Kopano Sekgobela: Wheelchair-bound but still defying the odds every day

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There is such an air of optimism in Kopano Sekgobela’s voice the very first time I speak to him over the phone.

Typically, especially considering he lives 375km from Johannesburg, I would ask all my questions over the phone and write the story.

But straight after that initial conversation on Friday 9 April, 2021, I immediately walk over to my editor Tiyani wa ka Mabasa to tell him it would be an injustice to do this kind of story over the phone.

Luckily, he is of the same view, and instantly makes all necessary arrangements for me to travel on Tuesday 13 April and interview Sekgobela.

In just seven months’ time, it will be nine years after that fatal accident killed four Polokwane City teammates and robbed a then 22-year-old Sekgobela of the opportunity to continue playing a game he loves so much.

The fateful day was 11 November 2012, just a month and eight days before his 23rd birthday.

“When the bus was rolling, five players were thrown out of the bus and only one survived. I’m still here. God saved me, he had a purpose for me. I’m living my purpose now. There’s no need to worry about anything,” says Sekgobela.

Understandably so, in the days and months after the accident, emotions shot high, hope dwindling by the day and a lot of things were said, most of them out of resentment.

But the fresh air of optimism Sekgobela exudes now gets me eager to go and meet the man in person and find out what exactly is the source of his renewed enthusiasm about life. Just what drives him!

Excitedly, I set out on Tuesday morning as early as 04h30. The plan is to pick up a colleague Mauwane Raophala at our Polokwane office.

Upon arrival at the FARPost offices in Welgelegen, Polokwane, my other colleague Ofhani Munyai, who has previously visited Sekgobela, has some invaluable counsel for me about the road to Ga-Phasha Village, a mountainous area 102 km south east of Polokwane, where the wheelchair-bound former City star resides with his Ol’ Lady.

Ofhani, a man of a few words, reminds me it was the same road that robbed us of the incredible life of former SuperSport United and Bafana Bafana assistant coach Thomas Madigage [MHDSRIP].

Madigage hit a donkey between Polokwane and Burgersfort while driving alone on the R37 exactly a month before Sekgobela and his City teammates were involved in the fatal crash.

So, I embrace the advice and make sure I drove with caution. True to Ofhani’s advice, the road is littered with all manner of livestock – cattle, donkeys and goats – wander on the fringes of the road unmonitored.

The trucks that ply that route don’t make it any better. But, driving at a bare minimum speed – often behind trucks – I just can’t wait to meet Sekgobela and learn one or two things from him. I guess we all need his kind of positivity.

It took us a precious 1 hour 30 minutes to get to his Ga-Phasha home, nestled by beautiful mountains, in the Sekhukhune District. Ga-Phasha is located directly between Anglo Platinum’s Lebowa Platinum Mine on its western boundary and the Twickenham Platinum Mine on its Eastern boundary.

The final seven kilometres of the journey, leading to Sekgobela’s home, are on gravel. But none of that mattered to us because of the joy that engulfs our hearts as we edge closer to his home.

After getting lost a little, a resident of the area came to our rescue, pointing the direction of the house some 600 metres from where we had been roaming lost.

We can already tell that Sekgobela is such an influential figure in this small village. As we pull over in front of the gate, his benevolent mom, Rosina Sekgobela, who is busy doing her laundry outside, immediately comes to open the gate and welcome us in.

Sekgobela is in the house with four young men, three of them who turn out for his amateur team, Dinoko FC.

It is as though they gather around him like the biblical disciples of Jesus Christ did, just to suck out as much as they can from his bottomless wells of wisdom. After all, they all aspire to reach the heights he touched as a footballer.

As soon as he is told we have arrived, he comes with his young entourage, clad in a white t-shirt.

Beaming with a huge ear-to-ear smile, he warmly greets us and asks one of his boys to bring us chairs. Moments after exchanging pleasantries, I ask him how he has been.

