Luvuyo Memela has lived and breathed the beautiful game since his early childhood. However, growing up on the dusty streets of Mbekweni — just short of an hour away from Cape Town Stadium — his dream of playing in the top flight seemed light years away.
A nimble playmaker whose presence almost always seems to give Orlando Pirates an extra gear, Memela seldom if ever makes headlines for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, his rise to stardom has been rockier than one could tell from a cursory glance.
It is no secret that the 33-year-old has faced his fair share of injury setbacks. What is less obvious is that outside of this, there were three periods in particular when he questioned his place in the game.
The first was when he was a youngster trying to make it out of a township which was some distance from the city, albeit not quite in the middle of nowhere.
“To be honest, it was difficult, because I had to travel from here to Cape Town [for training]. I didn’t think there was a pathway [into the PSL],” Memela tells FARPost outside his aunt and uncle’s house in Mbekweni, the home where he spent much of his childhood. He moved in after his grandparents left the shack which had previously housed many generations of the family from the Eastern Cape.
Gazing out from the backyard, one can get a clear view of the mountains which are synonymous with the Cape Winelands. Heading in the direction of Paarl Rock from where Memela stayed, it would not take long to pass acres of farmland and communities with no shortage of financial muscle.
Economic inequality is another trademark of the area. Nevertheless, with time and maturity, Memela realised that despite the struggles of everyday life in Mbekweni, he had role models right on his doorstep.
“I was starting to get older — [around] 16… There were a couple of guys here who played in the top league — Terror Fanteni and Gareth Ncaca. So, I was like: ‘If they can do it, then what’s stopping me?’,” he recalls.
Memela finally found his niche at Ajax Cape Town, but just as he was beginning to get comfortable, he was forced to hit the road again in 2010. So began his second major existential crisis in the game.
“At Ajax, I got promoted [after] three years in the reserve side… I was always on the bench. I was young and I didn’t know anything — I didn’t have an agent or anything — so Ajax just decided they were going to release me,” Memela says.
“It hit me hard, because even now, Ajax for me still feels like my team. You know when you start and you say you’re home? I talk about Ajax — I always include Ajax.”
Spells at Hanover Park, Chippa United and Cape Town All Stars followed before Orlando Pirates came knocking in 2015. That, too, so nearly turned sour. When Kjell Jonevret relegated Memela to the fringes of his squad in 2017, he began to feel out of place once more.
“I didn’t play at first, but then Coach Eric [Tinkler] gave me a chance and I showed myself and I pushed. Everybody started noticing: ‘Who is this Memela?’,” he recounts.
“I was getting goals left and right, as much as I was a winger and creating… Then, Eric got fired and another coach, Muhsin [Ertugral], came, and there were changes of coaches.
“[Under] Coach Kjell, I won’t lie to you — it was difficult for me to even say it, but it was a moment where I didn’t care.
“I started forgetting the kind of person that I am. I started doing things — you know, going out… I didn’t even think of training. I would get calls from the guys asking: ‘Hey, where are you? It’s training.’ Then, eventually, [I would realise]: ‘Oh, s**t, training has started.’”
Memela had reached his third footballing crossroads. Had it not been for an intervention from chairman Dr. Irvin Khoza, he might never have gotten back on track.
“I remember at some point, I had a meeting with the chairman. The chairman is a top person… He said to me: ‘Boy, I’m disappointed that you’re giving up… What makes you do this? Sometimes, you come to training, and you don’t even say anything — you keep quiet and don’t chat to anyone. That’s not you,” Memela reveals.
“I said: ‘To be honest, what’s frustrating me is that I’m not playing.’ The chairman said to me: ‘Who are you? What makes you think that you are better than other players and you can play and they don’t deserve to play? I’m not saying you don’t deserve to play, but why do you think you are better than others?’
“Then, I realised that the chairman was right. I was not humble enough to understand the situation… It’s not about you, it’s about the team. From there, I think my mindset changed a lot.”
Never again would Memela allow himself to question whether or not he fitted in at Orlando Stadium. Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojević arrived at the start of 2017/18 and pushed the right buttons to get him firing on all cylinders again.
“For me, I still say he [Micho] is the humblest guy ever. Even Coach JZ [Josef Zinnbauer] is very humble. Micho is a top, top, top motivator. He sees things. For me, he is a special coach. It’s a pity that we couldn’t win a trophy or anything while he was around.
