JOHANNESBURG – It’s ironic that a man who comes from football royalty has to deal with people misspelling his surname.
But Rhulani Mokwena (not Mokoena) doesn’t get mad when he sees his surname misspelled – instead, that motivates him in a journey to be his own man and make his own name.
He spells his name Rulani, “because that’s what my creative side likes”, even though his identity document has it as Rhulani.
Mokwena, who uses his mother’s surname, is where he is today – as Orlando Pirates’ assistant coach right after doing the same job with the Caf Champions League-winning Mamelodi Sundowns – through his hard work and not because he used his father’s surname to open doors for him.
There would have been plenty of doors opened for Mokwena had his first introduction to South African football been him being the son of Julius “KK” Sono, which in turn makes him Jomo Sono’s nephew and Eric “Scara” Sono’s grandson.
“It gives me a huge sense of gratification that I am here because of my work and not who I know or am related to,” Mokwena said.
“And at the same time, it’s an important statement because for many years, South African football has been known to be full of nepotism. (You get ahead) based on your connections and who you know.
“I think the statement that my journey makes is a statement that would encourage many others. Even though I come from football royalty, I am pretty much an unknown because I didn’t play professional football.
“I have been able, through a lot of hard work and sacrifices, to get to where I am today. That can only speak to others that it’s possible. For many years, it hasn’t been possible.”
Mokwena continued: “I could have taken a different route, and of course with all due respect, I know I would have probably also made it with the help of my uncle and my family.
“But it was important for me to be able to say that I did, and I did it my way. This eagle flew and it flew when it jumped far from the nest and it tested its wings.
“When it found that there was strength in its wings, the eagle continued with its flight.”
This “eagle” passed an opportunity to fly back into the nest where his family enjoys legendary status. The Buccaneers approached Mokwena and Thabo Senong, the Bafana Bafana assistant coach, to join the club’s development structures in 2005 while he was still a budding junior coach.
“For some strange reason, my heart wasn’t set on going to Pirates. I don’t know why. Thabo tried to convinced me and said let’s go ‘Rhu’, let’s go man and go coach there. I said ‘Go and you will tell me how it is’.
“So he decided to go to Pirates and I went the other route to join Silver Stars (now called Platinum Stars since the 2006/07 season) – again, this was me taking the road less travelled.
“It was this inquisitiveness that I had which said I don’t follow the crowd. But I didn’t know then, I only see it now that I am tracing my footsteps how many times I have gone against the grain to take a route that didn’t have a mark with the aim of leaving a mark.
“I don’t know what was wrong with me. I come from Orlando and had an opportunity to join Pirates, and I chose Silver Stars. But I don’t think that I would be where I am today if I had not gone to Silver Stars.”
Mokwena gets animated when he talks about his time at the club that gave birth to Dikwena. He describes his time with Stars as a “high school or university that you can’t find anywhere in the world”.
He started coaching the club’s Under-15s and Under-17s before progressing to the Under-19s, and then joined the first team on the invitation of his mentor – coach Steve Komphela.
“He saw potential in me at a time I couldn’t even see potential in myself. I knew I could coach, but he ignited the flame. There was a spark in me that he lit, and I was never the same after that,” Mokwena said.
Just before his 25th birthday, Mokwena was a registered coach in the country’s elite league.
“I was asked to sit on the bench for Platinum Stars in 2009. Coach Steve Komphela had received a red card. How old was I? I was 24 at the time. I went to the office and when I got to the office, the CEO at the time, Ian Riddick, said to me ‘Congratulations. You are now registered with the PSL’.
“I looked at this guy and asked, ‘Registered at the PSL?’
“I had just come from training with the Under-19s. I would say Platinum Stars was a high school or university you would never find anywhere.
“The football intelligence that surrounded me was unbelievable. I had Cavin Johnson, who was the Head of Youth. There was Allan Freese, who worked with us in the youth and the Under-19s. I had Steve Komphela, who was the first team’s head coach.”
