Kaizer Chiefs legend Abel “Chacklas” Shongwe doing what he did best- dribbling.

THE story of how Abel ‘Chacklas’ Shongwe joined Kaizer Chiefs reads like a script from an escape movie!

His signing was nothing short of dramatic. 

In 1986, two days before his club Mbabane Highlanders were about to take part in arguably their most important fixture of the season, Chacklas disappeared without a trace.   

It was a Friday, just a day before that weekend’s fixtures and Chacklas was expected to be available and raring to tear into defences that very Sunday.

On an ordinary weekend, his absence would have gone unnoticed. But this was not an ordinary weekend. 

When Chacklas seemingly vanished into the thin Mbabane air, it was on the eve of a match between Highlanders and bitter rivals Mbabane Swallows, the biggest fixture in Africa’s last absolute monarchy – Eswatini.

Abel Shongwe was one of Kaizer Chiefs’ top stars in the 80s.

Chacklas, still only 18 at the time, was that rare breed of player, a gem that used to put bums on seats as hundreds turned up to see his delightful left foot slice through defences. 

While he was Highlanders’ weapon of choice against its rivals, he was important for the overall health of the biggest game in the capital.

Mbabane’s marquee event was now under threat, as a famously sparkling derby was about to take place without its most coveted treasure.   

For administrators and coaches, his absence was a headache that needed a cure before the fans walked through the turnstiles on D-day.

“I was actually stolen [by Kaizer Chiefs], there was a derby in Swaziland.I had trials in Johannesburg. I was afraid of Joburg, my parents would never allow me to come. My parents weren’t happy with the trip because I was still young at the time,” says Chacklas now.

Abel Shongwe was a joy to watch at Kaizer Chiefs.

Hamilton Dlamini, a former sports journalist in Eswatini, remembers how he directed Kaizer Motaung towards the teenage sensation when the Kaizer Chiefs supremo was in fact looking for another player.  

Says Dlamini: “We were in Johannesburg invited by SASCOC. Ted Dimitri then told me Kaizer Motaung was looking for me. I wondered what Kaizer wanted.

“I went there and sat down with him. In ‘85/86 Chiefs were not doing well like this year, things were really bad.

“Kaizer said to me ‘there’s a player called Matthews ‘Chaka Chaka’ Mandlazi who plays for Manzini Wanderers, I want him. Can you get him for me?’ I told him ‘yes I can get him’. “

“But I had a better option for him, so I said I’d bring him a boy who would not need to stay on the bench and study the culture.

“I promised to bring him a person who would immediately play and score goals. That was a young boy called Abel,” Dlamini adds.

The maverick Motaung just had to trust the judgement of this journalist.

Chaka Chaka Mandlazi’s loss was Chacklas’ gain and when Dlamini broke the news of Amakhosi’s interest, the young winger was rightfully excited.

Scara Thindwa and Abel Shongwe.

Expecting a starry eyed teenager to keep the lid on such news would have been too much to ask of him.

This created a problem for Dlamini who still had the unenviable task of “stealing” the winger before Highlander’s most important fixture of the season.  

“Abel didn’t believe me when I told him I’d take him to Joburg. He was very pacey, he was already a star at 18. He could pass from the left to the right.

“Abel started telling his teammates out of excitement. So I had to be careful how I took him. I dribbled the entire Highlanders defence that day. I told him to cross the road and we’d pick him away from their eyes,” Dlamini says jokingly.

The details of their heart stopping “escape” in Dlamini’s humble Datsun still live vividly in Chacklas’ mind. 

“Hamilton Dlamini is the one who drove me in his Datsun. Back in Swaziland they were worried because I disappeared on the eve of a crucial derby against Mbabane Swallows,” the chatty Chacklas says. 

While all eyes were on the derby in Mbabane, when Chacklas arrived in Soweto, he was expected to prove his worth from the beginning.

After all, he did not have long to stake a claim to play permanently for the black and gold.

Luckily for him, the Chiefs coach at the time, Ted Dimitri, had witnessed his appetite for mass destruction first hand while he was also a coach in Swaziland. In addition, there were familiar faces at Naturena.  

