Thembi Kgatlana is arguably the biggest global sports icon the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has produced. She is an active alumna and the last time she visited was to kit out the entire UWC women’s football squad with boots from her sponsor Nike.
Four years later, the diminutive figure sitting on a couch in the Rector’s Dining Room is sipping a cup of tea. She’s early for a sports star and celebrity of her profile ahead of a lunch hosted by Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Tyrone Pretorius. It tells the story of just how much she loves this university. The lunch is a special occasion to honour the UWC players and alumnae linked to Banyana’s historic Women’s African Cup of Nations (WAFCON) triumph last month.
UWC has become something of an incubator for women’s football and as a feeder to the national team. Mandla Gagayi, Director of UWC Sport and one of Thembi’s mentors, says it’s no accident and boasts that more resources are pumped into the women’s game than for the men’s code at the university.
All told, there were 11 UWC-linked players in the WAFCON winning Banyana squad. Five of them are current students, and the other six alumnae. Thembi is perhaps the most decorated and recognisable. In 2018, she was African Women’s Footballer of the Year and top goalscorer at WAFCON. She scored an absolute rocket for Banyana’s first ever goal at a World Cup against Spain. And she has played for some of the world’s biggest clubs.
But Thembi found herself in an unusual role last month in Morocco, having to watch the action from the sidelines as her teammates did the business of winning WAFCON. It was a role she ended up loving. It’s the reason Thembi is sitting on the couch with her valuable left leg in a cast and with a set of crutches next to her. The injured 26-year-old appears to be relishing the break and loves nothing more than “coming home to UWC”.
“I’ve always been known to have a very strong character. That was the mentality as well to lead the team from the front. With my experience of playing Banyana, I went there as a very small child. I even got the nickname ‘Pikinini’ because I was the youngest in the team,” she says during the lunch.
“I've been serving the national team for six or eight years now. But I make sure that I come back to UWC to inspire the next generation. This journey for me has been difficult, but also fulfilling, because I know I did everything (for Banyana) before I got injured.
“I understood that injuries are part of sport. If it’s possible for us to celebrate all our achievements, it's also possible for us to handle our emotions when things don't go our way and to be able to pick ourselves up and be able to continue with the journey. A lot of people have been wishing me well. And I'm really grateful for that.”
The injury has allowed Thembi the time to reconnect with friends, family and UWC.
“As difficult as it is for me, it's a big win, not only because the team won, but I haven't been home for four years, I haven't spent time with my family. I didn't see my friends. I get to be home, I get to be surrounded by my loved ones, I get to see familiar faces and be here at UWC. I also get to do my rehab here. So, I'm also thankful for all the people that are supporting me.
“I had to humble myself. For Banyana Banyana, I had to lead from the back. I think I played that role very well. It's difficult when all of a sudden you have to lead from the back. I think when I got injured a lot of my teammates were scared and anxious, and I understand why.
“I had to carry myself in a way that I didn’t make them scared, so that they knew they were good enough to lead the team, even without me. And I was the biggest cheerleader. Even with my crutches, I went to the game. I didn't want to watch on TV. I was screaming the whole 90 minutes. I screamed a lot!
And then, with her trademark, almost mischievous smile, she turns to Prof Pretorius and declares: “I was coach Tina's (assistant coach Thinasonke Mbuli) assistant. I found so much joy in doing that because I got to put myself in the shoes of other girls that don't get to play but are always cheering for us out there and supporting. I think I played this role very well to make sure my teammates knew that it was time for them to step up. Man, did they step up!
“I think this moment is the start of a new light for women's football – not only in South Africa, but also for UWC.”
*Gasant Abarder is UWC Media and Marketing Manager.