Mokwena continued: “These are coaches when you look at their journey, they have made a huge impact in South African football. I had them around me, cultivating me, teaching me and showing me the way…
“I remember the day vividly that I had to sit in Komphela’s place on the bench. It was in August. It was raining. It was against Boebie Solomons’ Santos. We lost 2-0.
“I still remember Erwin Isaacs scoring the first goal and Eleazar Rodgers scoring the second from a header. I can even name the starting XI we had that day. I can never forget it. We are talking about my PSL debut here. It still today gives me goose-bumps and shivers when I talk about it.”
Stars hold a special place in Mokwena’s heart, just like amateur club Sabelo Super Stars (SSS) from Orlando West. Mokwena started managing SSS as a high school pupil at Randpark High School in Randburg.
“I remember even during high school, I missed my matric dance and these Valentine’s Balls because I was rushing to my kids, who were waiting for me after school to conduct a training session with them.
“I made a lot of sacrifices socially for my coaching career. I had already set my mind that this is what I want to do after matric.”
Even though he grew up in a football family, they didn’t understand why he wanted to be a coach and not a footballer like everyone else in the family.
During that time, his teachers were telling his mother he would make a good lawyer, but he pursued his dream and went to what is now the University of Johannesburg to study Sport Science.
When your intentions are good and pure, when you serve others by responding diligently to your calling, you learn to trust that there is a future waiting for you that is beyond what you might be able to grasp at this present moment. Learn to trust the process!! pic.twitter.com/TN53Lw9l01
“He relocated to Rustenburg upon completing his degree to work with Dikwena until 2010. After that, he worked as a scout and analyst for Complete Footballers, a company started by agent and former sportscaster Walter Mokoena.
That stint made him realise how much he loved being on the field coaching. He returned to coaching in 2012 as Sundowns’ Under-15s assistant coach – a huge downgrade from someone who had ran the Bloemfontein Celtic/Sporting Lisbon academy before it had financial troubles that saw him go three months without a full salary.
Another renowned South African coach, Pitso Mosimane, invited him to the first team after seeing the work he was doing with the Sundowns juniors.
Mokwena raves about “Jingles”.
Closing a chapter. Thank you yellow nation. pic.twitter.com/5Hdgl22eS9
“He is really special. He is a perfectionist. Astute tactician. Very, very clued up on modern trends. For me, the master in South African football when it comes to preparation. He dissects each and every single opponent.
“That means you’ve got to dedicate a lot of time to that. You have to watch the last three games of every opponent. You’ve got to dissect them to find their strengths and weaknesses.
“He is fantastic on the training pitch. When you stand on the shoulders of such great coaches, it can only stimulate you so that you can see further than where they have been.”
Mokwena uses “very, very” a lot to describe something good. He gets animated when talking about football. An interview that was supposed to last 10 minutes ended up stretching for over an hour.
His best attribute is his eye for detail. Mokwena works on the minute details that players don’t even think about, but ends up making them better players.
He helped Bongani Zungu refine his talent of controlling the ball with his back foot, a skill that convinced Portuguese club Vitoria Guimaraes to sign him.
Zungu said that if he had worked with someone like Mokwena at an earlier age, he would have gone abroad sooner than he did.
“It’s the small attention to detail that separates you from the rest, and this is what has helped Bongani Zungu catch the eye of a technical director in Europe,” Mokwena said.
“I am humbled by his statement on my contribution to his game. Those are the humbling things that push you to do more, so that you can be more.”
Pirates’ players are now benefiting from Mokwena’s attention to detail. His move to the Buccaneers last year was another peculiar move, leaving a team that had conquered the continent for a team that had a disastrous season – their worst finish in the Premier Soccer League era.
But unlike his previous moves that were about travelling the road less travelled, this was personal.
He concluded an emotional message to Sundowns’ fans – explaining his departure by writing: “Now I need to try and ease the pain of this sleeping giant and wipe away my late grandfather’s tears, to allow him to rest in peace by responding to a call from a club that continues to live in him.”