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Dr Irvin ’Iron Duke’ Khoza: an astute administrator par excellence

Dr Irvin Khoza is a gifted football administrator who has done a great deal for the sport, says the writer. Picture: Muzi Ntombela BackpagePix

Dr Irvin Khoza is a gifted football administrator who has done a great deal for the sport, says the writer. Picture: Muzi Ntombela BackpagePix

Published Dec 14, 2021


Dr Vusi Shongwe

JOEL Barker, a renowned authority in management, avers that “Leadership is taking people to where they would not ordinarily go themselves”.

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Thus, as we celebrate football heritage it is befitting to reflect on Dr Irvin Khoza’s journey in managerial growth in soccer administration in light of his remarkable achievements.

On the eve of the 1995 African Champions League match between Orlando Pirates and Asec Mimosa of the Ivory Coast, Dr Khoza wrote a letter to the technical team and the players in which he said:

“To the team I say, being conscious for consciousness is as important as competence. This final will require that you are as aware as you are able; mindful as you are experienced, sensible as you are skilled, awake as you are fit. One attribute without the other will result in lapses that you now know you cannot afford at this level of the competition.”

What can be gleaned from the above is that Dr Khoza demonstrated commendable leadership by steering the technical team and the players to greater heights psychologically at the most critical moment of the tournament. This was indeed leadership par excellence.

Arguably, the expression “a man for all seasons” is indeed a loaded exclamatory expression characterising those whose steadfast character is not seasonal, but is amenable and adaptable to all seasons.

This expression, which encapsulates Dr Khoza’s steadfast character, is reminiscent of Wally Mongane Serote’s poem titled For Don M, which reads as follows:

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it is dry white season

dark leaves don’t last, their brief lives dry out

and with a broken heart they dive down

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gently headed for the earth,

not even bleeding,

it is a dry white season brother,

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only the trees know the pain as they stand

still erect

dry like steel, their branches dry like wire

indeed, it is a dry white season

but seasons come to pass.

What can be adduced from the sentiments of the poem above is that people measure their leaders not by what they say, but by their actions.

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once averred that “Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

It is as if Irvin Khoza’s mother had the sentiments expressed in Emerson’s assertion when she advised her son not to talk about his prodigious accomplishments, but to allow his deeds to speak for him. True to his enigmatic personality, Khoza has steadfastly stuck to this advice, even at times when he had the opportunity to gloat about what he had achieved.

In describing the famous Kennedy family, James Sterling Young quipped: “Most people grow up and go into politics. The Kennedy’s go into politics and then they grow up.” Likewise, Khoza made his entrance into sport leadership at the age of fourteen, when he became the secretary of the Alexandra Football Association. Since then he has grown up in the role of football administrator.

He is always impeccably dressed and carries himself with a dignity that befits his sterling leadership qualities. Thanks to a missing tooth his face is the most recognisable in soccer administration. Dr Irvin Khoza’s pedigree as an administrator is unquestionable. As an entrepreneur of note, his inimitable business acumen has done wonders for the Premier Soccer League. There is such an aura of respect that surrounds Dr Khoza that people who meet him either want to have their photographs taken with him, or want his autograph. Indisputably, any discussion about South African soccer would be incomplete without Dr Khoza’s name being mentioned.

Dr Khoza is the chairperson of the Orlando Pirates Football Club and chairman of the Premier Soccer League. By virtue of this, he is the vice-president of the South African Football Association. During the preparations for the 2010 World Cup and the World Cup itself he was the chairman of the 2010 steering committee.

A man of profound discernment and judgement of character, he is an irrepressibly exuberant character, and his decisiveness and efficiency are impressive.

Ever since Dr Khoza took over the reins at Orlando Pirates, and through his visionary leadership, he catapulted the team from near collapse to unprecedented heights.

Indeed, a legion of eZimnyama ngenkani owe Dr Khoza an irredeemable debt of gratitude, not only for the money he pumped into the team but also for the sponsorship he has secured for Orlando Pirates, especially when it had none.

