Max MatavireBy Max Matavire|November 2, 2021|14 Minutes

Billionaire Today

From winning the Rugby world cup to serving the best cut.

It was a long and grittypath. From passing a rugby ball of rags through the dusty, poor, streets of New Brighton to kissing the golden Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup. On that victorious, shimmering, night for South African rugby, in Paris in 2007, Zola Yeye lived that rare and elusive dream. Late in life, he embarks on another challenge – that of becoming an entrepreneur near his roots.

It didn’t matter that it was a makeshift rugby ball held together by string and rags; the young Zola Yeye could pass it sweetly. When he ran like the wind through the dusty streets of New Brighton, near Port Elizabeth; if ever a man was born to play rugby in the right country at the wrong time- it was him.

Yet, it didn’t matter how good he was; in apartheid days, he couldn’t play for his country because of the colour of his skin. How many promising South African athletic careers perished on that rock?

Thirty years on from this frustration and despair, golden confetti tumbled from the roof at the Stade de France in Paris and fireworks spat sparks high into the night sky.

On October 20 2007, South Africa beat their former colonial masters England 15-6. Coach Jake White and a team illuminated by talented winger Bryan Habana had brought the world cup to Africa for the second time The nation was behind them; Nelson Mandela visited the training camp.

As fate would have it, Yeye was standing proudly on the side lines, in his smart green-and-gold blazer, as the first black manager of the Springboks proud as punch. The fleet-footed Habana could have been his spiritual son.

At the final whistle ,Yeyemovedlike the wind across the lush green of the stadium to complete a remarkable journey from the dust of New Brighton. He kissed the  gleaming trophy in the heart of the very arena once denied him; he radiated joy  at the right elbow of then President Thabo Mbeki in a heaving group of celebrating South Africans.

As the team revelled in victory, Yeye and a colleague lifted President Mbeki onto their  shoulders;  White handed the trophy to the head of state who held it over his head.

Fingers were pointed at me and l was labelled a political appointee. What they did not know was that I was a fully-fledged black Springbok. I was a sporting activist who believed that no normal sport in an abnormal society -that became our crying mantra "

”That was great inspiration, especially for me because I knew I was supported by the country’s leadership. I feel I played my role in sport and very proud about my achievements as Springboks manager,” he says as he answers a call from his phone.

It was one memorable step in a longer journey towards being an entrepreneur at a time of life when many consider retirement. A journey that stretches back more than 60 years.

It was a humble start. He was born in 1955,  the only child of Vela and GirlsieYeye; he spent quite a bit of his childhood in Adelaide – a farming town with a population of 12,000 in the Eastern Cape- living with his grandfather, Freddie Mkhonto.

”This man spoilt me rotten. He had a trucking business and used to assist the communities in Adelaide by ferrying their  agricultural produce to the markets and providing other transportation services. Freddie became a huge influence in my life through his teachings of believing in hard work, dedication and his diehard spirit,” says Zola in an interview with Billionaire Tomorrow at his BlawaButchery andchesanyama– a hot meat grill as South African as a springbok- in New Brighton. Here his customers sink their teeth into meat in the same place where Yeye cut his teeth as a young rugby player.

Bhuti Zola, as he is known, has been a good pupil in life. His grandfather taught him that if you start a thing, finish it. -if you attend school, you must qualify.

”He also used to say to me if you don’t know something, ask. You might be a fool for a few seconds, because you asked, but you become a wiseman for the rest of your life. This advice became my mantra and I carried it for the rest of my life,” says Yeye.

He says as an only child, he grew up in a high moral and disciplined environment in which hardwork, discipline and honesty were highly respected.  He started his education at Molefe Primary School – a school he describes as ”moulded along the Roman-Spartan disciplinary lines.”

Excellence was enforced by corporal punishment. He says it lent him a thick-skin and prepared him to endure  pain.

”The teachings I got at my primary school are still embedded in my subconscious. One of my teachers there used to say, you can dodge and dodge (school), but you cannot dodge the consequences of dodging. Education is the key to open any doors in life,” he said.

In 1976, Yeye, rising as a rugby player, arrived at High School at the age of 14. This  was Cowan High, a popular school in New Brighton where actor John Kaniwas a pupil.

