More than R100 000 has been raised for the Durban triathlete whose legs were hacked with a saw by attackers who he thought were robbing him, but did not take anything.
Within hours of a page being created by a JP Valverde on fundraising website www.backabuddy.co.za, people had made donations and wrote messages of support for Mhlengi Gwala.
The 26-year-old spoke to The Mercury shortly before going into surgery on Wednesday.
He described how three men had grabbed him off his bike near the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Rick Turner (Francois) Road just after 3am on Tuesday. He was cycling from his home in Chesterville.
“Then they pointed a gun at me and I panicked. But they didn’t say anything else and just pulled me into the bush where they started doing what they did to me,” he said.
His best friend, fellow triathlete and lifeguard Sandile Shange, cycled from Lamontville and was waiting for Gwala at their daily meeting spot at King Edward Hospital, less than 3km away.
“He said he offered them his cellphone, his watch and bike but they didn’t want them. They just held him down and started sawing his legs,” said Shange.
After the assault, Gwala used his cellphone to call Shange, from the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital.
“Luckily, I think the lights of an oncoming security guard’s car made these guys (assailants) run away. He hobbled to the road and flagged down their car on one leg. He said he thought his other leg was gone because he couldn’t feel it,” said Shange.
Sue de la Porte, who had become friends with Gwala through the close-knit triathlete community, her husband and sons spoke to The Mercury while waiting for Gwala to get out of the five-hour surgery.
“I spoke to the surgeon yesterday and they said the muscles and nerves were severed, but to what extent, they can only tell once they are inside. The good news is that they don’t think he will lose his leg, which is a huge relief, but it’s very difficult to say how bad the damage is,” said De la Porte.
While it is was worrisome that Gwala did not have feelings in one leg, the main artery was functional and the leg was getting blood.
“They said it’s probably the nerve damage. You see they started off on the one leg. They sawed right to the bone but I understand that the saw wasn’t very sharp so they couldn’t go through, so they left that leg and went to the other, but they didn’t get very far, so it wasn’t as badly damaged,” said De la Porte.
Gwala’s mother Fundi wept as she told how her son had cried, thinking that his athletics and lifesaving career was over.
“He loves what he does. He did it even when it did not pay him.”
Last month, The Mercury published an article about how Gwala had used sport to overcome his drug addiction.
Shange said Gwala had been a volunteer lifeguard for several years and was only fully employed less than a year ago.
After meeting at King Edward, the pair would cycle to Kings Park, where they joined others and trained as a group.
They would then return home before going to work as lifeguards. Gwala was stationed at South Beach and Shange at Anstey’s Beach on the Bluff.
It had been Shange who introduced Gwala to triathlons.
“Mhlengi is a strong person, physically and psychologically, but his fear is that he won’t be able to be a triathlete or a lifeguard. He loves what he does,” said Shange.
While Umbilo police are investigating a case of attempted murder, support has been pouring in for Gwala, whose ordeal has received world media attention.