Sports

Pirates legend Lucky Lekgwathi focused on forgiveness after SA riots

Former Orlando Pirates captain Lucky Lekgwathi is unsure when, if ever, he will be able to reopen the doors to his restaurant, after it was destroyed by looters in South Africa’s recent political unrest.

Protests were sparked in Durban and Johannesburg on July 9, after former president Jacob Zuma was imprisoned for contempt of court. Zuma had repeatedly failed to appear at the Commission investigating him for alleged corruption during his presidency, and was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

The week-long riots saw nearly $350 million in damages, over 200 dead, and over 160 shopping malls looted to the point of demolition across two major provinces. Police, who were unable to quell the looters, eventually sought help from the military, while civilians took it upon themselves to defend their communities.

Current president Cyril Ramaphosa described the protests-turned-riots as an “orchestrated campaign of public violence, destruction and sabotage”. While the original protests spiralled into opportunism, questions remain about the reasons behind it as the country grapples with mass unemployment and poverty.

Lekgwathi told ESPN that he thought the looters would avoid the Grootman [his nickname, meaning Big Man] restaurant in Soweto, because of his standing in the community. But he was proven wrong.

Lekgwathi said: “I was home and I got a call [saying] that they started with looting in Kliptown [a suburb of Soweto], but they said my shop was safe.

“I was like, ‘It’s safe,’ knowing the people from there. They love me, they respect me. Most of them, they know soccer, they support soccer and they support the shop.

“It was around 10 o’clock. After a few hours, they said [that] at our shopping centre, they were busy with the shop next to me. My shop is next to the gate — they passed my shop and went to the second shop.

“Then they went to the [nearby] Shoprite [store] and then they came back. It was two guys — they went to my store, kicked the door — it was like they were playing, you know. They kicked again, they started hitting the locks. They were serious now…

“After they opened the door, other people – [I don’t think it was] their motive to join the guys, but because the shop was open, even they joined. They took everything, including the plugs and wires — they took everything.”

Lekgwathi, a rock-solid and versatile defender, captained Pirates through arguably their most successful spell ever, winning the league title and two national cups in 2010/11 before repeating the feat in 2011/12 — securing an unprecedented ‘double treble’.

He joined the Buccaneers in 2002 and stayed on board until his 2016 retirement. ‘Grootman’ was his next adventure, until disaster struck.

He added: “It was sad, working for 20 years playing soccer and saving money… After you retire, you say you’re gonna have something to help you put food on the table, then someone comes along and destroys it just like that.”

The restaurant, which had only opened in April this year, had been doing relatively well thanks to local support for Pirates’ longest-serving captain, but not well enough to afford insurance yet.

‘Grootman’ explained: “We were waiting just to make money so we could have the insurance. Even cameras — we bought them, but we didn’t have money to install them. We were still waiting to make money. Unfortunately, this thing of looting happened before we could install cameras or have insurance.”

After suffering huge damages, estimated by Lekgwathi at around R400,000 (approximately $28,000), they recouped around R20,000 ($1,400) in donations by the following Saturday. He has since launched another appeal to the public to help with the rebuild.

Unlike footballers in Europe, South African player don’t make the astronomical amounts many expect, hence the appeal for help as he’d used all his savings in the original build. Though compared to the country at large, one of the more unequal in terms of earning in the world, it’s certainly nothing to sniff at.

Having risen to superstardom from humble beginnings, Lekgwathi was initially unsure what to do with the comparatively large sums of money suddenly at his disposal during his football career. In his prime, he earned over R150,000 (roughly $10,400) per month. Initially, he invested in property, before partnering with Reza Amod, the director of a nationwide seafood eatery chain.

With eight employees, in a country with 32% unemployment, ‘Grootman by Lucky Lekgwathi’ was beginning to thrive, largely thanks to the former Bafana Bafana player’s popularity in his community.

Although Lekgwathi fancied his restaurant’s chances of surviving the unrest unscathed, three employees kept watch last Monday nonetheless. But when the mob descended on the restaurant, they were powerless to save it.

“Plenty of people were busy fighting. They went inside and broke the doors. I was outside. I was trying to go inside, but I couldn’t,” said Grootman head chef Fana Dube, a Kliptown local.

Much to the chagrin of Lekgwathi, the South African Police Service (SAPS) also failed to stop the looting. Dube said he did not speak to police, while Lekgwathi has yet to open a case, although he says he might reconsider once he had collected enough evidence.

“After I’m shown names (of looters), I’m going to talk to the people. If they don’t want to comply, I’m going to go to the police station. I don’t have rights to do anything against them, so I’m going to go to the police,” he said.

Arrangements are being made for all eight to work alternative jobs, including pop up restaurants under Lekgwathi and Amod while they wait for Grootman to reopen.

However, with no specific reopening date in sight, Dube said they were missing their old jobs: “Our lives are going to be better when [it reopens]. All of us miss it. We are stressed; even our boss is stressed. We don’t know what we are supposed to do.”

There is hope on the horizon for Grootman, however. Donations continue to pour in and Lekgwathi has been visited by minister of small business development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni and tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.

One of the unintended consequences of the looting and violence has been a widespread surge of volunteers who have helped clean up affected areas, without being asked and without any hope of compensation, fostering a sense of community and teamwork.

Lekgwathi has received similar support, saying: “We were organising to clean, but some people just went there to clean without telling me. They just volunteered. We went with some community people [on Friday]. The rubble had already been removed.

“The support of the people has been unbelievable and amazing. Even now, I am still getting messages on my social media, some of them, I can’t even read. At one stage, on my WhatsApp, I had, like, 400 messages, which is unbelievable and crazy. The support was so amazing.”

Although he had not completely given up on holding them to account, Lekgwathi said he had forgiven the rioters who wrecked his restaurant.

He said: “I wanted to go meet one of them (suspected rioters), but I was late. I was going to go and speak to him as a brother and say to him: ‘Look, I forgive you. From today, you are my friend.’ I know after I forgive them, they are the ones that are going to take care of the shop.

“I have done too many things wrong and people have forgiven me. I’m a Christian — I go to church, I read the Bible, and I have learned too many things from the pastors. When people do wrong, you must just forgive them, and then you must pray for them so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes.

“We [South Africans] are brothers. We must lead like brothers and take South Africa somewhere.”



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