Cowan High, according to Yeye, was ”an intellectual nursery” with a principal, Frank Tongeni, fluent in both Latin and English. Tongenirose from apoor background and inspired his pupils to do the same.

”From there on, I started to believe that champions came from ordinary people with extraordinary determination.”

Because he was good at both athletics and rugby, Yeye was chosen as a prefect and captained the rugby team.

Then came political turmoil in the shape of the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto – a protest against teaching in Afrikaans –that saw many schoolchildren shot dead in the township on the doorstep of Johannesburg. It also spread death pain in many other schools across the country.

Yeye led demonstrations at Cowan High School leading to the arrest of 100 students. Police shot one of his young female classmates. She died as he cradled her head on his lap in back of a van as it sped, in vain,  to reach hospital in time to save her.

When high school was done, Yeye enrolled at Fort Hare University in Alice, Eastern Cape, in 1977 to study law.

Fort Hare was a political hotbed. African leaders, including the late  Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Seretse Khama of Botswana, Julius Nyrerere the former president of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela all studied there. You could say a large number of the thinkers and revolutionaries of Africa studied and honed their activism at Fort Hare.

Yeye met his  political mentor at Fort Hare, the late Reverend Mankenkesi Stofile, who later became South Africa’s Sports Minister and ambassador to Sweden.

”It was again politics at Fort Hare, fuelled even more this time by the death of Steve Biko on September 12, 1977. We protested and some of us were expelled and  I could not complete my B Proc degree and had to return to Port Elizabeth,” says Yeye.

Back home, he picked up a rugby ball once again and caught the eye of Dan Qeqe, a well-known black rugby administrator. He wanted Yeye to play for Kwazakhele Rugby Union, better known as Kwaru. This was a well-established township rugby club,which made world headlinesby recruiting the Watson brothers -Cheeky and Gavin- who defied apartheid laws by joining a black rugby  team and playing rugby in the townships.

Yeye captained Kwaru and remains one of the few Kwaru players denied the Springboks colours because they were black. He also played for Springrose Rugby Club, another New Brighton team, which he also captained.  He got a job in  Uitenhage, now Kariega, as a librarian; a job he describes as ”funny and strange.”

”In 1991, I then joined the SABC as a newsreader, then I became a television reporter and moved up the ranks to become the Eastern Cape regional general manager. During my stint at SABC, I was head-hunted by the South  African Rugby Union (Saru) to become Springboks team manager. In 2006, I joined Saru as Springbok manager with Jake White as the coach. I became the first black rugby World Cup winning manager -one of the biggest highlights in my life -serving my country and my people -that was great,” says Zola with a huge smile of satisfaction.

Yeye was oblivious to what was coming. There was strong opposition to his appointment from white Springbok supporters. It was said that the coach White  preferred former Springbok Naas Botha.

”There were those who had customised rugby as a white sport and soccer a black sport. That created a toxic environment in the team and even in the country. Fingers were pointed at me and l was labelled a political appointee. What they did not know was that I was a fully-fledged black Springbok. I was a sporting activist who believed that no normal sport in an abnormal society -that became our crying mantra,” says Zola.

Despite the animosity, in the country and in the team, he says he enjoyed the stint as Springboks manager and calls it an ”adventure worthwhile taking.”

He was  manager for two years. So after his stint, he returned back to SABC as the agreement between Saru and SABC management was that he would not resign from the broadcaster.

Then, in 2015, he resigned from the SABC and went into business. He owns a popular butchery and chesanyama restaurant called Blawa Butchery at the heart of New Brighton. He says business is doing well, but was hit hard by Covid 19 restrictions.

”I did not want a franchise. I wanted to do my own thing and serve my community. It’s wonderful to be back with my community and serving them. Every day, I wake up looking forward to be of service to my people. Covid impacted on us as a business and caused disruptions with some even closing down. By the grace of God, we are still here,” says the man,with a touch of hubris, who says he could have become the mayor of Port Elizabeth had he wanted.

His message to the youth is: ”The things that matter the least must never be at the expense of the things that matter the most. Don’t ruin your future because you want to take short cuts in life. Stay longer at school because education is the key.”