Mongezi Mata stunned global audiences in Slovenia when he won his first international bodybuilding title. Travelling with 13 other athletes from South Africa, the 30-year-old won the men’s over-90kg class at the 2022 International Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation world championships in Slovenia.
It fulfilled Mata’s longtime dream of becoming a pro athlete. “Winning was something I have always worked towards. To think of the challenges that I faced coming here, I hope my story inspires young people,” he said.
Mata’s bodybuilding career began with an upcycled iron rod and cement added to each end. At the time, he was an unemployed 18-year-old who couldn’t afford to join a commercial gym. Growing up in a rural area of the Sundays River Valley, where the local municipality is under-resourced and there are limited if any recreational facilities, forced Mata and his gym mates to make their own weights.
Mata realised at this tender age that weightlifting was his escape from the socioeconomic ills in his community. He remembers being influenced by a group of weightlifters who lifted weights for fun in his street and soon committed to doing the same daily.
“I was watching how the men around my neighbourhood were taking care of their bodies while weightlifting. I used to get into two taxis just to go to gyms far away. The only way I could afford to buy supplements was by saving R5 every day,” said Mata.
It was bodybuilding coach Lwazi Buso who noticed Mata’s potential. He would later be influential in Mata becoming a professional bodybuilder. “When the coach saw my potential and helped me enter my first competition, that made me more committed to the sport.”
Mata established a dietary regimen that, although expensive, he knew he needed if he was to succeed. “I learnt some of the diet plans from my gym mates, I saw that they ate certain foods and I also started eating food like raw eggs, supplements and lots of protein food. I just loved the lifestyle of bodybuilding and how it influenced a disciplined mindset,” he said.
Mata’s first showcase was in Pretoria in 2019, where he won first place in the 90kg set. He qualified for the South African championships, where he won third place, the same year. And then he entered the second category of the competition, which won him another trophy when he took third place. “I competed in the SA Champs with international participants. There were people that came from all over the world, even countries like India.”
The Covid-19 pandemic prevented Mata from competing again until 2021, when he came second in a competition in Mossel Bay. It was here that the International Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation selected him as one of 14 to represent South Africa in Slovenia.
Mata excelled despite an underprivileged upbringing in an impoverished rural area of the Eastern Cape, where the roads are gravel and the municipality fails to deliver basic services. “We tried asking the department of sport for funding in 2013, but they told us they can’t fund us due to the sport being an individual sport and not a team sport,” said Buso. The only funding received was through the IFBB SA, he added, which was limited and not enough to sponsor Mata fully.
Mata became hopeful when Volkswagen South Africa stepped up to help sponsor his trip to Slovenia. This funding combined with the proceeds of a fundraising event in Addo was enough for him to compete in his first international competition.
The next generation
To develop the sport in the area, Mata started his own gym in Addo where he trains young people. He used his limited funds to buy second-hand equipment from commercial gyms around Gqeberha, but hopes that his win in Slovenia will change this.
“Now that the win has given me a pro athlete status, I am hoping this will assist in bettering our gym with sponsorships,” he said.
“This sport is overlooked tremendously, even though it is a discipline sport. There are no facilities in Addo, even the old equipment we use is not up to standard.”
Mata said his mental strength is what drove him to success. He used the lack of adequate sports facilities in Addo as motivation and became an overachiever.
Mata hopes to inspire Addo’s young people to take up the discipline. He has started mentoring young aspiring bodybuilders and hopes that his plans for the gym will allow them to circumvent the struggles he has faced in his own career.