A city in mourning…Dr Molemela’s dream and the death of Bloem Celtic

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For three days, including Tuesday, the day it was announced that Phunya Sele Sele had indeed been sold, it was raining in the city of Bloemfontein.

For some, this was just an odd weather pattern. Rain is perhaps what they would have expected in the dying days of winter, as spring awaits patiently on the horizon.

At 1300m above sea level, the people of the Free State expect cold to mild weather at this time of the year, with temperatures hovering between a minimum of 5.9°C and a maximum of 19.9°C.

For the past three days however, it rained and while the meteorologists will have a perfectly scientific reason for the August outpouring from the heavens, for Botha Msila, the answer is much simpler.

Msila, Celtic’s superfan, says that for the past three days, as corporate mandarins started wheeling and dealing in boardrooms, paving the way for the sale of Bloemfontein Celtic, its late owner Dr Petrus Rantlai Molemela was shedding tears in heaven.

It was his tears that rained on the residents of Bloemfontein on Tuesday, at the same time as PSL chairman Dr Irvin Khoza announced that after three days of haggling, the League’s Executive Committee had decided to sanction a deal which saw businesswoman Shauwn Mkhize take ownership of Phunya Sele Sele.

The deal also saw Royal AM’s GladAfrica Championship status sold to Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila (TTM) owner, Lawrence Mulaudzi. Celtic owner Max Tshabalala walked away with a cool R50 million from the deal, while ‘MaMkhize’ got her wish for a DStv Premiership spot.

For Msila, there were only two losers from this three-way ownership bonanza – the people of Bloemfontein and their former owner Molemela, who was grieving as he looked down at a dream in tatters, 52 years after it was conceived. Over five decades of history and legacy was on the cusp of disappearing like a fart in the wind.

Therefore, on Tuesday, the ‘City of Roses’ resembled a town in mourning. “It’s a sad day in Bloemfontein, it’s so quiet, and people are down,” Msila tells FARPost.

“It’s been raining for the past three days in Bloemfontein. Some people are saying the rain is bad. But I’m saying it’s not rain, it’s the tears of Ntate Molemela.”

In the PSL, no club has defined and shaped the city of its birth the way that Siwelele has. The club had a cult-like following in Bloemfontein and the sight of Celtic fans in full song in their trademark green and white, was one of the defining images of the PSL through the years.

Now that it is all gone, at the stroke of a pen, Msila, like the thousands of other fans, is counting his and others losses. All those days spent on the road, all those songs, those screams, were for nothing.

“This is like telling you that one of your family members is dead and you sit down and ask yourself where to start. Celtic, for us, was a way of life,” says the well-known Celtic devotee, who will be remembered for his famous shower cap.

With Celtic gone, he says, there is nothing left for Bloem. “We did not invest financially, but we invested emotionally. I can mention so many people who died on the road because of this club. I can mention so many people who sacrificed so much for this club. People paid their last cents to support this club,” he says with audible disappointment.

Celtic fans, in full voice, always seemed to draw their energy from a source that other PSL clubs’ fans never had access to. As they screamed and sang their lungs out, the team’s players, from those born in the city to those from all over South Africa and other parts of the continent, felt an extra wind in their sails.

In Bloemfontein – the country’s judicial capital – the 12th man was more than just a voice in the stands. For the players, sometimes it felt as though the fans were on the pitch with them.

“I enjoyed my football at Celtic, it was a great club with a very rich history,” Botswana international Joel Mogorosi tells FARPost.

The former Zebras winger, who turned out for Siwelele between 2012 and 2015, says “the atmosphere outside the stadium whenever we had games was by far the greatest support in the PSL”.

The man from Kanye, a village 83km southwest of Gaborone, has always looked back with gratitude for the opportunity they gave him. “The great green and white is no more, but it’s memories will live forever,” ‘Juluka’ says.

This is not the first time that Bloemfontein Celtic have been sold. What makes this particular occasion tragic is that, unlike on previous occasions, both buyer and seller do not seem to understand that the club was meant to stay in the capital city of the Free State, where its umbilical lies.  

