The Sunday News
On some glad day, Ernest Maphepha Pepex Sibanda flew away to be with the angels. He lived a good life and left footprints in my heart. We travelled together across the world. I cherish the journeys and the life-long experiences. I never saw him angry in all those travels. This sad episode has left me devastated, exemplified by a movie where the leading actor dies in the end, and we are all angry as we never got a chance to say goodbye. In my last communication with him, he had wished me well on my birthday, and interestingly had asked me to thank all Almighty. Little did I know that was our last communication. That was recent.
He was a God-fearing man because he always referred to God whenever he spoke, never mind his mind games of bouncing the ball before Highlanders games. Or his never-ending threats of “ngiyahamba eKezi.” He would always encourage all to pray-so “what sayeth ye of little faith.”
There was a grace that took him from Njube all the way to be a national leader. From Desert (Njube Fotball Grounds) to National Sports Stadium, from Context to Bosso and Caps United. He remained humble. I know we are all sinners trying to live like Christians, but he kept me straight, always reminding me to believe in God. I was privileged to understand him better in our travels. He always believed that if God is on our side, no one can be against us.
Say whatever you want. I know he is resting with the angels. God was for him.
Maphepa was a brother to me and my manager both on and off the field. Our relationship started way before we got tangled on national team business. When I started AmaZulu in Emakhandeni, his house was just down the road, and he would always stop to exchange ideas with me on my project. This is how the journey started before the “angels carried him away on the last train to glory”.
The jewel of Bulawayo and people’s champion, a leader at heart is no more.
His achievements are all there for all and sundry to see and celebrate. He ran a good race and fought a good fight. I was privileged and honoured to have been in some of the trenches with him.
In my Phinda Mzala project he had all hands on deck to make sure the project was a success. His fingerprints were all over the Phinda Mzala project, as most of the players had gone through his Mthala Juniors, a project he had helped grow technically and financially with the late Mpala and the Mpopoma community. In general, he gave hope to Mpopoma and Bulawayo, turned Bhango Football Field (Somhlolo Stadium) into a football development centre.
The offshoots of that project were the likes of Dhopi Tawi, Bekithemba Ndlovu, Mephias Webb, Golding Dube, Mike Zivira, Malvern Ntini, Nkata etcetera.
This is why, when I became national coach, the manager’s position was not up for discussion. There was only one candidate that fitted the job that was Pepex. He was good at his job. Pepex and Shariff Mussa formed a formidable combination and made my job easier. Maphepha resonated very well with players and everyone in general. He had played for Caps United and Highlanders, which endeared him well on both sides of the country. He did well on the national team.
He believed in my ideas, when I said, let us take these local youngsters to Cosafa where other countries were fielding foreign-based players then; he never blinkered, he was the first to raise his hand in approval. The rest is history. We won it, and new players were born. However, after qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations, we took some youngsters to Nigeria for the dead rubber game. That backfired, and Ernest was the only one standing with me. He never allowed euphoria to separate us.
Our brotherly love was constantly tested to the core when AmaZulu played against Highlanders. In the final league game in 2002, he came charging at our bench with referee Felix Tangawarima right behind him. He complained that we had too many people on the bench. We looked at each other eyeball to eyeball, and without saying a word, we agreed that this was unnecessary. He smiled and turned away, and the game carried on. He was the first to call me after the game!
As usual, he said, “sorry mafana, kade ngisemsebenzini” (I was at work). He always wished me well in my games despite us being adversaries on the field of play.
We fought some brutal fights at the national team it was not a stroll in the park, but he knew when and how to push things. It was strange with all due respect for Highlanders not to have seen or fully utilised this magnificent leader to the brim. How on earth did Highlanders behave with microscopic scrutiny like VID (Vehicle Inspection Department) instructors not to see the advantages in him, it baffles my mind. I know some who did time in prison but still came back to hold positions at the club. Why not Ernest Sibanda?
I was disappointed that he was later pressured not to contest for a position at the club. Maphepha was the first to calm me down as he took the high road. He told me, “asitshiyane labo mafana”. His mistake, if any at all, was insignificant compared to his contribution to Highlanders and football in general. This speaks to his peace-loving character and discipline. Indeed, he walked away.
He won everything at Highlanders. Zifa, in their wisdom, forgave him. Surprisingly, they were not so generous in his own “father’s house,” and the club lost a valuable asset. When the history of Highlanders is written, his not re-contesting for the chairman’s position will make an interesting read.
He chose peace over fighting. I had drafted his campaign manifesto in 2006 while we were at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt at his request. I quickly scrambled the manifesto that I gave him to forward to his representative, and he was elected Chairman.
He won in absentia. That goes to explain how the black and white community trusted him, and they were correct. He did not disappoint. He is the only manager who commanded so much respect that players, when angry over non-payments, would play to honour him. He said something that I felt was silly when the players staged a sit-in demanding their outstanding bonuses. He said, “don’t worry about the money, go play this game for me, mina ngizakhuluma labadala”. Interestingly all players would agree to play for him. He was quite a character.
He told me that despite his misgivings on how Highlanders treated him, he was at peace and happy at Bulawayo City.
He was in good company. There were many nights when it would be just Pepex and I planning the national team business, and he gave me so much support and confidence. As he would confidently say, “mafana lungisa”. He motivated leading players to sing our “war cry songs”. I remember going about our paces at practice in France; out of the blue, he started singing. “eGwelutshena Nanka amathendele song” from start to finish on his own. He was quite a character and motivator.
Maphepha left footprints in my heart. “Grace was in all his steps, Heaven in his eye, in every gesture, dignity, and love”.
Fare Thee Well Topi!