Irvin Khoza initially joined Orlando Pirates as a “lawyer”! He left the club fearing for his life, but continued funding his beloved Buc- caneers without his family’s knowledge. His return to what was fast becoming a sinking ship was contrived by Kaizer Motaung et al. And “studying” the Kaizer Chiefs el supremo, coupled with Khoza’s incredible streetwise savvy, helped the man generally referred to as the ‘Iron Duke’ turn Pirates into the top outfit they are. As the club celebrate their 75th anniversary, Khoza took time out to reminisce on his highly eventful time with the Buccaneers – the club a 20-year-old Khoza “prophesied”, on a beautiful afternoon at Orlando Stadium way back in 1968, that he would run.
MM: Orlando Pirates are 75 years old and currently the country’s defending champions of everything (Absa Premiership, MTN8, Telkom Knockout and Nedbank Cup). Surely no one would have scripted it back then when you first joined the club, least of all you?
IK: I first joined Pirates in 1972
when the late China Hlongwane, who was my homeboy from Alex (Alexandra), approached me. I had just been kicked out of college along with a few of my friends for protesting and China came to me saying he felt Pirates needed a “clever”. He went to them and promised to get them a lawyer to help run the club and I joined under the pretext I was a lawyer. Of course, I played along and the old men there listened. So no, back then not many would have foreseen this, although I always believed in the club and that they could be giants of the game.
MM: Was that the reason you came along in the 1990s, to ensure that they became giants?
IK: I had been away from the club for a long time having left when there was a fight to get the club turned into a company. Some people wanted me silenced because I was a strong voice on the floor for the people I represented, the older members and the women’s league. During my absence from the club, I still helped out financially without my family’s knowledge when there was a need. And having worked (on behalf of Pirates without the club’s knowledge) with Kaizer and the other guys such as Cyril Kobus and Abdul Bhamjee to form the NSL, I essentially had one foot in the club. And when Mr (Sipho ‘Sixty’) Mali approached me at a time the club’s financial challenges intensified, I saw it as a challenge for me to make a difference. I saw Pirates as a brand. They were big news, they had unparalleled history, a history that had seen them play a political role in the country. I saw myself embarking on an inspiring journey of discovery by rejoining the club.
MM: What did you discover?
IK: That dreams do come true. Back in 1968, I told Dan Lebowa while we were watching Pirates play AmaZulu at Orlando that “we’re going to run this club one day”. And there it was happening. I became chairman in 1992 but the administrative structures of the club were just not right and had to be put in place. Pirates were not a club one could market, not with their supporters burning stadiums the way they did. And the biggest challenge was that there were too many voices. Pirates did not have anyone who was the embodiment of the soul of the club.
MM: You had to change it all?
IK: Yes, and fortunately I had a place to look at. I’d watched Chiefs from a distance and saw they were very successful. The perception was that Chiefs belonged to the status quo and that everything was done for them. So I wanted to understand the club and their owner. And I realised Kaizer was the reason for that success. He was organised, he was presentable and carried with him this air of success; he had this facade of someone without any problems, he had an image that gave investors confidence. And I knew Pirates needed those ingredients if they were to attract sponsorships.
MM: So your embodying Pirates brought all the success?
IK: You can say that, because once I took over it meant that decisions were easy to make, unlike in the past when a lot of consultation was needed. I had so much passion for this club that at times it over-ruled my reasoning and I just spent and spent, from my own pocket. I knew that Pirates’ revival was important for the success of local football. And once the perception had changed, it made it a bit easier to get sponsorship, starting with Alpha Cement.
MM: The club have come a long way from those days, having won just about everything there is locally. Can it get any bigger?
IK: There’s always room for improvement and we’re working on doing just that. But what makes me very happy is not just Pirates’ success but the fact that we’ve turned the local game into the success it is. Repositioning the NSL into the PSL and getting clubs the monthly grant was a huge achievement. And my heart goes out to the likes of ntate (Petrus) Molemela and Veli Mahlangu who are not here to reap the benefits, having spent their hard-earned money on their clubs back then.
MM: You’ve come a very long way from your secretary days, having occupied many influential positions in the local game. Any chance you’ll venture into something bigger, say challenge for Caf presidency or the Sascoc head, as suggested?
IK: No. What can be bigger than being World Cup chairman? And there’s no truth to the Sascoc story. No one has approached me; you have to be nominated by a federation for that post. Sascoc are focusing on the Olympics now, not the elections. And I am concentrating on Pirates and the PSL.