We've got news for you.

Register on SowetanLIVE at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

‘Sometimes players call me Mr Ref' - PSL referee Akhona Makalima

Mahlatse Mphahlele Sports reporter
Akhona Makalima is one of the leading referees in the PSL.
Akhona Makalima is one of the leading referees in the PSL.
Image: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images

When you see Premier Soccer League (PSL) referee Akhona Makalima flash a brief smile during the match, it is probably because one of the players has shouted “Mr Ref” in her direction.

It is a reference she doesn't like but has had to reluctantly learn to live with over a period of time, because the players often inadvertently refer to her as such in the heat of battle.

The 30-year-old Makalina, who recently walked away with the Estée Lauder Style Star of the Year Award at the Momentum gsport Awards, said she always sees the funny side of it because players sometimes genuinely don't know what to call her on the field.

“Some of the funny moments are when players don’t know what to call me. I am called ‘Mr Ref’, ‘Ma'am Ref’ or ‘Ausi Ref’, or whatever comes to their mind, and I find it very funny,” said Makalina who calls herself “SheRef”.

“During an exchange in a game, a player will call me ‘Mr Ref’ if they don’t like my decision or whatever the situation is at that time, but they will quickly apologise and I will say it's fine. Those are some of the crazy moments that I encounter a lot in my line of work as a referee and I am OK with whatever they call me.”

Makalina does not only confuse male footballers, as even the women players sometimes call her Mr Ref.

“I remember the other day I was doing a women’s game in the Hollywoodbets Super League, and one of the players called me Mr Ref and I was like, 'girl I am not Mr Ref'.

“I asked her 'how can you refer to me as Mr Ref while we are all ladies here [on the pitch]?' She apologised for the slip of the tongue and everyone burst out laughing, including those who were sitting on the bench.”

Makalima, who has been a PSL referee for about six years and is also on the Fifa panel, has encountered some heated moments on the field but says domestic premiership players are generally respectful.

“You will get a lot of those heated moments when players are unhappy with your decisions, but I don’t give them that space. There are things that I demand from players and I tell them 'you can’t just shout at me like that'.

“We have our moments but I must commend our players because I have not come across anyone who I felt was too disrespectful or personal towards me. Our players are generally respectful.”

Over the years, there were many cynics who doubted Makalima when she decided to stop playing and became a referee.

“There are people who are going to doubt you but you don’t have control of that, the most important thing is to never doubt yourself.

“I have had a lot of people doubting me. When I started things were difficult because men were not open to taking instructions from women.

“We live in a country where there are some people who still believe that in this day and age women belong in the kitchen, and men are superior to women. I believe that it is not about all those things but about what are you qualified to do, and what you can deliver when given the responsibility.

“As a referee, it is about whether you have passed your fitness tests or are you performing on the field? But unfortunately I still get stupid comments [from people saying the] players were distracted [by her presence] and could not focus because there is a woman on the field. We get those negative comments, but we rise above them.”

Referees are always under scrutiny and she is constantly looking to improve.

“It is not about what people think about me, it is about what I think about myself, because I don’t have control over what people think of me. What I can control is I can do better in the next game, on my next assignment.

“If I make an incorrect decision, I need to go back to the drawing board to analyse, be critical with myself and work out how I am going to get it right the next time.”

Makalima was recently nominated by Caf as a candidate referee for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

“Just being nominated is a big milestone for me. I take this very seriously and I am very grateful that people at Caf see my hard work and the potential in me. They want me to go out there and show the world what I can do from the skills and development that I have received from Safa.

“This also means I have to work even harder, because it is at the highest stage and I will be representing SA and Africa if I get chosen. The only thing that I must be realistic about is that I must work harder, because there are going to be other top referees from other countries.”