“When he came, I don’t know what he saw in me, but he told himself: ‘Let me give this boy a chance.’ He gave me a chance and I played and I was so free because he believed in me. I could see it in his eyes when he spoke to me while things were difficult.”
For children who, like Memela, are accustomed to life away from the big cities, it can be tough to feel at home in a bustling urban environment. His whole football career, he has yearned for a sense of belonging.
Now that he has found paradise at Orlando Pirates, his new challenge is to help connect youngsters in rural areas with the sorts of opportunities football has afforded him — whether inside or outside of the game. This is the mission of the Luvuyo Amigo Memela [LAM] Foundation.
Founded in 2018, it has already enjoyed a degree of success — particularly in Mtwalume, KwaZulu-Natal.
Memela and foundation director Mxolisi Shangase were able to help local coach Thokozani Ndwalane obtain his CAF D License.
According to Ndwalane, he now has 40 players on his books in connection with the foundation, as of 8 August. He helps the youngsters with homework and even occasionally training for other sports outside of football.
“We have different age groups — we have U15 and U19 players. From Monday to Wednesday, I train the U15s. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I’m with all the U19s,” Ndwalane tells FARPost.
“[We play our matches in] the local LFA league… We don’t go to play in [faraway] areas; we just play around where we are.”
Ndwalane does not often get to see Memela due to the Pirates playmaker’s busy schedule, but they are working towards an ambitious common goal together from afar.
“We have a vision for five years that we want to see our players — maybe three or four players — playing at the highest level, maybe the NFD or the top level,” Ndwalane says, although he admits that COVID-19 has made the task more difficult.
Despite recent challenges, the project in Mtwalume is a sign of what the LAM Foundation is planning for years to come. While Memela is occupied with Orlando Pirates duties, Shangase handles much of the administrative work.
“I met Luvuyo through Brighton [Mhlongo] and then, while we were busy chatting… it happened that our stories were similar. That’s when the love of this foundation started. It started in 2018, with a purpose of helping the kids, especially the ones in the rural areas,” Shangase explains.
Shangase reveals that the plan is to work with players even younger than the ones currently under Ndwalane’s guidance in Mtwalume.
“Our plan is to start from the Under-8s. We still wish to help these kids. They have the talent, but the problem is that for us, we managed to travel all the way from those rural areas in KZN to come to Jo’burg because we had the means, but for them, it’s getting difficult.
“Before, it was better, because teams used to travel to look for talent, but now, it’s not like that anymore. Players have to travel [using] their own expenses. If you go to rural areas and check the situation there, it’s very difficult, because people are struggling to get food… The parents are also not there; they don’t see their kid as someone who is going to be a very popular person when it comes to soccer or maybe another sport code.
“Our plan is to now open those academies in different communities, and then try to maybe organise soccer games with these other professional teams.”
In 2018, the foundation held a tournament in the rural Eastern Cape community of Sterkspruit. Heart Breakers FC, coached by Theo Mbumba, emerged victorious.
“The tournament was advertised in papers and local radio [stations]… It was 16 teams. We were playing in one ground. We won all the games until the final,” explains Mbumba, who still coaches the SAB League side. He says he has kept in touch with Memela and Shangase since.
“We spoke about it [the possibility of an academy in Sterkspruit]. They promised to come back and do such things in Sterkspruit,” he says. Mbumba believes that mingling with Memela and former Orlando Pirates winger Khethokwakhe Masuku was already priceless for the local children.
According to Shangase, the foundation has also held a tournament in Noordgesig, Soweto. Furthermore, he reveals they donated football and netball equipment to Memela’s old primary school in Mbekweni, as well as deodorant provided by Shield. The LAM Foundation also donated masks to the Paarl Provincial Hospital during the early stages of COVID-19.
On the day of his interview with FARPost, Memela himself returned to his roots to provide toiletries, food and clothes to a local orphanage, the Ncedisizwe Centre. Here, he received a hero’s welcome from the children.
“For me, when I found out about them [the orphanage], it was touching. I grew up in a family where we stayed in one shack and there were a lot of us — I think 10 or 11 if I’m not mistaken,” Memela says.
Memela made it out, and his message to the Mbekweni locals is that if they think big, they can too.
“I opened this foundation because I need to make a change because of the person that I am,” he says. “I don’t like seeing people walking and living life like there’s only Mbekweni when there’s so much they can do.”
For Memela, the road out may not have been as smooth as a drive through the wealthy nearby neighbourhoods, but as long as he can pave the way for others to follow, his purpose will be fulfilled.
By Leonard Solms