At times, Rulani Mokwena speaks like a man of God.
Sure, he usually spends his Sundays on the touchline, barking instructions to his players and he does not command a flock of followers that pays regular tithe to him.
But when Mokwena speaks about God, he does so with such clarity and profundity you can easily mistake him for a clergyman.
Understandably, the man is cognisant of his spiritual side. He meditates on ‘the book of law’ and intreats the Almighty as often as he can to stay on the spiritual path.
“I read a lot and I pray a lot. As human beings we have different aspects that creates our holistic being – the physical, the psychological, the emotional and the spiritual which is extremely neglected,” he explains.
The 33-year-old is not “ashamed of the gospel”, openly professing his faith.
“I find myself to be a very spiritual being. It has a lot to do with your upbringing and the pain and the suffering that one goes through that makes you connect a little bit deeper with the spiritual side of things.”
Like all children of God, Mokwena wants to be “the salt of the earth”. The kind of coach that positively impacts the lives of football stars.
“At Orlando Pirates we wanted to help our players develop into good human beings. We did a good job at Pirates because during our time you could not hear of players in the back pages or even front pages of newspapers. We are content with the work we did at Pirates,” he says avidly.
Perhaps, just perhaps, his coaching journey is a sermon on its own that there are people God has already ordained to come across our path to help us fulfil our destiny.
In his case, it’s a man who has stood the test of time in the local game – Steve Komphela. The year was 2009, Komphela roped in Mokwena into the Platinum Stars senior team set up. Mokwena was in his early 20s and initially, his involvement was only as far as training sessions at the time.
But it all changed…
“It was unbelievable because I didn’t know that I was going to sit on the bench against Santos.”
Komphela had received a red card in the previous match against Orlando Pirates at Orlando Stadium.
“Two or three days before the match Jason Raine (then Stars general manager) and Ian Riddick (managing director) called me to the office in Melrose Arch and they told me ‘we’ve just registered you for the PSL, congratulations for the promotion’. I was like ‘what’s the promotion’, and they said ‘ask coach Steve Komphela, he is the one who has promoted you’.”
Komphela had recommended his untried protégé without thinking twice. No wonder, the burgeoning gaffer echoes how Komphela, who’s now head coach at Golden Arrows, “is a special human being”.
Theirs is a bond that transcends just diski. Mokwena devotedly describes it as many-sided.
“It’s got different moments where I engage him as a father because of his strength and wisdom, then as an elder brother with issues that relate to me personally, with my social life and then there are moments I engage him as a friend because he’s able to cover all those aspects.”
When Mokwena is not on the bench or thinking about tactics on how to destroy the opposition, he spends his time reading, a habit picked from his mentor. “He’s one of the reasons why I read so much because he inspired me to read, I remember when I started in 2009, he recommended the book Capitalist Nigga and from there I’ve just been a bookworm.”
Besides coaching and the splendid reading culture, there’s been tons of lessons picked from the veteran mentor. Humility, passion, hard work, focus and being driven in life, the list goes on.
“I’m indebted to his contributions. I’ve had a special relationship with him for 11 years. It’s 11 years of pure love and protection.”
At Sundowns, Mokwena got to work with South Africa’s most successful coach Pitso Mosimane, pictured with him below – a man he speaks so highly of. Despite some thinking he is an arrogant young upstart, Mokwena acknowledges the help he got on the way.
Like the two man that have mentored him, he has never been one to be afraid to take on a new challenge. It was no different when he was thrust into the Orlando Pirates hotseat to replace Milutin Sredojević after his abrupt departure on the eve of an MTN8 clash against Highlands Park in August last year.
“I’ve never been a person brought up to fear, I was always very inquisitive, I was always very fearless, I was always very brave,” he says assertively.
In his world, there’s nothing called coincidence. All that happens in our lives is by God’s design. “It was God’s time,” he believes. And when it’s God’s time, his philosophy “is to accept and understand there’s a greater purpose.”
And because of a greater purpose, the well-spoken coach rests assured of God’s guidance through it all.
Mokwena has moved on from Pirates, at least for now. He is now the head coach at Chippa United after his interim stint as coach at the Soweto giants. The road to Port Elizabeth has not been an easy one for the man who is regarded as a prodigy in South African football circles. The journey has been long and hard, and it has made him tougher. He remembers how, at only 14 years old, he was already coaching at Sabelo Stars Black Poison, a club he founded.
“I founded Sabelo Stars Black Poison in 2005 so I was coaching already when I was 14 years old.”
His desire to learn has given him a thirst that is impossible to quench. Luckily, he taps from the wells of wisdom of Liverpool’s senior academy scout, Matthew Newbury, from time to time.
“Matt is a football encyclopedia; we share a lot of information and talks.”
And for a long time, many football followers openly wondered how Mokwena would fare as the head coach of a football squad rather than the assistant. Now, at a much smaller club than Pirates, he has an opportunity to prove his worth. Given the fact Siviwe “Chippa” Mpengesi is regarded as a trigger-happy club owner that has never been afraid to fire a coach, many have wondered how long Mokwena will last in that dressing room.
But he is not one to harbour anxiety, the man is ready to take every challenge that comes his way valiantly. And while he does that, his utmost desire is to see those he coaches become better people.
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By Mthokozisi Dube