Akhona Ndzingo, 26, from Site C, in Khayelitsha, is one of the youngest professional referees in the country right now.
The 2016 Safa-Cape Town referee of the year continues to rise above expectations, breaking barriers along the way too.
He was only 22 when he was named Cape Town’s top whistleman and, last month, four years later, he made his PSL debut. He was in charge when Bidvest Wits took on Bloemfontein Celtic at the Tuks Stadium, in Pretoria, on Thursday August 27.
And, having developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, but fair, referee, the CPUT sports management graduate seemed unfazed by the magnitude of the game. He even awarded a penalty in the process. A brave decision to make on debut.
His performance on the day didn’t go unnoticed as he was praised live on national TV, by some of the country’s harshest football critics, the following week.
He did, however, admit that he felt nervous when he heard he was going to be in charge of that game.
“I had mixed emotions. We were in the bio-bubble and I was alone in my hotel room when I got the news. All I could do was pray. As a new father – my son was born on July 31 – that game meant more than any other. I was doing it for him,” he said.
Despite being nervous, he said, he had felt ready for the challenge ahead of him.
“I always tell myself, if not now, when? If not me, who? That has been my attitude. You have to believe in yourself. My debut game, for instance, was a big one. And, as a referee, you have to know what you are doing. I always want to do the right thing, irrespective of the circumstances.
“As a referee, I always say, if I see it, I give it, if I don’t see it I don’t give it,” he said, referring to the decisions he makes as the man in the middle. He also noted that he was motivated by his background to always be better than average in what he does.
This, he said, was because he’s the first person from his neighbourhood to go all the way to the highest level, as a referee.
And this, of course, comes with responsibilities and challenges.
“There are many youngsters looking up to me and that means I cannot afford to drop the ball. I have to be on top of the game all the time. It’s not easy but I try. Refereeing is diverse and if you are willing to learn, you will. It teaches you respect, both on and off the field, the importance of doing things the right way.”
This, he said, includes being humble, having good time management and all-round discipline.
He also emphasised the importance of constantly challenging oneself, as there is no easy way. In fact, he believes short cuts tend to lead to nowhere. “There were times when I felt like quitting but I realised that things can’t always go smoothly. There should always be challenges along the way.”
Now a respected match officially, his first breakthrough as a ref came in one of the unlikeliest of fashions. The year was 2009 and, at 15, Ndzingo was deployed by his LFA, Lingelethu, to officiate a Coke Cup last 62 match between Site C’s Mighty United and Mitchell’s Plain’s Bayhill United.
“I was in the middle doing my job when I noticed someone standing in a restricted area between the benches. Not knowing it was PJ Williams, the then Safa-Cape Town head of referees, I told him to move away. He did so and after the game, came to me, introduced himself and asked if I had any grades.
“I didn’t have any and he suggested we exchange numbers because he saw potential in me,” he said.
Looking back at where it all started, right there in the sandy pitches of Site C, the young referee said, despite playing as captain of his under-15 side back in 2008, he knew he was not good enough as a player.
And, one day when an assistant referee was needed for a match, he jumped at the opportunity. “I told them I wanted to be in the middle – rather than in the sides – in the following week’s match. And that’s exactly what happened.”