It needs to be conceded that being at the helm has not always been easy for Dr Khoza, as the Iron Duke has had to overcome some personal challenges. Exemplifying these personal challenges is an attempt that was once made on his life that some people linked to the infighting in the Orlando Pirates camp, and the virulent and fiendishly intrusive media coverage of his private affairs, as exemplified by the tax debacle.

These personal challenges notwithstanding, Dr Khoza was not deterred in his unquenchable thirst to steer Orlando Pirates to great heights. He did not allow negative things to detract him from his goal of transforming Pirates into the institution it is today. Hannah More would probably have been proud of Dr Khoza for heeding the advice that “obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal”.

The PSL has an unparalleled reputation for excellence, largely because of Dr Khoza’s unbeatable determination and unmatched contribution to the betterment of soccer in this country. His assiduous engagement and passion for football never diminish.

In 2004, he received an honorary Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Zululand. This award was in recognition of his involvement in sports development, following his contribution to helping South Africa win the right to host the world’s largest sporting event in 2010. In March 2009, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) honoured him with an inauguration as the Honorary Colonel of the Logistical Division of the SANDF.

Harking back to the quote from Joel Barker that leadership is taking people to where they would not ordinarily go themselves, this is precisely what Khoza has done with Pirates, and South African soccer in general, by the changes he has brought about, particularly by being one of the people who have transformed our soccer into an economically viable fraternity.

It would be tedious, and against the advice given to Khoza by his mother, to start listing the things Khoza has done for Pirates in particular, and South African soccer in general. However, there is always an exception. Dr Khoza is one of the founding visionaries of the National Soccer league.

The sponsorship that the Iron Duke secured for Orlando Pirates and the PSL encapsulates the contribution the man has made to our football. He is truly responsible for making the PSL one of the most efficient and well-run soccer leagues in the world. Above all, he was instrumental in bringing the 2010 World Cup to South Africa and Africa for the first time in the history of Fifa’s existence, and served as the chairperson of the 2010 Fifa World Cup Organising Committee in South Africa.

Dr Khoza is a gifted administrator, a quality he demonstrated when at fourteen years old he became the Secretary of Alexandra Football Association.

Another milestone for the Iron Duke was the establishment of a youth academy that produced household names in the soccer fraternity. Unknown to many, the Orlando Pirates chairman, Dr Khoza, made the club a home away from home for many youths. His outstanding character and his other extraordinary achievements are well documented.

Another mark of Khoza’s leadership is the warm, collegial culture that prevails in his presence. Such collegiality is not to be taken for granted. In a soccer environment consisting of diverse personalities, backgrounds, and approaches to the game of football, disagreements are inevitable, but it is critical that such disagreements take place in an environment of civility and respect, an environment Khoza’s leadership has been outstanding in cultivating and inculcating.

Armed with an MBA and a doctorate in Administration, proudly bestowed on him by the University of The Hard knocks of Life, legions of people regard him as the undisputed leader in football administration. He is not only an example of life-long learning, but is also the testimony to the fact that the only way we can really teach is by example. His creativity and vision have influenced and touched football monitors. He is indeed an administrator par excellence! It should be remembered that the attainment of excellence, in craft and in style, is a most difficult task.

Yet, to borrow from Elizabeth Barret Browning, Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? Just a heaven in a haven for those celestial perfections, the stars, so our society provides a cynosure and a sinecure for those whose careers have led them to the top of the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has given us a nice aphorism: a job well done is its own reward! This applies to Khoza for the many milestones he has achieved for football in this country.

Lest it be forgotten, excellence entails patience and hard work. Excellence is achieved through vision, painstaking planning and investments that might not pay off for years. For example, the great inventor Thomas Edison was a figure of excellence. Yet it took him years – and 500 tries – before he came up with the right filament for a successful light bulb.

Abraham Lincoln made his way to the White house amid losses in more than a half-dozen political races. In short, excellence, when nurtured with recognition, tendered without reward and harvested with reverence, will bear rich fruit for generations to come.

The American scholar Benjamin Franklin advised that “if you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing”.

