Zitha Kwinika

Ishmael Khoza vividly remembers the day Arthur Zwane walked into Lamola Jubilee Secondary School in Meadowlands, Soweto, in a desperate search for young talent.

A visit from a man who had made good of his career at the revered Kaizer Chiefs was special. At the time, the Soweto giants had discovered their youth squads were littered with age cheats, and the former Chiefs winger was tasked to replace the entire Under 13, 15 and 17 development academies. 

It was the same year the world’s eyes were on South Africa – hosts of the first Fifa World Cup on African soil in 2010. In his Lamola armoury, Khoza, a teacher in charge of the school team, had a nippy, darting winger by the name Zitha Kwinika [then known as Macheke].

By his own admission, he had never thought any of his boys would be worthy of pulling on the Kaizer Chiefs jersey. Football, he thought, was something his boys could only do against other schools around Soweto.

“Chiefs were replacing their development teams because many of the players had forged their birth certificates, and Arthur came to our school and took the whole squad to assess them. He selected eight of the players,” Khoza tells FARPost.

Zitha developed a love for football in his younger days

Young Kwinika had evolved as a fledgling footballer – from his days as a goalkeeper in his dad’s Antalis work team to a winger under the tutelage of former Swallows player Samuel ‘Sea’ Ngobeni. 

“I used to take him to our Saturday matches at work [Antalis], and he would play as a goalkeeper,” recalls his 60-year-old dad, Robert Kwinika.

His son admits those games in the dusty fields of Zone 4 in Soweto birthed a passion for the game in him. Not necessarily for goalkeeping, but for the game itself. 

At 7, he landed in the diski nursery of the man affectionately known as ‘Sea’ in Zone 4. He had hung his boots two years prior at 31 after stints with Moroka Swallows and Dynamos and was eager to give the boys in his neighbourhood an opportunity.

For some reason, he had taken a liking to young Kwinika, whose dad would sometimes drop him off as early as 7am when Meadowlands Hotspurs had games on weekends. 

Unlike the old man, Sea often deployed him on the right wing and has not forgotten how his prodigy had the knack of gliding past defenders at will.

“He had so much pace and could take on defenders,” Ngobeni tells FARPost. After being polished by the man who also had stints with Jomo Cosmos and Black Leopards, he landed in Khoza’s hands at Lamola, where he did his secondary school. 

He played on the wing at Hotspurs

2010 would be when his dream that had always seemed farfetched started taking shape. “Joining Chiefs changed everything, we were used to playing football ekasi, but now it was a professional set-up. We were being prepared for the professional side of football,” Kwinika says as he reminisces his early days at Chiefs.

As he established himself in the Chiefs’ development side, responsibilities like the captaincy grew him. The late Ryder Mofokeng, who played as a defender for Amakhosi in the ’70s, moved him to central defence. His seven peers from school all fell by the wayside and never progressed in the Chiefs’ development side.  

“At school, I sometimes played central midfield. Ryder converted me to centre-back,” Kwinika tells FARPost. Playing for Chiefs also meant getting a closer glimpse of a guy who was his hero in Soweto – Reneilwe Letsholonyane.

Apart from knowing him from ekasi as the brother to one of his teammates Tshidiso, he had watched him carve a niche for himself at PJ Stars while he was often a ball boy at Meadowlands Stadium.

“I remember a game that PJ Stars played against Benoni Premier United, and Yeye was there. I was a ball boy at Meadowlands Stadium on the day,” he says. 

As years went by, he closely followed Letsholonyane’s career and would have the privilege of visiting his house. 

The Chiefs stint brought him closer to his childhood idol Letsholonyane

“Yeye played an important role; we would visit him at his house and see his achievements. We thought, ‘if this guy from ekasi could achieve this, we could too’. He used to train so hard and was my role model. The most significant thing I learned from him was humility and hard work,” Kwinika says.

