Joseph ‘Banks’ Setlhodi is a Grootman in every sense.
In township lingo it’s a term of endearment and respect for an elder or leader – and one that suits the legendary very first Kaizer Chiefs league goalkeeper to a tee.
Physically, he is tall, imposing, impressive, a towering figure who used to hover over opponents with his wiry two metre frame.
Even at the age of 73, Setlhodi still commands attention whenever he walks into a room and there’s no mistaking the stature and reverence with which his name is held high in the annals of South African football.
As he reflected on this weekend’s 50th anniversary of Soweto league derbies, he took us on a magical journey down memory lane.
‘Banks’ vividly remembers the first league Soweto derby in the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) at Orlando Stadium on 24 April 1971, after all he was there – playing in goal for Kaizer Chiefs.
The story of the animosity between the clubs following the departure of Buccaneers stalwarts Kaizer Motaung, Ratha Mokgoatlheng, Edward ‘Msomi’ Khoza and Thomas ‘Zero’ Johnson to eventually form Kaizer Chiefs is well-documented.
“The first time Kaizer Chiefs played against Orlando Pirates was in the Rogue Beer Cup competition in 1970, just after the formation of Chiefs, when Pirates beat us 6-4. They used to call us their ‘sons’ and took the game very lightly. ‘They are our kids, they will never beat us’, they would say mockingly,” recalls Setlhodi.
He was meant to play in that cup game at Orlando Stadium and was in the starting line-up, but was badly bitten on his feet by a police dog in the chaos of a frenzied, packed Orlando Stadium and had to miss the game.
Pirates’ fans vitriol and hatred was mainly reserved for the Buccaneers in the Amakhosi ranks who jumped ship, but Setllhodi says wryly “they forgot that some of us were not from Pirates”.
Setlhodi shares a little-known story that he and his close friend from Randfontein, Patrick Pule ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, were both on the verge of signing for Orlando Pirates before their Chiefs careers had really started.
“Ace and I were meant to join Pirates, all the arrangements had been made. But after they beat us and were so dismissive of us, we said we needed to prove a point. Pirates fans came to our houses in Randfontein and threatened us to sign for Pirates. We had to hide from them, it was very scary. Ace and I decided we were not going to sign for Pirates. We said we are forming a new team, let’s stay here (at Chiefs) and do our own thing that belongs to us. When the Pirates fans saw Ace and I clearly did not want to sign for them they said ‘let’s leave them’ and they gave up,” says Setlhodi.
Little did anyone know back then just how much the Randfontein duo would contribute to changing the South African football landscape, with Setlhodi becoming a Chiefs icon and Ntsoelengoe regarded by many as arguably the most talented footballer this country has ever produced.
The Phefeni ‘kids’ quickly grew up and when the Amakhosi beat both erstwhile Soweto giants, Pirates and Moroka Swallows Big XV, on the same day to win the ‘Champion of Champions’ tournament, the Buccaneers knew the ‘new kids on the block’ would be much more than a handful.
And with the advent of the NPSL and the day dawning when Chiefs and Pirates would meet in their first serious league game proper, Soweto was buzzing with anticipation and excitement.
“I remember that first NPSL league game in 1971 very well. Pirates really wanted to whip us. They believed they were the conquerors of South African football and that they were untouchable. We were trailing 3-1 late in the game, going into the last 10 minutes. Pirates thought they had won the game and their supporters started leaving the stadium celebrating. They used to bet on games a lot back then and the Pirates bookie had already taken the money from the Chiefs one, thinking the game was won,” Setlhodi says, recalling the game as it if was just yesterday.
“But we made a sensational late comeback. Petros ‘Ten Ten’ Nzimande pushed up and scored two quick goals to make it 3-3 and then Zero Johnson scored a late winner to make it 4-3 to Chiefs. For Pirates players and supporters that defeat was a bitter pill to swallow. Losing in that manner at Orlando Stadium had never happened to them before. We undermined and humiliated them and that built the hatred between the two teams even more. That game is when the Soweto Derby rivalry really started and it was a sign of things to come,” says Setlhodi.
And what a rivalry it has been over the years, one which will continue between the gold and black and the skull and crossbones in the DStv Premiership this weekend.
“That first league victory was special. We wanted to prove a point and we continued to prove it on many occasions after that. The Soweto derby was far bigger than the players. It was about the people on the streets, the trains, the taxis, about the school children in schools. People would fight about the game for weeks after it was played. It was so big, so huge. Losing a derby left you with a mountain to climb. It was the source of joy, and of pain, for so many people in Soweto and across the country, depending on whether your team won or lost,” says Setlhodi.
While the rivalry was fierce, Setlhodi had a very good relationship with his Pirates opposite number in goal, Patson ‘Sparks’ Banda.
“I inspired Sparks. We were very close. He used to come and watch me at training and I often shared ideas with him. He would come with me when I visited my girlfriend in Phefeni and he would make tea for us. But after three months Patson ended up getting married to my girlfriend’s younger sister. I was very angry with him. I said to him ‘you overtook me’. I have been here for years and have two kids in this home, but I’m not married, and you come here for three months and you get married,” chuckled Setlhodi, recalling the tensions created in what was a fiercely Pirates household.
But Setlhodi was confident that Banda would not overtake him on the pitch, and in addition to his goalkeeping skills, to get one over Banda he also became Chiefs’ penalty taker, scoring past Banda in three successive Soweto derbies in 1972.
Setlhodi was often amongst the Amakhosi’s leading goal scorers as a keeper, scoring as many as 23 goals in his 446 appearances for Chiefs over 15 years.
“I was the first goalkeeper to become a regular penalty taker. It was to say to Patson ‘I am always one or two steps ahead of you’. Patson was a very acrobatic goalkeeper, who liked to make flashy saves. I played all my Chiefs career in a white goalkeeper jersey and even after the game my shirt would be clean. You know why? I am a positional goalkeeper. I don’t want to dive and do desperate things. My voice is huge. I can talk, it was one of my biggest weapons. My defenders listened to me and trusted me,” says Setlhodi.
‘Banks’ is hoping for a clean sheet this weekend from Daniel Akpeyi, should he continue his run in the team, and of course a Chiefs victory to prove another Soweto derby point.
“It’s a different era now. The Soweto derby is for the people. Of course, in these times there are no fans inside the stadium. But for the Chiefs players this weekend, as it is for Pirates, when you don that jersey you are playing for the badge, for the pride of your club, and the millions of people who are watching you and supporting you, even if they may not be in the stadium. You play for those people. For many of us from the older generation, it could be the last derby we see. Do it for us and put a smile on the faces of the Amakhosi supporters,” says Setlhodi.