Dr Khoza’s role in helping to bring the World Cup to South Africa and in professionalising our soccer industry has certainly secured his place in sports history. He remains the most astute soccer administrator that this continent has ever produced. Millions of soccer fans are witness to his specialist knowledge and understanding of the way in which South African football operates.

A leader must be able to emulate the confidence of the little girl who told her teacher she was drawing a picture of God. The teacher said: “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the little girl said: “They will when I get through!” And leaders must instil the same kind of confidence in their followers.

Dr Khoza is also a generous leader who has a real knack for how he gives. He really takes pleasure in it, is modest about it, and often gives anonymously. And he really tries to learn what giving is all about.

Whether he is giving people moral or financial support, he would always say “I’m really getting a lot more out of this than you are.” I can’t tell you how many times he has said that same thing to me. Indeed, the giving and getting become all mixed up, which is great. His great spirit of generosity and leadership have made, and continue to make, a lasting difference in some people’s lives, especially soccer players.

While naturally possessing a buoyant soul, he has endured the trials and travails life throws at all of us and emerged with the joy intact to be shared with those around him. Yes, his phenomenal accomplishments are legion, but it is this genuine pleasure in the beauties of life – football in his case – that is a wellspring for the generosity of “intellect and spirit” that he personifies. His work ethic is unbelievably amazing! Lest it be forgotten, Dr Khoza is a master teacher of luminous clarity. I once shared with him differences of opinion I had with my siblings. The first thing he said was: “Every house has a toilet.” For a moment I was nonplussed, but when he unpacked the saying it made perfect sense to me.

His tireless commitment to improving the administration of football is unparalleled. He has been a constant source of calm, a level-headed administrator regarding the many issues he has faced during his tenure as chairperson of the PSL. One has lost count of the occasions where he would be elected as chairperson of the PSL by executive members unopposed. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate his colleagues’ trust in his integrity and confidence in his ability than his election to the position of chairperson of the league umpteen times. Dr Khoza is a mensch, a real mensch! He is a gentleman, a real gentle man.

Contrary to media reports, Khoza is not hard as the name Iron Duke seems to imply. Winston Churchill once said: “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.”

In the case of Khoza I would say he is not as hard as iron, but his resilience is.

It is this iron exterior, in terms of Khoza’s personality, that always makes him pursue whatever he wants with unrelenting grit and determination. The point one attempts to drive home is that the image that Khoza portrays is that of a shrewd businessman, uncompromising, and that of having a tough exterior.

But the Dr Khoza that people do not know is the one who is a compassionate, humble and a God-fearing person. This is the Irvin Khoza the outside world never comes to know. After all, how does one begin to explain the resilience and tenacity that he displays when faced with the very complex issues of the Beautiful Game? His famous verses in the Bible, especially when his integrity is being maliciously and unjustifiably impugned, are Matthew 5, verses 43-48, and Psalms 35 have kept him going and not to lose focus by handling issues meant to make him fail with the equanimity of the mind – hence his cellular phone’s voice mail: ‘trust, but not too much, or trust, but verify.’

On a lighter note, there is a question one is always grappling with regarding the manner of Dr Khoza’s personal conduct whenever Orlando Pirates is playing. Two unwritten rules come to mind.

No calls are to be made to him when Orlando Pirates is playing. I pity those who call him after the game, and when Pirates has lost. Similarly, I also envy those who call him after the game, and Pirates has won.

Being obviously in a buoyant mood, one could ask him a big favour, and he would accede to one’s request without many questions. However, ask for a favour when the Mighty Buccaneers have done badly, the finger of his right hand would always point to the sky.

Those close to him would tell you what the pointing of the finger to the sky signals. The reader would most definitely know what his reaction would be. Credit to him though, one would get the assistance he or she is looking for, only after he had vented his displeasure to himself about the loss the team might have suffered.

His disappointment whenever the team loses is not a long lasting one because, as he says it himself, life goes on. In short, painful the defeat might be, Khoza knows how to fine-tune his mind and move on with his life.