“In 1969 two gentlemen, Norman Mathobisa and Victor Mahatane, adopted Mangaung United – The Maroons,” Lerato Molemela, the eldest grandson of Dr Molemela, tells FARPost.

“The guys were running into financial difficulty and needed someone to take over. There was a man, David Gill from Scotland, who ran a shop called Frasers.

“They approached David Gill and he had been assisting them to a certain extent. They then identified my grandfather Ntate Molemela to help them out of the difficulty,” explains Molemela, who turns 40 on Friday.

The club was initially called Bloemfontein Rangers, but David Gill, who hailed from Glasgow, suggested the Celtic name.

However, the duo could not endure the mile. When the going got tough, they left it to Dr Molemela, who had already built an empire that included a construction company whose contracts included the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court.

Molemela, the first black man to own a hotel in Phahameng Township, pioneered professionalism when he became the first club owner to pay players full time.

He imported top talent from beyond South Africa. Malawian midfield maestro Ernest Chirwali came in together with the likes of Cedric Nakhumwa and Stock Dandize. Eden Katango joined them from Mozambique while Ronnie Malesetsane was recruited from Lesotho.

Mahatane, the only surviving founding member, says the club was formed at the height of apartheid. It was more than just another football club. It was a symbol of hope and resistance against the minority regime, as Mahatane and his comrades felt that they could tackle apartheid from the football field.   

“When we started Bloemfontein Celtic [in 1969], my family was politically inclined, my brother was in exile. I wanted to further the movement which is the ANC, that’s why the logo is a fist. Apartheid police were always asking me why it should be a fist and I would give those answers and say when you’ve scored you make a fist,” Mahatane tells FARPost.

Football, he thought, would also unite the people of the Free State. Mahatane watched as the club was sold to Jimmy Augousti in 2001, who then passed it on to Tshabalala in 2014. On both occasions, he did not have the feeling of dread that he felt this time.

“It seems like a funeral in Bloemfontein, people are asking what the plan is. The first two days after I heard about this, I was shattered to nothing,” he says.  

This feeling of dread is one shared by Shuping Seboko, Celtic’s former reserve side coach and one-time caretaker coach.

“It’s a dark cloud in Mangaung, people are asking what the way forward is,” Seboko, now the president of SAFA in Mangaung, tells FARPost.

Seboko remembers the troubled times that the club had in the 1990s, when the coach Shepherd Murape needed security to escort him out of the stadiums with fans baying for his head. What Celtic needed in those tough times, he says, were the sons and daughters of Bloemfontein who knew the identity and purpose of the team on and off the pitch.

“Dr Molemela would always say ‘I kick a shack and a player comes out’. He wanted the nobodies to be recognised at a later stage.”

Perhaps that explains why more than 50 percent of the players were Bloem boys. It worked perfectly that way.

For young players in the country’s seventh largest city, it gave them an ideal gateway to the top flight. The blood of most young players in the city ran green and white from birth and representing Mangaung’s pride and joy was an honour. Celtic’s all-time top scorer, Benjamin Reed remembers how, as an 18-year-old, fans begged Molemela to sign him after he had impressed in a curtain-raising match.

“I joined the club as an 18-year-old. The fans surrounded Dr Molemela after the game and told him ‘please sign this boy’,” Reed tells FARPost.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the demise of Celtic will be the effect that it will have on the local economy. As a fan, 47-year-old Msila saw how, match day after match day, a Phunya Sele Sele home game put food on the table for many.       

“For them to sell Celtic means they have killed the economy in the province. People will no longer have jobs, from security guys and others,” adds Msila, who started supporting the club at six.

As a virtual press conference sounded the death knell on Celtic, all Msila and other die-hard fans were left clinging to were memories of glorious recollections in the stands supporting a team over the length and breadth of South Africa.  

“My biggest memory was winning the Mainstay Cup in 1985. I was still a young boy then and I didn’t travel with the team to Johannesburg,” recalls Msila.

While Celtic had their financial challenges, challenges that Tshabalala says forced him to run the club from his own pocket, a former player like Reed believes that he and others still erred in their final decision. Just like Msila, he still believes that there were more favourable solutions than a sale to an owner that wants to dispose of its name and take it out of the city of its birth completely.

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By Mthokozisi Dube