Rhulani Mokwena’s eyes were bloodshot and his tone was sombre as he held court at Orlando Stadium’s auditorium. The energetic and eloquent young coach that South Africa and the continent has come to know was replaced by a drained figure who looked like he was aged by Orlando Pirates’ week from hell.
He still had his sense of humour though. “Nazibeka zonke kimi?” “Why have you put everything in front of me?” he asked journalists who placed most of their recorders in front of him even though he was joined by the victorious coach, Highlands Park’s Owen da Gama.
“Anisasheri? Awu nkosi yami!” “You don’t even place them equally across the table. Oh my lord,” he continued before wearing the serious face he entered the room with.
It wasn’t the result that most took a toll on Mokwena, although that contributed to how he looked and sounded. The 1-0 loss to Highlands in the MTN8 made it three defeats in a row for the Soweto giants. Zambia’s Green Eagles inflicted the first blow on 10 August in the first leg of their CAF Champions League’s preliminary round tie in Lusaka. Four days later SuperSport United knocked out the Buccaneers with a 3-0 drubbing at Mbombela Stadium in the Absa Premiership. But the body blow that hurt Pirates the most was the abrupt resignation of coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic.
“You could see in the pitch that there’s a lot that has happened within the last 48 hours,” Mokwena said. Sredojevic’s resignation took a toll on the players and Mokwena because he was the glue that held the team together and they didn’t see it coming. But the show had to go on with Mokwena elevated from assistant to lead the Buccaneers in the interim.
Steadying the Sea Robbers’ ship
This wasn’t the first time the 32-year-old was thrown in the deep end. Ten years ago in August, he stood in for the suspended Steve Komphela at Silver Stars against Santos. He once described that match, his Premier Soccer League debut as a coach, as one of the most emotional moments of his career. A decade later he was in an even tougher environment, having to steady the Sea Robbers’ ship that has hit troubled waters. The plan was always for Mokwena to take over from Sredojevic when the time was right.
The Serbian’s resignation fast-tracked that plan, giving Mokwena a tough audition for the hot seat in the club’s most challenging time since they flirted with relegation in the 2016-17 season. The first question posed to Mokwena was does he think that he is ready to lead Pirates, having turned down head coach positions from other clubs in the past?
“I think that after a performance like that and three straight [negative] results, it would be unwise to even start to think of myself,” Mokwena said. “When you have been called to serve, you have to always try and think less about yourself but put the team first instead. At this moment in time, it becomes difficult to detach myself from what the team is going through. As much as I can explain and elaborate what this means for myself, but as a club at this moment in time we are feeling a lot.
“Regardless of how I feel and regardless of the honour bestowed upon me to lead an institution like this, it counts for nothing when as a club and an institution we are not in a good way. We have to stick together and raise the level of the performance.”
The start of a revolution?
Mokwena’s relationship with Sredojevic was constantly under the microscope since the pair started working together on 10 August two years ago. The Serbian described Mokwena as his brother, revealing that they don’t read much into their titles of head coach and assistant which is why Mokwena was given the freedom he enjoyed. He stood up more than Sredojevic in certain matches, barking instructions and directing traffic – a rare occurrence in South African football that’s used to assistants who are treated as glorified ball boys. Those who didn’t understand their relationship said Mokwena undermined Sredojevic.
“There’s a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of psychological experts speaking about the relationship between I and Micho, not knowing how close we are and how affected I was also by the news of his resignation,” Mokwena said. “It’s unfortunate that the [Serbian’s] personal issues have been going on for quite some time and they were affecting him. But I think that it is important that we respect that space, respect him not just as a colleague but also as a human being and a brother – not dwell too much on that and try to focus more on trying to improve the team and move forward. That is my focus at the moment.”
Mokwena has an opportunity to lead a revolution in South African football. At 32 he is still part of the youth. Managing a club of Pirates’ stature is a big deal, and should he succeed he would open the doors for many young coaches who have been looked down on because they don’t have “experience”.
Most of the coaching appointments in the country lack imagination. Teams either hire European journeymen who have more former clubs than socks or recycle the same coaches over and over again. In an interview I had with Mokwena three years ago he jokingly called that exercise regurgitating.
It’s technically true, in a way this is like swallowing what someone else has thrown up and hoping that it will give you nourishment. Mokwena is not only young, energetic and a breath of fresh air, he has also earned his stripes. The lad from Soweto started coaching Sabelo Super Stars’ Under-13 while he was still at school before going on to coach Silver Stars’ Under-19 team, was eventually promoted to the first team and he worked as a scout and analyst for Walter Mokoena’s Complete Football Stars, whose clients included Pirates’ captain Happy Jele.
Mokwena headed the Bloemfontein Celtic-Sporting Lisbon academy as well as coaching its Under-19s before joining Mamelodi Sundowns’ Under-15 team as an assistant coach in 2011. He worked his way right up until he was the first team’s assistant. His career highlight is being part of the Sundowns team that won the 2016 CAF Champions League to earn a ticket to play in the Fifa Club World Cup.
