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Unearthing gems

Jubilation after victory. Sibongakonke Mbatha seated in the front row fourth from left with his hand on the winners cheque. Photo: Supplied.

The Transnet Safa School of Excellence not only nurtures soccer talent to fruition; it also attaches value to education

Mosibodi Whitehead

If one had to compile a list of South African football’s most successful exports since readmission in 1992, then somewhere below former Leeds United captain Lucas Radebe and 2003/04 UEFA Champions League winner Benni McCarthy will be Steven Pienaar.

Born in Johannesburg, Pienaar first began to make a name for himself as a talented teenager playing for Westbury Arsenals in the renowned Bosmont Football Association (BFA) that has produced such players as former Kaizer Chiefs midfielder Stanton Fredericks and coaches such as Platinum Stars’ Cavin Johnson. But as important as his BFA years were for “Skilo”, as he is affectionately known, it was at the Transnet Safa School of Excellence (TSSE) that Pienaar was polished into a star who would go on to play in the Dutch Eredivisie and the English Premier League, as well as representing the national team. Pienaar is not the only Bafana Bafana player to have spent time at TSSE; Bernard Parker, Daine Klate and more recently Aubrey “The Postman” Modiba have all called the football fields and classrooms of Elandsfontein home.

Soccer and education go hand in hand

The school, which is situated in Ekhurulehni East of Johannesburg, was established in 1994 in a partnership between the South African Football Association (Safa) and The Transnet Foundation to identify talented young footballers from rural and underprivileged communities in order to prepare them for the demands of life as a professional athlete. And increasingly those demands are that the education in the classroom should be just as world class as the training on the football field.

Short-term career

“You are sitting with youngsters with aspirations of being professional footballers. The challenge is to make them aware of the realities of football, which is a short-term career. Before they set their sights on kicking the ball, they need to have their matric certificate. We try to ensure everybody gets a matric certificate,” says TSSE’s principal Joseph Molele.  Since joining the school in 2015 Molele has achieved his mandate of a 100% pass rate, both in 2015 and 2016; they are also improving the quality of passes.

“Actually a lot of our boys are playing at tertiary clubs such as the universities of Johannesburg and Potchefstroom. That is where we are trying to channel them, to say don’t rush to join a professional team, get your education sorted first.” And Molele is getting through to his students.

Ethos of education

Take Sibongakonke Mbatha as an example. The young man from KwaZulu-Natal was scouted and brought to The School of Excellence where he has now been polished into a national Under-20 player. Mbatha was one of the best performers at the recent U20 Africa Cup of Nations in Zambia, where Amajita finished in fourth place and the diminutive Mbatha won the man of the match award during the team’s final group stages game, a 3-1 win over Sudan. But while he was braving the Zambian heat during the day, Mbatha was studying at night.

The 19-year-old is in the first year of his Business Management degree, which he is pursuing through The University of South Africa, and says he finds it easy to play football and study because of the influence of Molele and other teachers. “It all started at the School of Excellence; they are trying to push football and education to the same level. It’s just like keeping fit. If you are not playing and just sitting around, you won’t develop as a footballer, same as school.”

The Bidvest Wits man may have matriculated from the School of Excellence last year, but Molele’s ethos of the importance of furthering one’s studies remains deeply inculcated in him.

Beyond the call of duty

That Mbatha was able to earn his matric certificate is a testament to the dedication of the teachers at TSSE. As is to be expected with youngsters on the cusp of professional football, they are often called up for trials with professional teams and national team duty with the junior sides. Molele says Mbatha’s grade 11 year was almost ruined by the U17 Fifa World Cup. “One example that will forever haunt me is when Mbatha came back from Chile. He landed at midday and had to write his second paper of mathematics the very next day, after being absent from school for almost two months,” says Molele. “So we had a tutor, Mr Zulu, who was helping in the school, and he sat with Sibongakonke all day until midnight to make sure that he was ready.”

It is this commitment to the students above and beyond the call of duty that is bearing fruit. Besides Mbatha, one is struck by how grounded and mature the recent products of the school are. Supersport United’s Aubrey Modiba is another example.

Successful exports

In a country where too many prodigiously talented footballers fade into drunken obscurity because of their failure to control their lives off the football pitch, it is refreshing to find an old-fashioned approach to raising young people that puts education first. If we’re still alive in two decades’ time and we have to repeat this exercise, then I am certain that at the top of the list of South African football’s most successful exports since readmission will be TSSE products such as Mbatha. I’m willing to bet my vintage 1996 Bafana Bafana jersey on it.


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