On the surface, Sifiso Hlanti’s success story looks like stuff from the movies. He joined Bidvest Wits about 18 months ago and now he has two winners’ medals, including the Absa Premiership title, the biggest prize in local football, to show for it.
Hlanti’s journey, however, has not been the fairy tale that some might perceive. The 27-year-old Newcastle-born defender has had to take the long route to success.
As a teenager, Hlanti had an opportunity to join Orlando Pirates, who showed an interest in him after their scouts saw him during the SAB League play-offs, where he helped Majuba United win promotion to the Vodacom League.
“I wanted to join them but my family insisted I come back and finish school first. That is how an opportunity to join Pirates passed me,” he said. He is not sad about it though, because he always believed his talent would elevate him to stardom.
After finishing his matric, Hlanti had again attracted the interest of a Premiership team, as Golden Arrows had a contract waiting for him. Things, however, didn’t go as well as he had hoped and after spending one season there, he asked to be loaned out. A move to Chippa United followed.
“I was in the team that helped Chippa win promotion for the first time,” he said. “But I had to go back to Arrows. I still couldn’t break into the first team and I joined Thanda Royal Zulu on loan,” he added.
When his contract ended, he joined AmaZulu who were unfortunately relegated in his first season with them. It is how he left Usuthu that is interesting.
It was said Hlanti told management that he was done with the National First Division and wanted to compete in the elite division.
“I felt I needed to grow and that playing in the NFD was not serving any purpose anymore,” he said. Usuthu then arranged for him to join University of Pretoria but he declined because they were in a fierce relegation battle.
“I had suffered relegation with AmaZulu and I couldn’t go back there again. It was then that Wits came knocking and I asked that I be loaned to them instead.
“When I got to Wits, coach Gavin Hunt sat me down and told me they had been tracking me for a while and that he liked what he saw in me. He told me it was up to me to fulfil my potential. He believed in me and even told me I could easily fit in in Europe,” he explained.
A few months later, Hlanti was called into Bafana Bafana and he did well in the goalless Caf Africa Cup of Nations qualifier draw against Cameroon in Durban as he was named Man-of-the-Match.
Hlanti still remembers how he received the news of his first Bafana call-up. “We (Wits) were in Polokwane and I, together with Phumlani Ntshangase, had stayed behind because we had done doping tests. We were with team manager Roy Limongelli. Roy had just been telling me that I was set for big things and that I should be ready because I might be in the Bafana team soon.
“When we were on our way back to Joburg, Phumlani saw the online news that I was in the Bafana squad. It was unbelievable.”
Hlanti has been brought in again by new Bafana coach Stuart Baxter. “I think being with Bafana is not about proving your worth, but doing a job for your country … it’s a responsibility we have to carry out with utmost respect,” he said.
There is a lot Hlanti has on his bucket list but the immediate one is to play in Europe.
“What I have learned from my time at Wits is that you don’t have to be in a comfort zone for a long time, you have to keep seeking challenges. And the next challenge I would appreciate is a chance to play overseas,” said Hlanti.