An empty stadium for his record-setting 400th appearance for Orlando Pirates was not how it was supposed to be. Even if thousands witnessed the major milestone on television, along with many who listened on the radio or followed it on social media, Happy Jele would rather there had been a crowd of faithful fans at Orlando Stadium on 11 September.
On reflection, though, the Buccaneers captain would perhaps realise it was a good thing the stadium was empty. For had there been a crowd, the player fondly called Magents would probably have lost his street cred.
“It was a very emotional moment for me,” Jele reflects. “I fought hard to stop the tears when they gave me that framed jersey with the number 400 on it. It was a very wonderful gesture by the club I’ve come to call my second home.”
Such has been the love he has enjoyed during the 15 years he has been at the club that had the stadium been packed with Pirates fans – known as The Ghost – on their feet and chanting his name, the tears would have flowed freely.
As Jele stood on the touchline posing for pictures with that jersey, he found himself reflecting on just how fortunate he had been. Never in his wildest dreams could he have foreseen himself becoming the most capped Pirates player in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) era, especially because his professional career should have ended as soon as it had begun.
Jele chuckles at the memory, but back then it was no laughing matter. A decade ago, the right back was in tears as he faced the possibility of having his childhood dream end just as he was beginning to enjoy its reality. A knee injury during a clash with Bidvest Wits at the Mbombela Stadium looked to have spelt the end of his career. At least that’s what doctors told him.
“I really thought my career was over back then,” he says. “I remember I was out of action for the entire year from 2011 to 2012 due to a torn ACL [anterior cruciate ligament) on my right after colliding with a Wits player who fell on top of me. I remember telling the club’s medical team that I’d broken something, and they thought I was joking. My knee was swollen and they took me to a hospital in Nelspruit where they found that no bones were broken.”
Relief soon turned into sorrow, though, when a proper examination in Johannesburg revealed the torn ligament. “I was taken to doctor after doctor hoping for a different diagnosis, but three of them told me I would never be able to play football again. I was devastated. I was living my dream, slowly beginning to establish myself in the team, so to have it snatched away like that was killing me.”
Fanning the passion
Born in the Mpumalanga town of Middelburg on New Year’s Day 1987, Jele grew up playing football in the streets and trying to copy the professional stars he saw on television. He was regarded as some kind of “black sheep” in his family – the boy supporting Pirates while almost everyone else was following Kaizer Chiefs.
“Only my uncle and I supported Orlando Pirates. He took me to watch them play Real Rovers at the old [Pietersburg Stadium] once, and after seeing them live I really wanted to play professionally for Pirates. From then on I took every match that I played very seriously.”
That attitude was rewarded as he made it into regional and provincial school squads and travelled to different parts of the country for national tournaments.
Playing for a team called Walter Stars – owned by former SABC Sport presenter Walter Mokoena – opened doors for him. “Because of his connections, Walter managed to get some PSL teams to play friendlies with us. I knew I had to impress against these teams to give myself a chance of being signed up.”
And he duly caught the eye of the club he supported at the youthful age of 19.
“The reality of having my dream come true was a bit overwhelming. But fortunately I had great support from my family and my managers, Walter and Jazzman Mahlakgane. My mother has always been strict and she has instilled in me a sense of discipline that has helped me handle the change in status from being an ordinary boy to one playing for one of the biggest clubs in the country. She and the entire family made me aware that I was now an ambassador of the Jeles. I had to behave myself in a way that I wouldn’t tarnish the family name.”
At the club, too, Jele had supportive senior players to mentor him.
“I was lucky because there were experienced guys like Lucky Lekgwathi, Moeneeb Josephs, Siyabonga Sangweni and Benni McCarthy who took me under their wing. I guess it also helped that I had the spirit to learn, because you can be among those calibre players and still not pick anything up.”
That he became captain of Pirates in 2018 surprised him, although Mokoena had predicted it from the beginning. “The day I signed up for Pirates [in 2006], Walter told me that I would one day become captain. He advised me to just keep on pushing and working hard and that I will end up as captain. When it happened, he called me to remind me of those words from way back then.”
But that injury in 2011 threatened to mess it all up before he could get the honour of leading the Mighty Buccaneers. “I am really thankful that the club was supportive during that time. The previous year, Benson Mhlongo had been badly injured and he was among those who supported me and encouraged me when the doctors were counting me out. He told me to not give up. Also our physio, John Williams, worked with me and took me all over looking for a doctor who could help.”
Getting the thumbs up
Eventually, Jele and the club found a doctor who gave him good news. “We found a Doctor Botha in Morningside and after examining me he said to me, ‘My friend, you are going to play again. I’ve helped a lot of other players with similar injuries before.’
“That was music to my ears. And looking around his office, I saw a lot of framed rugby jerseys. I knew they were from players grateful to have been helped and that gave me hope. I did everything he instructed me to do during the rehab programme after the surgery. I also read some positive books such as Robert H Schuller’s Tough Times Never Last But Tough People Do and Joel Osteen’s It’s Your Time, which helped make me strong mentally.”
Jele returned to the game and 10 years later he has won everything there is to win domestically: two league championships, two MTN8 titles, two Nedbank Cups as well as the Telkom Knockout. He is also one of the league’s longest serving players. You would think he’d be a contented man.
“I’m a winner and I never get tired of winning. So I’m not full yet. I still love to achieve more and the one thing that will bring me the most joy is to win a continental title for this club.”
Nicknamed Magents after Edward Motale – the former right back who lifted the African Cup of Champions Clubs as Pirates captain in 1995 – Jele would love to emulate his namesake.
“I do speak with Magents and he has always advised me to remain true to myself and not try to be him. But if there’s one thing I’d love to do that he did, it is to lift the Champions League trophy – as Happy Jele, of course, and not Magents,” he chuckles.
For that to happen, Jele has to lead the club to a local league title they last won 10 seasons ago. It is a tough task, but he believes it is doable. “We can win the championship this season. I believe we all know what is required of us to do and we all want the same. We all want to be league champions once again and we have the team good enough to do that.”
At just 34 years of age, Jele is a spring chicken compared with the likes of the late John “Shoes” Moshoeu and Siyabonga Nomvethe, who played deep into their 40s.
And with 400 matches chalked up, there is every reason to foresee Jele adding a further 100. When that happens, there’s sure to be a capacity crowd at the stadium. And whether he sheds tears or not, Jele will remain a Pirates hero in The Ghost’s eyes.