/ 16 October 2022

Doctor Khumalo: The S-Curl, the glamour, the funk


In the new documentary 16V, Doctor Khumalo remembers the day he was relieved of his boots and pads by a delegation of Mofolo tsotsis and their dogs. The mugging happened in about 1983, when Doc was sixteen, during one of his hour-long walks from his home in Dube to training in Rockville, via Mofolo and White City.

Being a scrawny, outnumbered and rational Sowetan, young Mdokisi knew better than to resist the expropriation of his kit. But once there was a safe distance between him and the tsotsis, he allowed himself to engage in a bit of backchat. “I shouted at them: ‘Heyi wena! One day, you’ll come to watch me play at Orlando Stadium – and you will pay!’ And then I ran.” 

This was pure “16V”. The insouciance, the impudence, the intelligent lack of appetite for physical combat. This was the cheeseboy spirit he brought to the football pitch for Kaizer Chiefs – and on the pop culture stage of young, newly democratic South Africa. He showed a generation a way to be street without being rough; a way to triumph by sheer force of ease. 

Khumalo gets around Mike Allen (below left) in Chiefs’ game against Mother City at Athlone Stadium, Cape Town in 1999.  Photos: Getty Images & Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images.

The subtext of this posture was entitlement – a word that has recently become a dirty one. But it still properly describes a beautiful mental shift that happened for Doctor and his cohorts; a psychological internalisation of the liberation moment. It was the absorption by his generation of black South Africans that they owned freedom, innately, due to their fundamental human right to it. Finish and klaar. They didn’t need to earn or deserve freedom on the strength of their actions; they simply had to take it.

As a junior school kid, Doc felt an early flicker of a dreamy future of middle-class abundance when he starred in an Eet-Sum-Mor TV commercial in the early years of SABC TV. The casting agent had scouted him in his Dube classroom. And by the time he was getting mugged in Mofolo, the luminous sheen of freedom was alive and well in his jheri curl. 

But Doctor was not a born-free, and the first episode of the series, directed by Yanga Chief, deftly traces the formative shock of the 1976 Soweto uprising on his generation, and the long, tectonic grind of violence that followed it. “Life had robbed us,” says Khumalo, remembering the sporadic ghetto soundscape of gunshots and the screams of bereaved mothers: not the soundtrack of a happy childhood. 

In some ways, Doctor was one of the luckier ones. He had a stern but loving ex-Kaizer Chiefs star dad, Eliakim “Pro” Khumalo – who put an end to his son’s disastrous early foray into boxing after he came home with a black eye. He had a similarly stern mother (who would later shoo away hordes of wannabe-WAGs who besieged the family home in Dube). “We lacked for nothing,” he says. And he had a mischievous ally in his older sister, who would unlock the front door when he came home after 9pm curfew. 

So when fame came for him in 1987, the documentary suggests, Khumalo was more or less emotionally ready for it, unlike so many diski prodigies before him and after him who fell foul of addiction and personal chaos. In a way, the emotional readiness was reflected in his football – in its balance of purpose and decoration, between individual licence and the collective project. 

When asked once what Doctor’s role in the national side was, Bafana coach Clive Barker answered that he had no role. Barker meant of course that Khumalo had a very special role: an autonomous one, of total liberty to prowl the space between structure and chaos. And the true beauty of Doc’s football was in its generosity: his passing was even better than his dribbling. And he rarely took his fancy footwork too far. 

In fact, Doc’s game had two layers of deception – the micro-deception and the macro-deception. This was especially true in the international arena, where he often enjoyed the advantage of surprise. Opponents from the fast European leagues sized up that languid gait, those foot-on-the-ball shimmies and those drowsy tactical retreats, moseying the ball back into his own half, and assumed on this evidence that he was a harmless showboater. That he was all style and no threat. 

But they weren’t reading his threat properly, as they soon found out to their cost. In two thrilling friendlies against Brazil and Germany, Khumalo outshone those mighty nations’ midfield stars. Doc had everything in his locker. He could see and supply a teammate’s killer run before the teammate had thought of it. He could turn a fullback inside and out three times, waiting for his striker to lose his marker. He could loft a cross onto a striker’s forehead from half a pitch away. He could score from long range. He could curl a through-ball around a hapless centreback with the outside of his boot. (The outside of Doctor’s boot should have held a PhD in its own right.) The only thing he couldn’t do – or wouldn’t do, barring one pivotal exception in February 1996 – was tackle. 

Khumalo and former professional footballer Kaizer Motaung Junior, who is now a sporting director for Kaizer Chiefs.

