Whenever I called him to talk all matters Bloemfontein Celtic, the old man would respond as above – his husky voice that made him sound like he was speaking in hushed tones making his story believable. After all, that’s how we all speak on the phone when we are in the bank, right? In whispers. And him being a businessman, I initially bought his story.
But as time went on, I realised that I was simply being spun a yarn. For even if I called him after 4pm, his response would be the same.
Yet, I never lost respect for the man I’d grown to admire when I was still a young lad following football.
My early memories of Ntate Molemela – who passed away on Sunday – are from way back in the 80s when super-suites were unheard of at our football stadiums and he would be seen just behind the fence alongside the touchline – his snow-white hair giving him away as he watched his team in action.
Later on, he took to wearing a long robe and a green sombrero and always rushed on to the field to celebrate a Celtic victory. It was one of local football’s most beautiful sights, to see a club boss rushing to give his players bear hugs.
I was at Potchefstroom’s Olen Park in 2005 when Paul Dolezar led Celtic to the SAA Supa 8 title at the expense of SuperSport United, and to say that victory meant the world to Ntate Molemela, would be an understatement. With Dolezar, his suit wet from the champagne that had been poured on him, crazily celebrating with the injured Posnett Omony, Ntate Molemela went on to the field – resplendent in green robe and sombrero – to join in the revelry. It was beautiful.
He no longer owned Celtic then, but as the club’s life president he was at the match – and how grand that the team delivered.
After many years of having seen the club suffer, even to the extent of being relegated from the elite league, Ntate Molemela could finally taste another success – the cup triumph coming exactly 20 years since Celtic’s other cup victory, the 1985 Mainstay Cup.
That success served to illustrate ol’ Whitehead’s shrewdness as a football and the fact that he almost immediately got the club going fully professional by being among the first clubs to pay the players elevated his standing among local administrators.
That side remains to me one of the greatest local teams ever put together. Coached by Dave Roberts, Molemela’s team had one of my favourite all-time football stars – Ernest 'Wire' Mtawali – back then Chirwali – pulling the strings from the heart of the field. Wire was one of the many Malawian stars in the Celtic team, with the likes of the late John Banda, Stock Dandize and Lovemore Chafunya, also part of the side. There were also Mozambicans Albert Sibiya and Eden Katango, as well as Lesotho’s Ambrose Mosala. Mtawali said yesterday that “Ntate has ran his race”.
The man, who has a daughter with Molemela’s daughter, only has fond memories of the old man.
“He was very passionate about football and even back then he handled the club very professionally and had us train twice a day. Besides paying us, which was rare back then, he also had most of us staying and eating at his hotel for free. He sacrificed a lot for the team and took money from his businesses and invested it into the team. He was a true professional and Celtic became as big as it is because of the solid foundations he laid.”
While he has no doubt left a great legacy, the one pleasing thing is that Ntate Molemela was honoured while he was still alive, with the Seisa Ramabodu Stadium renamed after him. He deserved nothing less.