by Kopano Sibeko
Greeted with an everlasting smile by a body that doesn’t seem to age, Phumla Rose Masuku welcomes us to her home. Present is Phumla’s life partner Nombulelo ‘Bulie’ Vimbelela. For a person in her mid 30s Masuku expresses that she’s excited that she is ageing gracefully. She has always feared the age 25 because she lost two of her friends at that tender age, and then it hits me that I’m also at that prime age in my life. “such a coincidence”, I think to myself.
The Soweto born soccer star, explains that her journey as a soccer player started when she and a number of women formed the Soweto Ladies team inspired by their commitment to the game, especially because they played against men. She says that she was the captain of the team and they were blessed to play internationally in Sweden and in Denmark. “Football then was beautiful,” she said.
Phumla confesses that she was a Banyana Banyana player though her career was short lived because she suffered an injury on the leg and she was then disqualified as a player but was kept in the team. She also admits to being the one who came up with the name Banyana Banyana “ Journalists came and they suggested we call the team Bafazi Bafazi and I felt that that term oppressed me, so for me I felt that they were not defining me personally so that’s when I decided that the team needed to be called Banyana Banyana” she uttered. She also says that she got another injury in 1998, sadly she didn’t get any support from the team so she figured that that was the end of her career as a soccer star.
However, she wasn’t as discouraged by all that and she found steps to a new leap in her life again. In the millennium year she got a job as a waitress in Midrand and she also started attending workshops at Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW). The year 2003 came as a leap of faith for her, because she became an official member of FEW and that same year she won Miss Lesbian and between computer courses and learning photography, they played soccer as a form of relaxation and fun.
“That’s where everything started, most Cancerians are opportunistic, so I saw an opportunity that about 9 black lesbians could play soccer very well and that’s a team for me” she said.
As she reminisced with laughter that filled the room, about their first game as the Chosen FEW. She tells me that they wore sponsored t-shirts written ‘Kodak’ and white shorts all given to them by Zanele Muholi and that was their first soccer attire. She also adds that’s the name Chosen FEW was given to them by Donna Smith, who felt that they were the chosen ones as the name continues to live on even today.
With emotion Phumla expressed that she’ll always be thankful to Zanele Muholi and Buhle Msibi who bought their first soccer kits and soccer balls.
“That was an inspiration to me that there are people who can still do that,” she said.
Then her emotions took a quick turn around and she had an endless smile on her face when she spoke about the Gay Games. She told me that though it was a bit of a mission to get there but in 2006 Gay Games, held in Chicago, US. Chosen FEW made a historical memory when they brought home a bronze medalist from the Gay Games. She also adds that she was the founder, the manager and the soccer coach for their new-formed team.
In the same spirit she also voiced out that in 2007 she had an epiphany, her new venture was to bring LGBTI Pride to the dusty streets of Soweto. Her vision was inspired by her observation of how people loved to attend Joburg Pride but sometimes they had financial challenges “ so I thought why not bring the pride to the people” she said. With the brilliance of such empowering thoughts, her vision was once again a historical moment. “I made history that day” she smiled with so much pride filled in her face. She continues to tell me that a 150 people turned up at the first Soweto pride and that to her was an achievement.
Sadly things took an ugly turn in Phulma’s life, when FEW got new board members and everything changed. She says that she was told that she can’t manage the team anymore and that did not make sense to her, because she had done so much for the team.
“ It hit me in a plane toilet. It only hit me then” she confesses.
Phumla explains to Zanele Muholi and I, that she was captured in a documentary titled Are You A Girl or Boy? directed by a Swedish female filmmaker talking about weed and it’s negative effects though, in that video she was rolling a joint. She was also accused of stealing soccer kits and teaching the young players to smoke weed. Those however are the only things that she could recall that made sense to her about her sudden deployment.
After a brief deep thought she also said that in late 2008, at the Joburg Pride she was given a green pamphlet like everyone else with a list of names of the new Soweto Pride committee without her knowledge and she uttered, “I died that day”.
In the same breath of sadness Phumla says since 2008 she hasn’t attended anything that’s LGBTI related “I’ve been angry, disappointed and I feel like my name was tainted for the things I didn’t do”.
Though she died inside, Phumla’s life did not take a standstill in October late that year she hosted Miss Township Lesbian and it created an opportunity for two contestants to go to school and that made her happy. Though, she feels that she could’ve continued doing it over the years. “I wish I could’ve taken it further this time, so this time I failed about 10 people the opportunity to study, all because I was angry and bitter”, she said.
Phumla expresses to us that she’s sharing her story with us because she says that she feels that people live and celebrate her life achievements and yet she has nothing to show for it and also that people don’t know that she was the driving brains behind those initiatives and therefore she wants to live her legacy and not leave a legacy, she says
“I want to be celebrated when I’m still alive”.
So what I drew from Phumla’s past and her life now are the words uttered by an iconic French designer Coco Chanel “If you were born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing”.
All I saw in Phumla’s midst are her wings coming out again.
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