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Why Happy Jele was the heart and soul of Orlando Pirates

In one of the dark corners of the internet, on a YouTube page with only a couple of thousands of subscribers, one can find a video of a football match featuring defender Happy Jele playing as a goalkeeper for Orlando Pirates.

When that particular match began, Pirates’ goal-minder was Jackson Mabokgwane. After he handled the ball outside the penalty area, the referee gave him his marching orders.

Bucs had already made their three substitutions. They were wounded, and a Gavin Hunt-coached Wits could smell blood. 

As he had done with the Buccaneers many times, skipper Jele stepped in. As a makeshift keeper, he thwarted wave after wave of Wits attacks as Pirates were beaten 2-1. That self-sacrifice and bravery defined ‘Magents’, a man scouted by Pirates as a fresh-faced 19-year-old while playing for Walter Stars in sleepy Middelburg in Mpumalanga. 

Jele as a teenager

Ever since he pulled on the black and white shirt in 2006, the centre-back never looked back, representing the Soweto giants with pride. One-club men are rare in modern football, and this, with his bravery and fearlessness, made Jele a darling of the Sea Robbers faithful. 

“He is an amazing human being, not easily swayed. He is a leader by nature,” said the Magents’ agent Jazzman Mahlakgane, who has worked with him for 14 years.

“What I enjoyed was his attitude towards his colleagues. He treats them with respect. It’s the same on and off the field. He broke into the first team when he was young, and at that time, I was interested in this young man who was a solid human being. I wanted to see his beautiful human spirit rub onto others. I don’t regret it.”

When Jele broke into the Pirates’ first team, he was barely an adult, coming from a team that was as unknown as he was. The bright lights of Johannesburg have been known to sway and blind many an up-and-coming young Diski prince, and for Jele to maintain his discipline and focus for so long speaks volumes of his drive and focus.  

Over a decade-and-a-half, since he started representing the Skull and Crossbones, Mahlakgane believes Jele remains an epitome of professionalism.  

“He is not only exemplary to the guys in my stable but also his colleagues. If you have to hear anything about Happy, it’s positive. Otherwise, someone is deliberately trying to taint him.

Mahlakgane’s offices

“When I asked him [to join my stable] the first time, he was shocked because I was working with players who were doing well [Teko Modise and Siphiwe Tshabalala], and he was not sure if that would happen. There was a connection between the two of us. Now he’s family to me. He is just a simple, humble soul,” Mahlakgane told FARPost.

When Jele and newly signed SuperSport defender Thulani Hlatshwayo met on a plane to Congo Brazzaville, the two competed for the same spot on the national side. Jele could have been excused for treating the younger Hlatshwayo with hostility as the older and more established of the two. On that flight to Central Africa, however, the two instead struck a bond that would stay strong for the next decade.

For the former Bafana Bafana skipper, who went on to play with him at Pirates for two years, the 35-year-old’s discipline has kept him at the top.

“We have the same personality; we are both introverts. Discipline, loyalty and consistency have kept him in the game for so long…. He has respected the game and his club,” Hlatshwayo told FARPost in a previous interview.

After a good 16 years of service at the Soweto giants, Jele seemed to be part of the furniture at the Buccaneers. In fact, when Irvin Khoza handed him the Chairman’s award in 2018, he called him a “rare breed” that had dedicated his life to the club. 

The last of a dying breed

His knowledge of the ins and outs at Pirates made him an asset not only to his teammates but even to successive coaches at the club. “When an opportunity came at Pirates, Happy Jele was one of the first people I engaged with for inside information. He is very authentic. He puts his heart on his sleeve. He dies for the cause. That’s probably one of the key values of many leaders. He understands the ecosystem and the environment. He is also an authentic human being,” said Rulani Mokwena, who spent three years in a coaching capacity at Pirates. 

When Jele put on the gloves and stepped in between the sticks against The Students, it was a noble action that only a person that loves Pirates could have taken. 

Such acts have made Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojević, a man who coached Jele in two different stints at the Bucs, believe that he plays for the club like a passionate fan plucked off the stands and dropped on the pitch. His blood is black and white. A man always ready to die for the Skull and Crossbones.

“Simple explanation: if you are supporting one team, you would like to have players that play like supporters. His only problem was that he was never advertising himself and his contributions. He spoke with actions, not verbalising through the media as a pure soldier of the club that once even went to be goalkeeper ready to die a little for his team needs,” Micho told FARPost

After 16 years, eight trophies, over 400 appearances, 18 goals and gallons of sweat shed on the pitch, Jele leaves the club with pride.

Jele won eight trophies with the club

“Happy is a special character who has answered every call the club has made of him throughout the years, which is why he has a future at the club beyond his playing days.

“Everyone at Orlando Pirates Football Club would like to express the enormous gratitude to Happy Jele and wish him the best of luck for the future,” the club’s statement reads.  

In his own statement, the revered skipper said: “I am proud to have represented the Ghost with dedication, loyalty and humility and I hope I didn’t disappoint.”

Happy ‘Magents’ Jele is the ultimate professional’s professional, a man respected by both comrades and rivals! Even after his exit, his legacy towers above all.

Jele made more than 400 appearances

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