Classic Players

Remembering South Africa's great all-rounder

(African Football Media)
South African Darius Dhlomo

There are many footballers who have competed in different sports at the highest levels. Few though, have done so at the same time and even less can lay claim to being accomplished musicians at the height of their sporting careers. looks back at the remarkable life of South African footballer and man of many talents, Darius Dhlomo, who sadly passed away in June.

Shaped by apartheid
When Dhlomo arrived for his first training session with Dutch club Heracles Almelo, his new team-mates realised that he was not in the dressing room as they were getting ready. “Darius was so surprised that everyone, black and white, was using the same dressing room, that he thought he had to change outside,” remembers Henk ten Brink, who played with Dhlomo at Heracles.

Born in 1931 in Durban, Dhlomo grew up during apartheid and not surprisingly it had a huge influence on who he was. In an interview with sports historian Peter Alegi, Dhlomo explained how he became such a multi-talent. ‘When I was still a young boy, in the period of apartheid, we had no other choice but to be creative … The best way to survive is do something!”

And do something Dhlomo certainly did. He played football for Baumannville City Blacks, was a competitive tennis player and became South African boxing champion in a middleweight division. He was also a drummer and a blues singer, even earning the moniker the 'singing boxer'. He was an outstanding footballer in an early stage of Africa's relationship with the game. Former Moroka Swallows captain Chris Ngcobo remembers Dhlomo as a player. "He was a hard-working and disciplined midfielder. At the time there was no national team. But Ndoroo, as we used to call him, played in every representative team that he was eligible for. Had there been a national team at the time, he would've easily made it."

Punching Mandela
Jackie Motlogeloa had dealings with Dhlomo as a boxer. “He was a really good fighter. That is why he became South African champion. He often sparred with Nelson Mandela and he was one of the few South Africans who was allowed to punch the great leader,” the boxing promoter recalls.

Rather remarkably, Dhlomo even found the time to have a day job – as a teacher in the Lamontville township. However, he soon became disillusioned teaching a curriculum that officially was geared towards teaching 'obedience...acceptance of allocated social roles, piety and identification with rural culture’. “All my schooling was focused on being a teacher, but the government came with another approach. I said 'No, I can’t, I don’t want to do it'. I can’t teach children things I know [have] nothing to do [with] their own development,” Dhlomo recalled in his interview with Alegi.

He left teaching and became an organiser with the YMCA in Durban. At the same time, inspired by the success several other black South African footballers, like Steve Mokone, had in Europe, he wrote to clubs overseas, asking them for a trial, but found no takers and no way to convince them. Later, in 1958 when he was already 26, out of the blue he received a letter from the Netherlands inviting him to a trial with Heracles Almelo.

Instant success
His team-mate Ten Brink remembers that Dhlomo was immediately accepted on and off the field in the Netherlands. “He was a very engaging person, friendly and always good-humoured. On the field he was a hard worker who was always leading the fight.”

Dhlomo not only played football in the Netherlands, he continued boxing and gave concerts – inviting his team-mates when he performed. Former striker Ten Brink fondly remember the South African's generous and spontaneous laughter, but also his serious side. “As long as I live, I will remember him as a committed man.” Dhlomo's commitment saw him become a teacher and social worker in the Netherlands after retiring and he also spent several years in politics as a member of the Enschede municipal council.

Dutch sports historian Jurryt van de Vooren, who first met Dhlomo in 1985 when the former footballer campaigned against Apartheid, is not surprised that the player was a success in the Netherlands. “Professional football had just started in the Netherlands and everything was new. People liked him not only because he was different – he was a black man in a white country – he was also a very good player.”

Van de Vooren, who runs a sports history website in Dutch, said that Dhlomo told him that after retiring he faced a choice. “He said he could either stay in the Netherlands and tell people about the evils of Apartheid, or he could return to South Africa. He chose the former, even though he knew it meant that he would not be able to return to his home country until there had been political change.”

Fortunately, change occurred in Dhlomo's lifetime and he could return to South Africa, where he was even reunited with Mandela. He died in Enschede at the age of 83.

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