“I rubbed shoulders with Teenage [Dladla], Marks Maponyane, my brother William [Shongwe], Scara [Thindwa] at Chiefs,” he says with visible joy.

He says a journalist Fanyana Shiburi gave him the nickname Chacklas after a hit song.

If the Mbabane derby was a frying pan, then the match that he was expected to prove his mettle in, a showdown against Orlando Pirates, was an open flame grill.

It might only have been a friendly match, but for an 18-year-old without much experience and preparation, it was potentially a baptism of fire. 

“We played against Orlando Pirates in a friendly in Secunda and I scored in our 3-2 win. Coach Ted Dumitru was very impressed and he signed me immediately,” adds the 55-year-old.

Dlamini remembers how, with little preparation, Chacklas combined to devastating effect with Amakhosi colleagues he barely knew, teammates he was still largely star-struck at meeting in the flesh. 

In 1987, Kaizer Chiefs won the BP cup. They also won the JPS Knockout Cup in 1986.

“Abel and Scara tormented Pirates until Teenage Dladla asked who this boy was. He loved him and I knew the boy was sorted because Teenage was Kaizer Chiefs,” recalls Dlamini.  

After proving his worth to the mandarins at Amakhosi, Chacklas had to turn his attention back to the Kingdom which he had left in a huff.

A derby still needed to be played and here he was, the star of the show, stuck on the wrong side of a border that closed every night.  

“The border was closed at 10pm, I slept at the border waiting for it to be opened at 7am the following day,” Chacklas says. 

“I made sure I returned on Sunday because I knew they could not afford to play without me in such a massive game where pride was at stake.

“We slept with the heater on, I had to use the back seat while Hamilton slept on the steering. I needed to be a bit more comfortable because I had a big game the following day,” he says.

Barely 24 hours after he had mesmerised a crowd in Secunda, Chacklas was doing it again in another derby, this time in his native Mbabane.

Few that watched the match at the Prince of Wales Stadium could have believed that this was the same youngster that had slept rough at the border the previous night.   

Abel Shongwe with Kaizer Chiefs founder and owner, Kaizer Motaung.

“He played well in the Swaziland derby and actually scored straight from a corner kick,” Dlamini says. “So he scored in the Soweto derby and then scored in the Swaziland derby on the same weekend.”

The deal tabled by Chiefs was irresistible. It was a three year contract with a R15 000 signing-on fee, R800 monthly salary including accommodation and clothes.

“Iwisa would give them mealie meal while Puma would give them clothes and sneakers, so if you were clever you could survive without touching your salary,” adds Dlamini. 

For Chacklas, signing for Chiefs on 24 June 1986 was a dream come true. At 18, he went from a boy that had Amakhosi memorabilia in his room to actually sitting in the same dressing room with the players that he spent every day of his life idolising. 

Thabo Mooki, Ryder Mofokeng, Wellington Manyathi, Ntsie Maphike and Chacklas.

“It was a great honour for me to play for Kaizer Chiefs. I had cuttings of the Chiefs players in my book. Teenage, Sylvester Kule and Marks Maponyane.

“I used to listen to them on the radio. I was a staunch Kaizer Chiefs supporter. I loved it because they had the never-say-die spirit.

“You couldn’t rule them out if they were losing, they could easily make a dramatic comeback,” says Chacklas, who has continued to follow Chiefs years after he retired.

The winger was still, after all, a youngster, a mere boy who, not long before his move to Kaizer Chiefs, used to refuse to wear football boots, choosing instead to roast defenders with his feet unencumbered by leather.

Now the barefoot wizard from Mbabane was playing for one of the top sides in Africa with some of the best facilities and equipment available to him. 

“I was known for my dangerous left foot and runs. I started playing football at a young age in the juniors of a team back in Swaziland. I used to insist on playing barefoot,” reveals Chacklas, who singles out the late Sam ‘Ewie’ Khambule from Mamelodi Sundowns as his toughest opponent.

According to Josia ‘Digger’ Dlamini, another Mbabane Highlanders alumni, Chacklas’ move to Chiefs added extra glitter to the reputation of the Phefeni Glamour Boys in Swaziland.

