Bong’musa Mthembu hardly ever uses the word “I”. He either refers to himself by his full name or the plural “we”.
Pretty uncharacteristic of a local sports superstar, particularly in an individual sport. But South Africa’s ultramarathon king is cut from a different cloth. You notice this almost immediately upon being in his space as Mthembu exudes humility and respect. His greeting is polite, yet confident, making you feel important to him.
He always makes time for others. At the 2018 Comrades Marathon Awards dinner in Durban last year, Mthembu was the centre of attraction as just about everyone in the room jostled for a picture with him. While many a star would have begrudgingly agreed to a certain extent, Mthembu smiled for snapshot after snapshot.
It wasn’t a gimmick. He doesn’t have any. Even at the end of each race he wins, you hardly ever see him celebrating wildly or showing off as some runners do. And when he talks about his trade or looks ahead to a race, he does it with such confidence that many would describe him as cocky.
“You should consider paying us better. We are professionals, just like soccer and rugby players,” he said at last year’s Comrades pre-race elite athletes media conference. But he runs the talk.
Respected by his fans and the competition
A three-time winner of the Comrades, Mthembu would make it a hat-trick of successive victories if he wins the 94th running of the tough KwaZulu-Natal ultra on Sunday 9 June. The running community is almost in total agreement that the rest of the contenders are going to have to bring something special in the Up Run from Durban City Hall to the Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg to dethrone the 35-year-old from Bulwer in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
The coach of his rivals, John Hamlett, is among those who say Mthembu might have limited his Comrades success chances with his Two Oceans Marathon victory in April. But even he acknowledges that the Arthur Ford club runner is a special athlete.
“Bong’musa is a very smart man. He is always willing to learn. He is a very tough athlete who will go down as a legend, especially if he wins the third one in a row,” Hamlett said.
To many, he is already a legend. This is a man who came from humble beginnings working as a bricklayer after matric before he discovered his talent as a runner.
He decided to take the sport seriously, but found himself falling short of success because of a lack of proper support.
Enter Sibusiso Ncamani. Like the champion runner, Ncamani is a humble man who shies away from the public glare. But there can be no denying his incredible work behind the scenes in helping Mthembu realise his full potential. He reluctantly agreed to share the story of his relationship with the Comrades king and his understanding of the man.
The making of a champion
“I’ve known Bong’musa for a while now and what attracted me to him was his sheer talent and the fact that he, like me, is from a humble background,” explains the man who now manages Mthembu. “I observed that he was really doing well but was just coming short of the glory I believed his talent deserved.”
And so in 2013, Ncamani approached Mthembu to try and understand what was holding him back.
“I am from the Transkei, but I am a teacher at Michaelhouse and I am where I am because someone saw my potential and gave me the opportunity to realise it. So I wanted to help Bong’musa and, when he explained what he lacked in support, I went on to source finances to help him without his knowledge. I raised a good amount that I gave to him early in 2014 and, whether by God’s design or luck, he went on to win Comrades that year.”
No doubt delighted at having been helped to realise a goal he had been chasing for some time, Mthembu later approached Ncamani to be his manager.
“I am just a teacher and I knew nothing about managing sportspeople. But we had developed a very good relationship and I agreed, mainly because we share the same values. Bong’musa has immense respect for his craft. You will never see him with a beer in his hand. He is the breadwinner at his home and takes care of his mom and siblings, as well as his own children. He is one of the most grounded people I know and that is largely thanks to his mom, whom he really adores and respects. His mother is the big engine that keeps him going. He never stops talking about his mom.”
Bagging a major endorsement
All Ncamani wants to do is ensure that Mthembu thrives in his chosen field of expertise. To that effect, he has organised financial advice for the athlete, whom he describes as “disciplined to a fault”. Just recently, the duo have enjoyed a major breakthrough that has seen medical aid scheme Medshield join Team Mthembu.
“It is the breakthrough we have been dreaming of. We have always wanted to ensure that Bong’musa does not have to worry about certain things and now with his and his children’s medical needs taken care of, we are happy. His firstborn son is at a good school where they have given him educational support. That is what I have always wanted for him, to ensure that he does not have to worry much about such things.”
Close as he is to Mthembu, Ncamani remains in awe of the man’s humility.
“He is a very down-to-earth guy. I don’t know why he never uses ‘I’, but I think it has to do with the fact that he has had a great support structure and he appreciates that. He kind of feels indebted to the people who have helped him to be where he is in his career.”
The ‘Kipchoge of ultra running’
Mthembu has not forgotten his friends, either. Prodigal Khumalo is one of those with whom Mthembu remains close. Khumalo has known Mthembu for a decade and he calls him the “Kipchoge of ultra running”, with the Maxed Elite team runner and star of road and trail being of the view that his good friend Mthembu is in the class of Kenyan superstar long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge.
“Bong’musa is a fighter and a fierce competitor who always gets it right. He knows how to prepare his body. His success aside, he has helped many development runners because he understands hardships. That has built his character [and made him] have a good heart. He is good and has time for all his friends. If I send him a message, he responds the same time. An awesome guy indeed.”
Khumalo describes Mthembu as a people’s person who gives back to the community through his Comrades training run, which he uses to encourage others to believe in themselves and know that they, too, can achieve whatever goals they set their minds on.
“My friend Thuso and I organise the training run as a way to give back to the community where we grew up,” Mthembu said in an interview. “The message we want to send to them is that running is not a crazy sport. We want them to realise that it does not matter where you come from, you can succeed in whatever you set your goals on as long as you work hard to realise them. Bong’musa Mthembu has shown that.”
That last sentence should have read, “I have shown that”. But Bong’musa Mthembu, the three-time Comrades Marathon champion chasing a hat-trick of wins is cut from a different cloth.