Senzo Meyiwa was a sweet guy. As footballers go he was about as sweet as they come.
I never knew him that well. The first time we met was in a lift in the Hilton Hotel in Yaounde. It was the week of the neutral-ground World Cup qualifier there against Cameroon’s war-torn neighbours Central African Republic.
I congratulated him on his heroics in Lubumbashi a month earlier. That was the game that made Meyiwa famous.
In the mining city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a hostile atmosphere on a hot artificial pitch against a buzzing Tout Puissant (TP) Mazembe, Meyiwa made two penalty saves.
Orlando Pirates had gone to the heart of TP Mazembe owner and Katanga province governor Moise Katumbi’s mining empire and pulled off a mission impossible in the penultimate round before the group stages – and their goalkeeper was the hero of the performance.
The mythology for fans back home was amplified by a last-minute television blackout that had embarrassed the SABC, which had believed it had secured the rights to air the game.
He became a national hero that day, a status that only grew as he continued to star between the posts with athletic saves and brave performances in the Buccaneers’ epic run to the final.
They might have lost 2-0 (2-1 on aggregate) in front of Al Ahly’s fanatic Ultras in Cairo, but the seeds of a turning point for South African football had been planted.
Some of the old self-belief during a period of success that spanned winning the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations – prompted by Pirates’ 1995 Champions Cup success – to qualification for the 2002 World Cup was back. It seemed conceivable that just over a decade of underachievement might, finally, be coming to an end.
The trademark friendly grin, shy bowing of the head, and a mild, “Oh, thanks”, were the goalkeeper’s characteristically understated response to my congratulations.
Meyiwa, and our later brief encounters would confirm this, was not the kind of star to give the “Who the hell is this douche?” response to being approached.
At that time Meyiwa was firmly number two to Itumeleng Khune, arguably the second-best goalkeeper in Africa to Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama. Gordon Igesund’s goalkeeper-coach, Alex Heredia, was raving about how Meyiwa was pushing Khune to the sort of form he was in.
A few months before Meyiwa had been in a similar position to Moeneeb Josephs at Pirates. He got a chance after Josephs was dropped following a poor performance in a 3-2 Telkom Knockout defeat against Bloemfontein Celtic.
The somewhat awkward ‘keeper; nervous, and at times a little clumsy, when given previous first team chances, had clearly worked hard on his game. He made unimaginable saves and could barely put a foot wrong.
Within months Josephs had moved to Wits. “Slimkat” had been unseated by the kid from Umlazi.
There were similar signs as Meyiwa took an injured Khune’s captain’s armband and place between the posts in the past two months’ Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Could the inconceivable happen again? Bafana added to the newfound, perhaps reckless and foolhardy, sense of optimism in South African football by rising to the top of the group with away wins against Sudan and Congo. In these matches, Meyiwa pulled off breathtaking saves and displayed more of his considerable heart.
Khune, hobbling around Kaizer Chiefs’ village in Naturena in a moon boot with a ligament injury, might have been getting nervous about getting his place back.
Khune is probably the more naturally gifted goalkeeper. But Bafana coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba loves a player with the heart of a lion. Meyiwa – with less ability than good friend “Itu”, but displaying an ability to rise above limitations – had that.
Then, on Sunday night in Vosloorus, a bullet tore through human flesh and organs and extinguished a light, a son, husband, father, brother, friend, a footballing career, and a life.
A cheeky, footballer’s glimmer in the eye, and a smile, were gone. That Senzo smile. One that had warmed his Bucs team-mates’ spirits on cold Joburg mornings when training at Rand Stadium. A smile that prompted Mashaba to once ask Meyiwa if the goalkeeper was trying to impress him. And for the shot-stopper to respond that being angry served him no purpose.
As much as they had been friends from playing for South African junior teams from under-17 level upwards, Meyiwa and Khune were different characters.
Khune has gravitated more comfortably to the superficial world of celebrity, and celebrity girlfriends. It’s hard to imagine Meyiwa, whose choice of music on the stereo of his new BMW X6 – yes, the one Kelly Khumalo has been driving – remained Mbaqanga, fitting into that world as easily.
At ease on a football training pitch with his team-mates, he would have been more likely to find a quiet corner to nurse his drink and stare at his feet when at some bling celebrity party.
And yet, for the kid from Umlazi, there was clearly also an attraction to a lifestyle he could only have imagined of while growing up in KwaZulu-Natal – before leaving to join Pirates’ youth system as a 13-year-old.
We might never completely know – though the coming weeks and months should reveal more – whether that played a role in his murder. What we do know, is that the nation has been robbed of another of its children, and heroes, by violent crime.
It seems a morbid reflection on the state of our society that so far, outraged and mortified and affected as we all are, Meyiwa’s death still has not galvanised any movement beyond an outpouring of grief and moralising swipes on social media.
No taking to the streets, no marches in protest.
A national team captain, and a beloved one at that, an Orlando Pirates hero on the verge of becoming a club icon, was robbed from his family and the country in the prime of his career.
It has hit home harder than any death of an ex-player could. Harder, surely, than the shooting of Lucky Dube, who was 43 when he was murdered.
Would that have been the case in Brazil, with its guns and violence and social ills, if Neymar had been shot?
I could never presume to make any great comment on the state of South African society – I’m a football writer.
All I can assume is that South Africans are tired. No, exhausted. That violent colonialism, half a century of apartheid and the brutality that accompanied it, then 20 more years of violent, senseless crime and unnecessary deaths has left people reeling like a boxer who has had too many hard, successive blows to the head.
That, because of centuries of violence and trauma, we are a country that has internalised and banalised violence and violent deaths. We reel from catastrophes – from Marikana, to the Reeva Steenkamp tragedy, to Senzo Meyiwa’s murder – every few months, without the time to take a few breaths and recoup.
The line in the sand must surely be drawn sometime, but right now, we just seem unable to do that.
As for Senzo, I never knew him well enough to call him a friend. But I did get to know him just well enough to sense he might not have objected to it, along with 50 million other South Africans. And, if that many had wanted to be his friend, he would probably have been open to it. Such a loss is hard to contend with.
Main gif: Flying Captain Falling by The Con Artist (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3GPqC-WJcg )