Thato Mokeke didn’t harbour any ambition to be a professional footballer when he was growing up. He wanted to be a doctor. Football had other intentions, though.
“I did not see football as a career in the long term. I was just playing it to pass time,” says the 31-year-old whose passes measured to surgical precision heal the souls of Cape Town City supporters. “But it grew on me when I joined SuperSport [United’s academy]. When I was about 16 or 17, that is when I started training with the first team sometimes, with some of the older guys, and that’s when I thought maybe I can also become a professional player.”
Matsatsantsa a Pitori scouted Mokeke when he was just 12 and representing Northern Cape at the Danone Nations Cup, the world’s biggest football tournament for children between the ages of 10 and 12. It was the Galeshewe-born midfielder’s mother who urged him to attend the trials and see what happened. He made the cut and relocated from Kimberley to Pretoria, where he studied at Rosina Sedibane Modiba Sports School in Centurion, which has ties with SuperSport United.
He quit the club in 2010 when he wasn’t promoted to the first team while his peers were moving up . “I decided to go home for a few months. They called me and told me that I needed to come back. They told me they would organise something for me, and they convinced me to come back,” he says.
“We played a bit of Castle League and then we got promoted to the Vodacom League. They still did not promote me to the first team. I told them, you know what, this is not going to work. Let me rather take my clearance and leave.”
Mokeke left the administrative capital for the legislative capital, where he spent four seasons on the books of the now defunct Ajax Cape Town. He returned to SuperSport in 2015, but his time there was short-lived. An injury saw him loaned to Cape Town City as a sweetener for SuperSport’s acquisition of Aubrey Modiba from The Citizens.
“I was a little bit happier about returning to Cape Town because I was not playing at that time, so I was like maybe this is another chance to reinvent myself or to revive my career. I was recovering from an injury, so I thought maybe this will work out for me. That is how I took it. I didn’t take it that I’m being used,” says Mokeke.
In 2016, he would have the last laugh when The Citizens beat his parent club in the final of the Telkom Knockout. “I was motivated because I was on loan, I was like now I need to show them that they made a mistake. But obviously I was more concerned about us [Cape Town City] winning because it was a chance for us to make history, because the team was like four months old. For us that also played a role that we should win the cup for the first time with the team and be the first guys to do it.”
Since then, Mokeke and The Citizens have established themselves in South African football. Mokeke joined City’s 100 Club in June 2021, having earned a century of appearances in four seasons despite a short stint at Chippa United between his loan spell in 2016 and signing permanently for the club in 2019. City beat Black Leopards 3-1 in that encounter, relegating Lidoda Duvha to the GladAfrica Championship while Mokeke earned the Man of the Match accolade.
“It was a special moment for me because it is something that, even when you leave the team, the name is still there. Your name will tell them that I actually played there. I think it is a good initiative what they are doing with the 100 caps, as it keeps the players longer and also gives you the motivation that before you make a move you want to reach those 100 caps,” says Mokeke, whose temperament is extraordinarily calm.
‘Match made in heaven’
Cape Town has become Mokeke’s second home. His frustrating stint in Gqeberha with Chippa confirmed that there is something special between him and the Mother City. When his contract ended with SuperSport in 2017, Mokeke spent a few months clubless. He stayed with his girlfriend and daughter in Pretoria and used this time to bond with them. He says their presence and affection saved his life. Eric Tinkler, with whom Mokeke had worked at SuperSport and City, threw him a lifeline when he signed him at Chippa.
“The plan was to go there and revive my career as I did not have a team for almost three months. They did not offer me a good contract, but I was like at least I’ll be playing. I played a few games and they fired Eric. After Eric was fired, because he is the one I had a relationship with, they fired me along with almost all the players that came with him. They were like, we are going to let you go, which I didn’t understand because I was playing most of the games,” says Mokeke.
He returned to The Citizens in 2019 and has never looked back. “Maybe it was just a match made in heaven that I need to play my professional football in Cape Town. Whenever I play in Joburg or Pretoria, I always travel with injuries, which derails my progress a little bit. When I am in Cape Town, I get injured, but it is not as much as when I go to Joburg. In Joburg I get big injuries and I’m ruled out for six months or longer.”
Mokeke understands that his playing career will be over soon, which is why he is planning for his next career. It won’t be in the medical profession though. Rather, he’ll stay in football after studying sports management. He was studying property management, but Covid-19 derailed those ambitions.
Mokeke says he always asks himself what is next. “I need to know, what am I going to do after football? It is something that is on my mind each and every day. Am I going to go into coaching? Am I going to go into business? Youngsters should plan for life after football earlier. I think the earlier the better, so you know where you go after football.”