While he may have gone to his trial under a cloud, earning the respect and love of his country after his success would prove a breeze. 

Abel Shongwe wearing a special jersey to commemorate Kaizer Chiefs turning 50.

“For us, seeing him move to Chiefs was quite an achievement. It showed we were bringing up young players, so we celebrated his move.

“His move to Chiefs meant a lot of people in Swaziland started following Kaizer Chiefs. But he remained connected to the people of Swaziland and gave everything each time he played for the national team,” Digger says. 

From a young age, Digger testifies, Chacklas had always shown great big match temperament, something that would prove an asset at Chiefs where every match is scrutinised closely. 

“He was quite an influential player from a young age. He had a dangerous left foot and pace. Quite interesting, he was very young back then but he always did well in the derbies against Swallows. Maybe that’s why Kaizer Chiefs came for him.

“He really loved derbies and was fearless despite his age. He was a marvel to watch,” the former national team coach, Digger, adds.

Ntsie Maphike, Stanton Fredericks, Derrick Spencer, Mark Williams [with a cap], Chacklas, Pollen Ndlanya, and a fan after the 50th anniversary celebrations at Phefeni.

Chacklas could have easily played overseas. “In 1989 I could have joined Swindon Town FC after I impressed during a trial.

“But I couldn’t sign because I didn’t have enough caps at that point. I had only played nine times for Swaziland and needed a few more caps to sign in England,” he explains.

In England for trials at Swindon Town FC. LEFT to right: Junaid Hartley, John Gorman, Lovers Mohlala [in red jacket], John Latham and Chacklas.

Despite his obvious talent, Chacklas found it hard to break into a star-studded Chiefs line-up in the 80s. In fact, with some Hall of Fame attackers ahead of him, he had to request for a loan away from Naturena after a couple of seasons.  

“I asked Chiefs to loan me out in 1988 because I was not playing as much as I would have loved. Jeff Butler, who was the coach then, preferred Teenage Dladla and Scara.

“There was also Shane McGregor, Marks Maponyane and Mike Mangena. Those guys were on top of their game and it was difficult for me to break into the starting line-up.

“In ’89 I joined Wits University on loan because I needed game time. I was never given a fair chance to prove myself, Jeff Butler came in and he never gave me a chance.

“Palacios is the coach who gave me time to play. All the youngsters played under Palacios.

“I played in almost all the matches and we won the JPS and it was sad when they closed shop the following year. In 1992 I went to Moroka Swallows but I left a year later because they had financial problems,” he says.

Augusti Palacios recalls: “He was of the best left wingers of his generation, very passionate and so humble. But I think he was never given a fair chance by some coaches. 

“Maybe the other coaches had their own players they liked. Just like you would never understand why Zidane didn’t like Bale. He wasn’t given enough chances at Chiefs.”

Chacklas would return to his beloved Chiefs in 1990, a few years before the South African top flight would become the money-spinning league that we know today.

For Chacklas, those days when hunger for honour used to fuel the love for the game, when boys who grew up playing football barefoot could become stadium-filling superstars before they even learnt how to shave, were the glory days of the game.   

“When we played during our days, we did so out of love for the game but today’s players just do it for money so they’re not playing exciting football. We used to entertain our supporters and even if we lost, the fans normally felt it was worth the money to have travelled to watch.”

Chacklas, together with three other ex-professionals – Teboho Moloi, William Shongwe and Cyril Nzama – have taken their expertise to the boardroom.

Abel Shongwe with other former Chiefs favourites Cyril “Skhokho” Nzama and Simpiwe ” Shabba” Tshabalala.

The quartet are part of CoachTime, a programme that seeks to create a platform for graduates to apply their learning in a collaborative Research and Development Project while giving them exposure to key pillars of a commercial enterprise.

The 100 mentees are graduates in disciplines including Computer Science, Information Technology, Marketing, Journalism, Public Relations and Multimedia Design.

He is also involved in football talent identification and coaching of youngsters in Soweto.

Perhaps Chacklas will soon unearth the next barefoot wizard – this time in Soweto! – Zambezi News

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