Interestingly, Letsholonyane, whose career started blossoming at Jomo Cosmos circa 2006, remembers the boy’s younger days. 

“He got promoted while I was there at Chiefs, and you could see he was talented, disciplined and focused. I got to know him closer in the senior team,” Letsholonyane, who retired last year, tells FARPost

While things did not work out at Amakhosi, Kwinika has not forgotten that one surreal moment. He had just been promoted to the senior team and included in the squad that would play in the Carling Black Label Cup against Orlando Pirates.

As he sat in the team bus, approaching the FNB Stadium, he couldn’t help but remember the times he watched in admiration as the senior team trotted onto the FNB turf to do battle. This time it was him in the company of the likes of Siphiwe Tshabalala. Unbelievable! 

“I had goosebumps all over my body; it was an indescribable feeling,” he says. Besides the beauty of donning the famous Gold and Black jersey, he looks back and appreciates the excellent coaching he got and how that stint changed the way he viewed the game. 

FARPost reporter Mthokozisi with Zitha in Stellenbosch

“You see a different picture; it’s not just playing. The detail is there; they’re preparing you for professional football.” Deservedly, in the months building up to Rio 2016, he was a regular feature in the Under 23 team. 

Hopes were so high that a dance in one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere – Rio de Janeiro – would perhaps open a door internationally. After some decent performances in the qualifiers, the worst thing would happen. He was dropped at the eleventh hour with Rio beckoning. 

As if that was not enough, Chiefs deemed him surplus to requirements. Chippa United initially showed interest, but after signing him and two weeks of training, the technical team had other ideas.

“When you go there [at Chiefs], you dream of playing for the first team. Having played the Olympics qualifiers and helped the team qualify, I thought I was an important part of the group. 

“When we got back [from an Olympics qualifier], Chiefs told me they were releasing me; I had to go to Chippa, who would also loan me. 

“For the Olympics team, going to the big stage, I didn’t make it into the team. This all happened in a month; it was a difficult period, a phase in my career that toughened me up. But that pain was unbearable,” Kwinika confesses. 

He opens up on the heartbreak of missing out on the 2016 Olympics

His dad, who raised him singlehandedly, remembers that phase very well. In fact, it was his idea that taking the loan deal to play in the ‘unfashionable’ National First Division for Thanda Royal Zulu was a good idea.

“We didn’t lose in the first 15 games, and I played regularly. We got promoted, and they sold the status to AmaZulu. That was the turning point of my career,” admits the former youth international. 

After that season, he returned to Chippa before a stint with Bidvest Wits. Following the sale of the Students, he moved to Stellenbosch FC in 2020, where his stock continues to rise. 

The 28-year-old, who has featured in over 150 DStv Premiership matches, is eager to win trophies. Moving back to Amakhosi at the start of next season, the Stellenbosch Players’ Player of the Season and Footballer of the Season will be hoping to be part of the group that will restore the glory days.

“[Stellenbosch] It is a good environment where you focus on your game; there’s nothing to do outside playing your football. They focus on you taking your career further. The structures, facilities and your sports science are on point. I’ve seen my game change. I’ve seen so much growth in my game over the past two seasons,” says the Stellies skipper, adding that those that watched his dad say he plays like him.

Accepting the accolades, he added: “I could say that I came here as grapes, and I will be ready to leave as wine.” He has since changed from his mother’s Macheke surname to Kwinika after the necessary steps were taken to enable him to do so. 

After a season-long stint with Wits, he has settled in well at Stellies

“He’s always wanted to do it, but there were certain steps we had to take before that happened. I’m glad he’s managed to do it,” his dad explains.

The talented defender says the first text he gets in the morning is from his old man. The two share a special relationship, and he tells FARPost that “his name deserves to be on my back.” 

While at it, he wants to carry that name with such aplomb and pride! 

DID YOU KNOW?

Zitha is a clan name from his dad’s side. 

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