Comrades champion Bong’musa Mthembu has set up a foundation for poor rural kids
He still herds cattle in the green hills that surround his home, has no ambition to live in the city and doesn’t see himself as a superstar. Bong’musa Mthembu, the man who’s clinched the Comrades Marathon title twice in three years, and became the first South African to win the gruelling race twice after Bruce Fordyce, prefers the simple life in his rural KwaZulu-Natal home.
The 33-year-old says he still runs to the shops near his footof-the-Drakensberg home in Bulwer, to buy whatever his mother, Sizeni (59) asks him to.
“I’m still a boy at home. I still herd cattle up in the hills. I take them for dipping and I fix the fence at home,” he said.
“Everything that a rural boy does at home, I do. I live at home. I love it here. I won’t move because my ancestors are here.”
Mthembu is the fifth of nine siblings. Growing up in such a large family was not something strange in his village, he said.
“Poverty was the norm. I used to go to sleep sometimes without having eaten anything. When I was growing up, I wouldn’t sleep in the house if there were missing cattle,” he added.
His father Sipho, a teacher by profession, died when he was 12 years old and his mother – a housewife – struggled to raise him and his siblings.
Mthembu’s son Sisanda, who he was photographed hugging at the finish line, is now the same age as his dad was, when his grandfather Sipho died. He would not like Sisanda to experience the hardship he went through while growing up in the village.
Mthembu studied his lower grades at the nearby Engudwini Primary before matriculating at Ndingelwa High School. In his matric year, he had to walk 22km to and from school daily.
It was in 2009 after matriculating, that Mthembu decided to travel to Pietermaritzburg in search of a job. He couldn’t afford to study further and worked for almost seven years in the construction industry, starting out as a bricklayer, before winning his first gold medal in 2014.
“I decided to take a risk. I made a decision that I needed to focus on my talent. But I did not think I would get this far,” Mthembu said.
When he won in 2014, he became the first South African in 23 years to win the 86.73km race. He came third last year.
In his 12th collective marathon in the colours of the Arthur Ford Club last Sunday, he won again in a time of 5 hours, 35 minutes and 34 seconds – three minutes ahead of Zimbabwean Hatiwande Nyamande and about six minutes faster than third-placed Gift Kelehe.
Mthembu’s collection of medals also includes silver from the world 100km championships, where he came in second in Spain last year.
But, despite his international travels, Mthembu prefers living in villages when he prepares for marathons. He trains in Lesotho, Free State and Mpumalanga.
Mthembu set up a foundation in his own name in 2014, in a bid to help provide sports equipment to young people from rural areas and see to their educational needs.
He also urges young people not to give up on their dreams: “My aim is to help whenever I can. Young people should take it from me. I’ve been through a lot of difficulties.
“It was not easy. I wanted to further my education, but I could not. I’ve used my talent, I’ve learnt to be humble and focused, so I could change my future and do away with difficulties. Don’t give up. Nothing comes easy in life.”
Young people in rural areas are physically fit and mentally strong and they need to take advantage of that, he explained.
To those who wish to compete in the Comrades Marathon, Mthembu said they must step up and enjoy the challenge, as there is a lot of support offered to athletes.
Continuing to participate in the Comrades Marathon is his main plan at the moment, and he doesn’t intend on quitting anytime soon.
Asked for a few things people don’t know about him, Mthembu replied that he is shy, quiet, speaks softly and is a “very emotional person”.