When you look at the challenges he has faced, you might describe Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Veli Mothwa’s life as a series of unfortunate events.
How else can one describe the life of an individual whose life is filled with so many twists and turns that a surface reading of the facts can leave one dizzy?
How else can one describe the fact that Mothwa spent a large part of his life without parents or the fact that he does not even remember his father’s face?
And, how else can one describe the fact that his mother left him when he was a child and that he was dumped at the gate of his grandmother’s house before he could make sense of the world on his terms?
VELI MOTHWA CHOSE A DIFFERENT PATH
Yes, calling such a life, even in its early stages, a series of unfortunate events, would be apt. When confronted with such a harsh and unforgiving start to life, most individuals fall into an abyss of depression, wallowing in self-pity until they eventually drown in it.
Some turn to the bottle in a futile attempt to fill the emptiness of their own lives with booze. For others, it is worse, as they stick needles in their arms or smoke all manner of substances as they watch life slowly drift away while they search for the next high.
That is the easy route that hundreds, thousands in South Africa, from the Cape to Limpopo, choose to travel daily.
Mothwa, confronted with the harsh realities of his own life, chose a different path.
“When my mother left, I was still young; I couldn’t understand what a mother was at that point. She just left. While growing up, the family from my father’s side came to fetch me. They later dumped me at the gate of my maternal grandmother’s place,” Mothwa tells FARPost.
Growing up under the care of a grandparent, life was never going to be easy for the future Bafana goalie. For one thing, he learnt to fend for himself early. While other children were learning how to balance profit and loss in accounting textbooks, he practised it in real life. He was selling sweets to fellow learners at Boikgantsho Primary School and Gatang Secondary School to generate quick returns.
“At school, I sold sweets and would convince people to buy from me,” he recalls. “I thought I was going to be a car salesman because I knew how to interact with potential customers.”
Those who live their lives by the words of the good book say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. And in Mothwa’s case, the Maker certainly did.
HE WAS A FATHER-TO-BE
When his paternal family dropped him off at the gate of his maternal grandmother’s house when he was a hapless toddler, they did not have any idea that on their hands they harboured one of South Africa’s future goal-minders. There was no way they could have known. Even Mothwa did not see the power in his hands until he was 16. Back then, he was playing for Tuks juniors, and after a trial, he looked to be on the cusp of senior football. The same cloud of misfortune that had dogged the early part of his life hovered over his parade once again.
“I started taking football seriously in 2007 when I joined the Tuks academy. In December 2010, I had trials with the first team, and I passed. When it was time to bring the [professional] contract, they said they were not in a rush to promote me because I was still in the development squad,” says the Mamelodi-born Mothwa.
Life had never been a bed of roses for Mothwa, but at that stage, in that uncertain period between adolescence and the dawn of adulthood, it looked like it would get particularly tough. He was a father-to-be, and thus, was legitimately expected to start making his own money. Yet, the tzars at Tuks felt he was not ready for the big stage.
EARNING R1500 PER GAME
In Limpopo, he could kickstart a fledgling career while his life also continued to tick over. But he would have to settle for tournaments, funded by Chief Larry Mathabatha, that paid him R1500 per game for his goal-minding skills.
Chief Mathabatha remembers Mothwa’s first days under him. In those days, the enthusiastic and energetic lad from Pretoria just wanted to kick a football, and it did not matter which corner of the field he found himself in.
“He started as a midfielder and enjoyed playing as an infield player. But because of his height and other attributes, we thought he would do better as a goalkeeper,” Mathabatha tells FARPost.
Knowledge Aphane remembers Mothwa as a gangly bundle of talent destined for bigger things.
“I saw him at one of the tournaments. He came with Chief Larry Mathabatha. I went straight to him [Mathabatha] to say I was impressed by the boy, and he immediately said, ‘If you want him to play for your team, you can take him. I know that he can go far with you,” Aphane, the founder of Fanang Diatla, tells FARPost.
SNIFFING FOR HIS SIGNATURE
At Fanang Diatla, Mothwa’s talents quickly became evident. It would not be long before bigger sides would come around sniffing for his signature. Baroka FC, already a competent nursery for young talent, was the first to get a whiff of the gangly lad who was making such a big impression between the sticks.
Bakgakga, then a Vodacom League side, organised a friendly with Fanang Diatla specifically to assess him after hearing of his exploits.
“After that game, the chairman [of Baroka Khurishi Mphahlele] came up to me and asked where I was from. He asked how old I was, and whether I had a team,” recalls Mothwa.