His unwavering faith in God always sustains him. It his faith in God to accept, dishearteningly as it was, to lose his two beloved sweethearts within a short space of time. May their souls ever repose in eternal peace.

The question that is always on people’s mind is: Why does the Iron Duke not always attend Orlando Pirates games? Is it because of the incident that took place in the game between Mamelodi Sundowns and Moroka Swallows? Screamer Tshabalala, who was coach of Mamelodi Sundowns, collapsed when Moroka Swallows scored the late winning goal?

Is it because the Iron Duke fears experiencing Screamer’s fate, or is it because as chairperson of the world class soccer league his ‘plate’ is always full? It is either the latter could be the reason, or, as it is normally said, your guess is as good as mine.

There is one critical life lesson one has learned from the Iron Duke which is one of his unwritten rules within his extended family circles. The Iron Duke does not want to be informed about something bad, or specifically, the transitioning of a family member at night, especially when he is about to sleep.

He would respectfully scold the one who reports the message by asking him or her what does he or she expect him to do from the time he is told about the death until in the morning: turning and tossing in bed?

He prefers to be told in the morning which will allow him to make, if required, the necessary arrangements for the funeral with a sober and a rested mind that would not have been part of the turning and tossing if he had been told about the death just before he went to bed. Personally, it does make sense.

Khoza’s administrative savvy therefore also comes handy even on family matters.

Lao-tsu had the following to say about leadership: “As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honour and praise. The next, the people fear, and the next, the people hate. …when the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘we did it ourselves.”

As we congratulate ourselves for this honour that the world has bestowed upon us, let us always remember and thank Dr Khoza, for being the driving force behind this achievement.

At the risk of being repetitive, following is an explication of Dr Khoza’s profile which reflects his remarkable achievements:

Dr Irvin Khoza was born on 27 January 1948 in Alexandra Township. He is a former student at South Africa’s famous Fort Hare University but did not complete his degree as he was expelled for alleged anti-apartheid activities.

As mentioned earlier, he is a highly experienced soccer administrator and is the chairperson of Orlando Pirates Football Club, one of South Africa’s biggest and famous football clubs, formed in 1937. In 1980, Dr Khoza was appointed as secretary of Orlando Pirates F.C.

He seldom visits the Orlando Pirates dressing room, but he always does when his team plays against their long-time arch-rivals, Kaizer Chiefs.

His team Orlando Pirates is the first South African team to win the prestigious and the most prized soccer tournament in the African continent, the now African Champions League Cup. Orlando Pirates is the first football club in the southern hemisphere that has ever won the African Champions trophy, and this happened in 1995 when it (Orlando Pirates) defeated Asec Mimosa of the Ivory Coast.

Dr Khoza is also chairperson of the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) and was also the Vice-President of the South African Football Association (SAFA). As the chairperson of the PSL, he was instrumental in securing sponsors for the league such as the ABSA Group limited, which has been replaced by DSTV, which he has also been instrumental in securing for the Premier Soccer League.

He was also the chairperson of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee South Africa from 2004 to 2010, which was tasked with, among other things, to ensure that South Africa adheres to the promises made to FIFA with regard to hosting a successful 2010 FIFA World Cup Tournament.

Dr Khoza served as the chairperson of South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup bid team, which secured the right to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup Tournament in South Africa.

In 2004, he was honoured with an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy by the University of Zululand. The award was also in recognition of his involvement in sports development, following his contribution to help South Africa win the right to host the world’s largest sporting event in 2010.

In March 2009, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) honoured him with an inauguration as newly appointed Honorary Colonel of Logistical Division of the SANDF.

Following a successful FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009, Dr Khoza was invited and thanked by the South African Defence Military Command Council for excellent work done by him and SAFA. President Jacob Zuma proudly honoured Dr Irvin Khoza with the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for his hard work and dedication in helping South Africa win the right to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and for ensuring that the tournament becomes a success in the eyes of the entire football fraternity.

He is also honoured for his contribution towards development and transformation of the game of soccer in South Africa.

