Lala ngoxolo Sgwinyakonke
On a hot windswept day in KwaZulu-Natal, the province’s running community descended on the village of Ntambanana 30km outside Empangeni to pay their last respects to one of their own. From ultra marathon stars such as Bong’musa Mthembu and Nkosikhona Mhlakwana to up and coming road and track athletes like Sibusiso Kubheka and social runners from KwaZulu-Natal Athletics’ most prominent clubs, scores made the two hour journey north from Durban to the Zululand village to bid a final farewell to Mbuleli Mathanga.
“Mbuleli wasn't with the club for very long but it feels like he had been there for ages. I remember when I first met him. He had been recruited by coach Mdu Khumalo and I saw this thin guy and asked Mdu if he had found an Ethiopian to join the club. Coach told me that this was the runner who was going to take the club to the next level. I remember travelling to a race with Mbuleli during the early days. He said 'Baba General, I win a race once the gun is fired,'” reminisced Sihle Mlambo team manger of the Phantane Athletic Club where the two-time SA 10 000m and multiple SA Cross Country champion’s talent was shaped into a preeminent national force.
But his true potential as a runner was evident long before he ever set foot on top of a podium dressed in the yellow and green of Phantane. His father uBab’ Cebekhulu shared a heartfelt tribute wherein he revealed that Mathanga who grew up hunting in the bush, asked his parents to leave school before completing his Matric in order to pursue his love for distance running. It was a calling that would see him go on to represent South Africa on a number of occasions including at the World Cross Country Championships in Australia in February and at the 2022 African Championships in Mauritius where he placed seventh over 25 laps of the track.
At 29 years old, Mathanga was entering the prime of his career. A 1:00:17 at his best with a 28:03 10km lifetime best, many will feel that his best was yet to come. His absence will be felt most acutely at the road, track and cross country national championships where he won many medals for KZNA and was the KZNA 10 000m record holder (28:03.45). As his fellow athletes paraded in their club colours marshalled by the legendary Michael 'Sponge' Seme, KZNA Deputy President Mandla Mngomezulu relayed a message of condolence to the Mathanga and Cebekhulu families as well as the Phantane Athletic Club on behalf of all the runners in the province.
“We chose him as KwaZulu-Natal Athletics to represent us at the SA Cross Country championships which will take place next weekend in Gqeberha. But it wasn't to be. He wasn't afraid of the pace. So when I learnt that he grew up hunting, it made sense to me. We always knew that as a province if we have him in our team then we will get a medal. We thank his family for raising him, such that the province could also benefit from his talent. We also thank his club Phantane for developing him. I know how much it takes to produce this calibre of athlete. It's a great loss to us. But let us celebrate what he achieved in a short space of time,” said Mngomezulu of the man known in KZN running circles as Sgwinyakonke because of the ruthlessness with which he lapped struggling competitors during track races.
But perhaps the most moving tribute of all came from one of his adversaries. As KZNA President Steve Mkasi spoke eloquently on behalf of Athletics South Africa (ASA) encouraging athletes who face personal problems to come forward for emotional support, Precious Mashele cut a lonely figure. Seeking refuge from the dust in the shade of the waving tent erected at the Mathanga family homestead, Mashele sat lost in thought. Having made the 8 hour drive from Johannesburg with fellow national athlete Collen Mulaudzi to say goodbye, the SA 10km Record Holder recalled their many encounters saying what stands out for him is how Mathanga always motivated him.
"My heart is sore because we had plans to run faster together, especially in the marathon. He would always say that we must break the SA Marathon Record because it has been there for too long. I don't know what to say. When I heard of his passing I started to remember how we ran together during Covid - all those 5000m races in Stellenbosch with Collen and Stephen Mokoka. He also paced me when I was trying to qualify for the 5000m at Tokyo 2021. Before those races he used to motivate me and tell me that we must beat Stephen because he has been around for too long and it is our time to win. He played a big role in my career because he encouraged me especially when we raced against Mokoka. He was a good person and very courageous."