SheRef Akhona Makalima clears the mental hurdles of a female referee to block out the patriarchal noise
Akhona Makalima, SA’s first certified female soccer referee, has had to fight sexist battles on and off the field. But she’s stronger for it.
It’s been almost a decade since South African referee Akhona Makalima made her professional debut as a match official. It was February 2015 and the match was a Premiership tie between University of Pretoria and Mpumalanga Black Aces.
Her presence on the field that day was a historic moment for South Africa’s professional soccer circuit: no woman had ever been handed the whistle to referee a men’s soccer match.
“I’m a dreamer. I’ve always known that I was destined for greatness. I just didn’t know how far I’d go,” Makalima (35) told Daily Maverick on the sidelines of a panel discussion on women in sports.
“But I always had a feeling that there is something great that I will do.”
Since her big debut, Makalima has become a mainstay in both the Premier Soccer League and the Safa Women’s League. She has also officiated in multiple international tournaments, including the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon).
Earlier this year, it was announced that Makalima, alongside three other female referees from Africa, will be in Australia and New Zealand for the Fifa Women’s World Cup, which starts on 20 July.
They will be joined by seven African assistant referees.
“It’s a great opportunity for me and Safa. I’m really excited and grateful. I know the road won’t be easy. Getting to perform at the highest level is a privilege – a lot of referees have retired without being on that stage. But for getting to go there I remain grounded and grateful,” she said.
Makalima’s refereeing career began purely by chance. She had dreams of becoming the next Banyana Banyana star, but, owing to a lack of access and money in the small Eastern Cape village where she grew up, she soon abandoned that dream.
Then another door opened as she was recruited by Safa as part of a drive in 2011 to attract more female referees.
“I took that opportunity. I had never dreamt of being a match official, never in my life. It was not even my plan C or D. But when I was afforded this opportunity [I grabbed it] … It’s taken me to places that I’ve never been to,” she said.
Despite her list of achievements, Makalima says she feels as though she still has to fight to be taken seriously, merely because of her gender. “Already, when I show up, it means every decision I’ll be making in the field of play will be understood on the fact that I am a woman. ‘She makes soft calls. This is not netball. She belongs in the kitchen.’ I am still fighting those things. We are still being told where we belong, even in this day and age,” Makalima said.
Utterances such as these have taken their toll on her in the past. However, the reminder of her humble beginnings has always been the fuel she needed to ensure that she carried on fighting and breaking new ground.
There have been times when her mental wellbeing has taken a knock because of being sexually objectified on social media, and she has even been branded a distraction to male soccer players on the field – simply because of her looks.
This led her down a dark path, as she fought to lose weight and look like a “normal” referee.
“I was training more than I was supposed to train and injuring myself in the process. Mentally, I had told myself that I have to look like a referee. But how does a referee look?” she asked rhetorically.
“I’m not going to change my structure. I’m not going to change the referee’s uniform that I wear so that people can feel that I am ‘okay’ as a referee.
“I almost lost myself because [of this]. I was not comfortable. I did not love the person I was looking at in the mirror. I did not recognise myself.”
It also had an impact on her performance at times. However, she has since leapt over that hurdle and is now able to block out the noise.
“When I stepped into the field of play, I was making silly errors because I was not confident. Until one day I decided no, this is not me. Nobody is going to tell me how I am supposed to look. The only thing that is supposed to define me is the rule book.”
Her presence was a great omen for Banyana Banyana at Wafcon. And as they try to win their first match ever at the Fifa World Cup in July – in only their second appearance at the global showpiece – they will hope that Makalima’s presence once again proves to be a lucky charm.
As for “SheRef”, as Makalima is affectionately known, she will continue to shine the torch of hope for the underdogs in South Africa and be a beacon of hope for young boys and girls with big dreams. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.