Thus, on the grounds of Dr Khoza’s remarkable achievements as enumerated above, it is befitting that his colleagues describe him as the consummate administrator who combines not only visionary leadership with excellent managerial skill but also a competitive spirit, and personal approach that is respected by both the PSL executive and club owners.

Dr Khoza, therefore, is known for his positive approach to issues and his abilities to solve complex administrative problems and make tough decisions as and when it is necessary to do so.

Arguably, a time comes in the lives of great men when their great acts serve as monuments and not just gilded decorations. The monument spoken about here is that of a man so distinguished that, amongst the stars he produces on and off the field, his own star is fixed in the dark sky’s horizon.

The greatness of this man, that is Dr Irvin Khoza, is often opportunistically celebrated by those whose dreams rely on a moving comet, who believe in the spectacular.

Yet we know well that Dr Khoza moves with assured consistency, quietly building both political and sporting monuments without undue fanfare.

At this moment in history, I sound the alarm loud to open the door to new vistas hitherto unseen, to treasures hitherto unbeknownst. These are at the core of the rendition to the public of the many-sided greatness of Dr Khoza, the warm avuncular figure, over and above him being a shrewd businessman.

As a visionary leader and administrator Dr Khoza exhibited conciliatory traits that are hard to come by at the most crucial moments of administrative leadership. These conciliatory traits were best exemplified by the following incidents or sagas:

Recently, and during the mother of all derbies, the two all-powerful South African football club bosses, Irvin Khoza and Kaizer Motaung, sat side by side to show solidarity in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The two soccer supremos reminded the country that their rivalry is limited to the field of play. Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, in collaboration with the MultiChoice Group, joined forces to donate essential equipment to the healthcare sector.

Kaizer Motaung explained that the two club’s collaboration sent them down memory lane. It’s important for the two teams not to be oblivious of the history that playing football serves as a unifying factor, as opposed to it being divisive.

One of the things that these two giants wanted to highlight about the partnership that they had forged between the two teams was that, during the height of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, they were engaging with the leadership.

The conciliatory trait that Khoza has made him amenable to the idea of partnering with his long-time rival Kaizer Chincha Guluva Motaung, the boss of Kaizer Chiefs, to help quell the violence that had beset the whole country.

Irvin Khoza emphasized that: “In the field of play, they are determined to beat each other at every encounter, but they have a history and culture of collaboration in matters of national importance.”

They recognize that, nationwide, Pirates and Chiefs supporters live in the same townships, suburbs and villages, and even in the same homes. Their supporters live, work and socialize together.

Khoza and Motaung conceded that it is the wisdom of this recognition that has strengthened their collaboration in matters of national importance.

Lest we forget that it was through the Iron Duke’s efforts that Orlando Pirates became the African Champion in 1995. Who can forget the scene when Khoza, in a gesture of immense symbolic significance, upon his arrival at Johannesburg International Airport, handed over the Pirates jersey to Kaizer Motaung, who had come to the airport to welcome the African champions?

Khoza has always been like that. When he achieves something, he always wants to share it with everybody. This is also a man who always gives praise where it is due.

The pictures of Jomo Sono and Kaizer Motaung, during their playing days, in Orlando Pirates colours, are proudly displayed in the Orlando Pirates offices. They were always unashamedly displayed even when the three had their personal differences.

In closing, let me issue one critical assignment. In doing so, I borrow from the words of Daniel H. Burnham, who once said:

“Make no little plans, for they

have not magic to stir men’s


And probably themselves will not be realised

Make the big plans: aim high in hope

and work, Remembering that a noble

logical diagram Once recorded will not


Of all the things leaders are supposed to do, nothing is more important than setting a good example. Ben Franklin had it right when he wrote in Poor Richards Almanac, “well done is better than well said.”

Dr Vusi Shongwe is the former Head of the Royal Household and Chief Director of Heritage in the KwaZulu-Natal Office of the Premier. He is currently the Chief Director of the Heritage Resource Services in the KZN Department of Arts and Culture.

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