As for the other forms of emotional readiness, Doc was as ready as one could hope to be. He was certainly not immune to his large female fan base. One sweltering December day in Brits, after dazzling the small-town crowd in a holiday youth tournament, he had to be dragged away from a scrum of three girls who were physically attacking each other for the right to deflower this marvellous Soweto pretty-boy. As one onlooker put it discreetly: “He found himself in a space where there was lots to choose from.” It seems he didn’t become overwhelmed in the way, say, Jabu Pule was in the first rush of fame. At any rate, the series moves briskly along from the subject of Doc’s playboy antics. Maybe the third and fourth episodes will dig a bit deeper. 

Juju and the house key 

It wasn’t only women and football clubs who fought for his allegiance. Before the 1994 elections, the African National Congress tried to convince Khumalo to publicly endorse the party’s campaign, reasoning that he was the second-most popular figure in the country after Nelson Mandela. 

He turned down the invitation, but he did agree to speak at an ANC gala dinner in 1994. “I was driving a BMW 325 – two-doors – and when I got there, these two young boys came towards me and said, ‘Grootman, we were told to park your car for you.’ So I gave them the keys, walked in, and they took the car.”

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Doc was already nervous about the motivational speech he was due to give, which he hadn’t prepared. And with every passing minute that the two teenagers did not return his keys, he became convinced they had disappeared along with his Beemer. 

The speech went well – he told the assembled ANC bigwigs some boilerplate stuff about concentrating on your own game and not being distracted by your opponent’s game. The applause was rapturous. 

“But as I was sitting down afterward, these guys walked in with my key. I was like, after this long? The one spoke Pedi. He said, ‘Actually, we were listening to music in your car.’ I was shocked. It was house music. 

“Years later, I found out that person was Julius Malema,” says Doc with a cackle. 

Doc playing for the Columbus Crew, runs down the field during a game against the Colorado Rapids at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on 19 May 1996. Photo: Rick Stewart/Allsport

Malema is also interviewed for the doccie – he revered Doc despite being an Orlando Pirates supporter – and claims he is too old to remember the details of the valet-parking incident. (Later on, discussing the glory of the 1996 Afcon victory, Malema muses with hilarious faux-naivete: “Things were just coming together [for the country]. I don’t know what went wrong.”)

In interviews with the likes of DJ Oskido and Mdu Masilela, it becomes clear that Doc Khumalo was musically savvy. He deployed his fame to champion the kwaito movement, even before radio DJs were giving their tracks any play. As for his own collab with Bob Mabena, featuring Wendy Mseleku, Get Funky, it was an artefact of the widespread nineties misconception that asking a footballer to rap or sing was a good idea. 

Doc was challenged by producer Lindelani Mkhize to improvise some lyrics in the recording booth, and the results were pedestrian but effective. “Get, get, get, get, get with the groove yo!” barked Doc. “Get, get, get, get, get, get funky, get funky! Yippy yo!” The tune was a hit. To be fair, in 1994 Mdokisi could have won public acclaim for boiling an egg. 

As agent Jazzman Mahlakgane put it: “In celebrity life, people fade away in time. But Doctor Khumalo has just become Doctor Khumalo. It’s almost like talking about Coca-Cola.” 

Return to sender

When Doc moved to Buenos Aires in 1995, the following year, a boiled egg wasn’t going to be enough, so he dished up a gourmet debut goal for Ferro Carril Oeste, a top-flight club in the capital. It was a stupendous finish against Independiente, struck from an acute angle near the left touchline. Going to play in Argentina was a brave move for a player of Khumalo’s ilk: yes, it was home to some of the greatest ball players on earth, but it was also home to many of the most brutal defenders. 

Khumalo won the 1996 African Cup of Nations with South Africa beating Tunisia 2-0.

Appearing on an Argentinian TV talk show, Doc said he was battling a bit with the intense physicality of the game. But he looks elated in the interview: the thrill of his adventure in the land of Maradona sparkling in his eyes. Sadly, his new club had failed to pay the full transfer fee agreed with Kaizer Chiefs, so he had to fly home after only five games. A loan spell at Major League Soccer (MLS) side Colombus Crew was to follow the glory of the Afcon victory. But by then Doc was already 29: to fulfil his potential abroad, he needed to have left eight years earlier. 

In one clip, the Cameroon and Barcelona legend Samuel Eto’o tells Thomas Mlambo that Doc would have won the Ballon D’Or had he played in Spain. He was only half joking. 

Instead of realising that individual dream, Doc realised a national dream. There were many kingpins of the 1996 Afcon campaign, but the defining moment was Doc’s sumptuous pass to Mark Williams for the second goal in the final, having mustered a rare tackle to win the ball in the Tunisian half. 

Whether we bought a match ticket or not, we all saw him play. Emotionally, we didn’t have to pay: we got paid instead. 

Even those Mofolo robbers received the gift that was Doc. He was free, and he was beautiful. 

’16V’ is now screening on Mzansi Magic and on DSTV Catchup.