It was a rare sight to watch the tough defender needing the help of crutches to ease the pain following surgery to repair his anterior cruciate ligament on May 1 when Wits went top of the table after beating Mamelodi Sundowns.
Mkhwanazi wouldn’t play again, and looks set to miss the first two months – at least – of the new season.
During the 2016/17 campaign, which will now linger long in the memory as an incredible milestone for Wits as they clinched their first championship since the club were founded in 1921, Mkhwanazi was the mainstay of the team.
In honouring him, for playing 19 league matches and contributing to the Clever Boys having the second best defence behind Sundowns, captain Thulani Hlatshwayo described him as his “partner in crime” in the rearguard.
Mkhwanazi being on crutches is merely a temporary setback, he is as tough as nails – one of the unsung heroes for Wits en route to winning the title.
Few would question his ability, which really only shines through when you take stock of how resilient the Clever Boys are at the back. You miss it, like recent Bafana Bafana coaches, then you will join the list of those who think Mkhwanazi is overrated.
“Even though I’m like this now (points at the stick), I am happy the guys went all the way and they are going to give me a medal,” the 27-year-old said. Not much of a talker, but he wears his heart on his sleeve.
“I was devastated when I heard the news that I would be out for so long. People were shocked because nobody was ready for that, especially seeing that we were left with five games. And once you change a single player from the defence line, it affects the whole team. So I am happy Bongani Khumalo was able to come in and fill the void.”
Khumalo, a three-time league winner with Wits coach Gavin Hunt at SuperSport United in 2008, 2009 and 2010, was the perfect replacement.
Although Wits suffered a scare a week earlier when they went to bogey side Free State Stars and were thumped 3-1 at Goble Park, the absence of Mkhwanazi was felt behind the scenes. But out in the open, it looked like the champions-in-waiting would pull through.
Hunt was distraught when the medical team informed him Mkhwanazi would be out for at least eight months, and lamented the loss of a real workhorse in defence ahead of the title run-in.
He will be relieved that Wits finished the race and were triumphant without their vice-captain and organiser at the back.
“We had Nazeer Allie out after he broke his toe, then (Cuthbert) Malajila had an operation on his foot and Phakamani Mahlambi has a bad hamstring, maybe the problem is that he is too fast for his legs and they can’t keep up. Buhle was a backbone for us,” Hunt said after the 2-0 win over Polokwane City that won Wits the league as Sundowns drew at home against Maritzburg United to surrender the title.
The coach might need a temporary back-up in the upcoming season while Mkhwanazi recuperates fully from what was clearly a serious injury.
“We are going to lose one or two players (attackers Mogakolodi Ngele and Malajila possibly among the departures after Sundowns said this week they will be recalling them from their Wits loan spell) at the end of the season.”
While Wits got over the line, their star defender has some way to go, but an unsung hero always has his rightful place.