Mokwena left Sundowns to join a team whose blood runs in his veins as the son of Julius “KK” Sono, which in turn makes him Eric “Scara” Sono’s grandchild and Jomo Sono’s nephew. Instead of using his connections to get ahead, he chose to make a name for himself by doing it the hard way – constantly going against the grain like when he rejected Pirates to work for Silver Stars.
“There are so many young coaches out there who are not given an opportunity that I have been given,” Mokwena told me three years ago. “Through the grace of God, I have been blessed with this opportunity but I’ve got to make a success of it. There are so many others that are behind me in this queue, who are waiting for their opportunity. But if I mess up, and I don’t show that young coaches who are pure students of the game can make it, then I give little hope to the next generation of young technicians. That’s what drives me to succeed.”
The Buccaneers find themselves at a crossroads, with two seasons of rejuvenation under Sredojevic having restored Pirates’ pride but they still haven’t won a trophy since 2014. Finishing second in the 2017-18 season was an achievement after the disappointment of the previous campaign. Last season’s second-place finish was a blow, especially having been in control of the league race right until the second last match. They have to win something this season to show that they are on an upward trajectory, which means Mokwena’s promotion couldn’t have come at a more difficult time – but also if he succeeds he will endear himself to the Ghost and fulfil his mission of awakening a sleeping giant to wash away his grandfather’s tears.
First steps as a coach
It was poetic that Mokwena started this journey at Orlando Stadium – the Mecca of South African football, a stadium where he enjoyed VIP status before it had VIP suites. Growing up as a member of South African football royalty, he enjoyed special privileges like sitting closer to the pitch than any spectator. It’s also here that his coaching seed was first planted.
“My earliest coaching memories, I think that I was three or four years old,” he said in 2016. “I was at Orlando Stadium, I remember a white guy coaching. I don’t remember what team it was, but my father was playing. My father collected me from the touchline to the change room. There was this guy who was talking and so were the players, I don’t remember if it was halftime or at the end of the match.
“But I remember that I took a piece of chalk and I started scribbling exactly what the coach had written. I didn’t know that it was the coach because I don’t think that I had the intelligence or the intellectual capacity at the time to know what was happening. When I think about my journey, it’s those sorts of pictures that come into my mind that says that I don’t think that this was an accident. It is something that was meant to be.”
What made Mokwena’s partnership with Sredojevic work well was their good cop, bad cop act. They interchanged the roles. Sredojevic was the loving father figure who cracked jokes and won over players on his first day by knowing all their names and their stories. Mokwena was the knowledgeable and cool brother that they can speak to on a brotherly level.
Sredojevic and Mokwena were stern when the situation demanded it. Mokwena not only has to work on the new dynamics of his relationship with Fadlu Davids, but also with the players, now that the buck stops with him. Davids, 38, is another young coach trailblazer. The pair have a good relationship that stretches back to before working together at Pirates. Three years ago Mokwena explained how he won over players older than him.
“Players are very intelligent,” Mokwena said. “Players give respect when you give them respect. That is critical. For me, it is important to respect the human being and have respect in my conduct. How I talk to players and how I carry myself is important. You’ve got to have respect to get respect. But at the same time also respect those who don’t respect you, so you teach them respect. That is critical.
“They also respect you when they know that you know what you’re talking about, and they see quality in you, in your sessions, talk and how you conduct yourself. From a technical perspective, they pay attention to the discussions you have and that’s where you are then able to go over and above the boundaries.
“People laugh when I say this, but it’s true, football is the most important of the least important things in life. In life, it is about the principles, respect, humility, serving, diligence and working hard. Those are the qualities that are far more important than three points. When you conduct yourself in a manner that shows that you care not just about their football space but you also care about them as human beings – that’s when you are able to get into the minds and hearts of players.”
‘He must just fly’
A familiar face sat opposite Mokwena in Pirates’ clash with the Lions of the North. Highlands’ assistant coach, Allan Freese, is among the people who welcomed him into the coaching industry and also mentored him during their days at Silver Stars. Cavin Johnson, Komphela, Pitso Mosimane and then Sredojevic are some of the coaching giants from whom he has learned. One of those coaches sent him a message to wish him well just before Pirates took on Highlands.
“He must just fly,” Mosimane said. “I told you guys a long time ago, when he was still next to me that I think that he is going to be better than me in the future. He still has to travel the road. He shouldn’t worry about the loss [against Highlands]. It’s part of football.
“I just hope that it doesn’t get to a situation where people say, ‘See, we told you that he can’t do it as a head coach?’ You know how life is. I hope that you are going him to give him a chance. Everybody has been given a chance, why not him?”
Update, 26 August 2019: The original article stated that Mokwena was 34 instead of 32.