“You know I never got counselling after the accident, but I’m strong, my brother. I’m enjoying my life,” he tells FARPost with a similar air of contentment I sensed over the phone.

His revelation sounds aimed at stressing that his happiness is not ‘proudly sponsored’ by someone who offered him counsel or material things after the tragic accident. It is an ‘inside job’.

If anything, Polokwane City’s treatment of Sekgobela was an eyesore. But he is seemingly over that and has moved on with his life.

As a matter of fact, Sekgobela and his mom occasionally get help from his brother. He has no regular source of income.

“I really wish he could get a good coaching job, so he can take care of me. His dad passed on in 2016,” says his mom.

Nonetheless, the serenity exuded over the phone is still evident. It was not just a fleeting act, I thought. It’s his way of life. Just listening and looking at him, you realise that the human spirit is one of perseverance and courage that no setback can steal away.

Soon enough, we get to know the source of his joy. But before we do, Sekgobela wants to know if we have t-shirts for him, which we do. Interestingly, as soon as a black FARPost golf t-shirt and a green one are placed in his hands, with two branded mugs, he inspects them with a grin.

“Do you guys want us to do the interview here or we can go to the ground where the team trains?” he asks as he takes off his t-shirt to wear the black FARPost one on his own accord.

We agree to going to the ground. It’s about 14h30 and, as you would expect, the ‘Limpopo sun’ is scorching hot.

The initial thought is that he will jump into our car and drive with us. But he instructs two of his boys to come with us. As for him, he releases the brakes on his wheelchair, holds the hand rims attached to the rear wheels and pushes it forward right to the driver’s door of his car.

One of his boys helps him sit on the driver’s seat and off we go. “I drive myself, my brother. When I want to go somewhere I just get into my car and drive myself,” he says as we arrive at the soccer pitch.

The Blackburn Ground, with patches of shrivelled grass, is where he derives his source of joy and fulfilment. He exerts his energies on something his current state doesn’t prevent him from doing well. That is mentoring young boys who dream one day playing in the PSL or GladAfrica Championship like he did.

But, for now, they must be content with just playing in tournaments with teams from neighbouring villages like Ga-Mmakopa, Maroteng Tsate, Sekateng and Ga-Matjie. However, that is not the end goal.

“I don’t want to take these boys to tournaments here in my village when they know that I played professionally. I want to see four or five of them play in either the PSL or GladAfrica. These boys can go far if they’re given a chance,” he says with such conviction.

Sekgobela doesn’t regret the things sitting on a wheelchair restricts him from doing. He is not ‘wheelchair-bound’ in spirit. It is merely physical. That’s just about it.

“If I had a son, I’d bring my son here to come and train because he is doing an incredible job. Besides just football, there’s so much young boys are learning from him about life,” says Maphefo Sekgobela, who is related to the retired footballer.

Barely 10 minutes after arriving at the grounds, there are over 22 people including women.

It is apparent that Sekgobela is Ga-Phasha’s hero. He is an extraordinary individual who has found the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. His unique challenges have opened up unique opportunities to reach so many in need.

“I have 18 boys aged between 16 and 24 that I coach. It’s very painful for them when they look at what happened to me. They know [Mamelodi] Sundowns was looking for me when the accident happened.

“But I always tell them that in life things happen. That is unavoidable. If something [terrible] happens in life, I tell them they must accept it and continue living their lives. I honestly feel they love what I’m doing and they’re learning from it,” says the holder of a Caf D coaching licence.

The 30-year-old wants to leave no stone unturned in mentoring these young boys. He wants them to know that they can overcome any obstacle in life on their pathway to greatness.

In essence, he is the source of encouragement for a community full of young boys who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the cares of this world. When they dare to hope, it floods their lives with the same joy and peace he exudes.

FARPost will publish Part II of this story on Monday 19 April, 2021.

RELATED STORY: FARPost grants sekgobela his wish

By Mthokozisi Dube

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