The Baroka supremo, Mphahlele, admits he was instantly impressed. “I could see potential in him although he was still raw at the time,” Mphahlele tells FARPost.
The path to superstardom is often paved with hardship. As one who had never had anything delivered on a silver platter to him throughout his life, Mothwa quickly learnt that even at Baroka, where he had been so passionately headhunted, he would have to fight for a starting berth. He was the fifth in the pecking order, and he fought to become the first choice.
“In 2013, we finished fourth and 2014 Chippa United came in and said they needed my services,” he recalls.
PROFESSIONAL HAZARDS STOOD IN THE WAY
At this point, if he were a superstitious fellow, Mothwa would have believed that he was a cursed man. As he signed his first PSL contract with Chippa, he lost his grandmother, the woman who had picked him as nothing on her doorstep and had raised him until he had made something of his life. Soon after, he would lose his mother, whom he had embraced in his later life after almost a lifetime spent away from each other.
“Just as I was accepting my granny’s death, my mother, who came back into my life when I was 17, passed on before I played my first game in the PSL. But I’m grateful that I got to meet her,” he says.
As if such painful personal losses were not enough, professional hazards also stood in the way of Mothwa’s career in those dark days in 2014.
Out of the blue, he found himself as the subject of a tug-of-war between Baroka and Polokwane City, who now claimed that he was rightfully their player. For the next 13 months, he would only train with Chippa, who were keen to sign him.
TOSSED BACK TO BAROKA
After so long on the sidelines, those in the Chippa dugout were not as eager as they were to put Mothwa in between the sticks. After taking a step in his career, he found himself two steps back, as he was tossed back to Baroka in the lower division to prove himself. He would have to pull himself by the bootstraps to the top again.
Mphahlele credits Mothwa as the signing that took Baroka up a level and secured much-needed promotion for the Limpopo side in 2016.
“He fit in well. He did well for us; he is the one who promoted us to the first division,” the Baroka boss adds.
Chippa came back knocking in July 2016. Some would have thought that registering with Chippa would be where Mothwa’s tale of woe would finally start to turn. One could not be blamed for expecting this dark fairy tale to get brighter. However, things in Mothwa’s life have never been that simple or easy. He did not get any game time at Chippa and suddenly, memories of those days of a desperate teenager getting repeatedly snubbed by Tuks came flooding back.
“I only played eight minutes between 2017 and 2019,” he stresses. It took the coming of Zimbabwean coach Norman Mapeza to change his fortunes.
“Veli had been at the club for so long, and he wasn’t playing. I could tell he was a good goalkeeper, and he was working very hard. I thought to give every player a chance to play football,” Mapeza tells FARPost.
Mothwa recalls the day that he would get his debut against AmaZulu as if it were yesterday. This is understandable. After years in the trenches, toiling under the shadows of other goalkeepers, he was told that he was going to start and lead his side in battle.
CRACKING THE BAFANA NOD
He has come a long way since that rainy day in Durban. “He took it well. I’m happy now he’s among the best goalkeepers in South Africa,” adds Mapeza, now coach of Zimbabwe side FC Platinum.
Before long, Mothwa would find himself returning to KZN. Only this time, he would not be playing against AmaZulu FC but turning out in their colours. Leaving Chippa, where he had finally got his big chance in the PSL, was not easy. He remembers bidding a teary farewell to his teammates when the time to say goodbye came.
Less than two seasons later, he has cracked the nod at Bafana where he deputises Ronwen Williams. A slice of luck, something that he has never always had in life, led to his involvement with Bafana.
“The COSAFA story is funny because I wasn’t part of the initial squad. During my [belated] 30th birthday party [in June], the call came. Wearing that jersey felt so good. And winning the COSAFA Cup without conceding a single goal meant a lot,” says Mothwa, who turns 33 in February.
Mothwa highlights the incredible journey he’s taken, going from playing in dusty fields to representing his nation on the biggest stage. He recognises this as a dream come true and cherishes the opportunity.
“Being in the national team set-up is a blessing; it means a lot… To be in the national team now, the first time I play AFCON. When I was in the dusty fields of Ga-Mathabatha, I never thought I would be here one day. It’s a happy moment that I need to embrace.”
From the toddler left at his grandmother’s doorstep, Mothwa has undoubtedly had a fulfilling journey. It has been a journey that has illustrated his indomitable spirit and a never-say-die attitude that has seen him overcome the toughest odds.
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