South Africa: Cecilia Molokwane Had a Tough Trek to the Top

11 September 2020

The president of Netball South Africa has endured many challenges, both personal and professional, in her rise to becoming the sport's most powerful person in the continent.

"The more negative things you say about me, the stronger I become," says Netball South Africa (NSA) president, Cecilia Molokwane.

From a young age, the 45-year-old administrator has had to endure negative words being hurled in her direction. This helped Molokwane develop a thick skin, moulding her into the player she became and preparing her for the decorated netball career she has had.

While growing up in Mankweng, Limpopo, she showed interest in several sporting codes and extramural activities such as athletics, softball, volleyball, drum majorettes and singing. But her long skinny legs led her to the sport that she now eats, breathes and lives - netball.

Her move to the then Bophuthatswana to complete her middle schooling, at the Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic School, saw her grow in the sport. She was only 11 then and taller than most of her peers. With her height and skill, she became a pillar of her school team, giving them an advantage over their opponents. However, her defining moment as a player came when she went to the University of the North.

"My experience at the university was not a good one. I was a fresher and the girls [there] owned the court and positions," she says.

She started playing in defence but was moved to the goal attack position where she excelled. She went on to become the captain and chairperson of the university team. Reaching the ceiling at varsity gave her an opportunity to start playing club netball for Magnolia in Polokwane under coach Valery Bosch.

Bosch took Molokwane under her wing and taught her about coaching and administration in the sport. Through Molokwane's journey as a coach in Limpopo, she discovered players like Dumisani Chauke, the current assistant coach of the Spar Proteas.

Molokwane's road to becoming one of netball's respected administrators was not easy. She was director of selection when three NSA staffers - former coach Marlene Wagner, vice president Helene Botha and director of coaches Bennie Saayman - resigned, after a three-Test tour of Fiji was riddled with controversies, including the breach of the quota policy.

After her reign as director of selectors ended, Molokwane went back to coaching club netball. She was later appointed assistant coach of the Proteas alongside Karen Strauss.

"I was fired from my position [after two years]. I was told what to say in the media. I did not resign," she says.

Bouncing back to be president

Her contribution to netball in Limpopo made it easy for her to be nominated for the presidential position in the 2017 national elections.

As soon as she was announced as the new president of the federation, the room was filled with murmurs as disbelief and jubilation were shared by the delegates attending NSA's annual general meeting at the Southern Sun hotel in Kempton Park. Molokwane replaced Mimi Mthethwa-Zulu who had been in the position for 12 years.

Some factions of the delegation alleged that Molokwane had "bought" votes in order to win the election to take over from Mthethwa-Zulu, who had just started paving netball's way to professionalism. In 2014, South Africa launched a five-week long semi-professional league with South African Breweries as a sponsor. This was just a year before NSA was able to rope in world-renowned coach Norma Plummer to coach the senior national team, the Spar Proteas.

"I heard about this two months after I was elected. I don't have money to buy power. I don't have money to buy people's votes. The people's voice was heard on the day," she says.

"I'm not rich to that level. I think I am rich to a point where I can manage myself. I don't want to say I'm poor, I would be cursing myself. I can't say that. I am rich at heart, with love and everything. I don't have money to do such things. If anyone says I bought them, they must come out in the open and tell me when and where I did that. I want to believe that it was a path that God had made for me. I had just had a baby and babies are expensive. I wouldn't have taken money for my kids and give it to people to vote for me," says the mother of three.

Her tenure began with a bit of turmoil as some of the netball structures in the country didn't seem to believe in her vision of "bringing netball back to the people". That goal seemed unattainable and brought some doubt in the netball community. After all, a few years ago Molokwane had been released from her contract as assistant coach to Strauss. Also, her record with the Limpopo Baobabs in the first season of the Brutal Fruit Netball Premier League left a lot to be desired.

Joy and pain at the same time

Becoming president of NSA meant Molokwane had to work hard to win the hearts of doubters. By helping to secure the hosting rights of the 2023 International Netball Federation (INF) World Cup she cemented her role in the organisation. She was subsequently named president of Netball Africa, replacing Botswana's Tebogo Lebotse Sebago who stepped down in October 2019. By virtue of being the head of netball in the continent, Molokwane serves as a board member of the INF as well.

Bagging the biggest netball tournament in the world is one of her biggest achievements as president to date. She was not able to celebrate, however. Her husband, Lerato Molokwane, passed away just three days before she received an email from INF informing her of South Africa's successful bid for the World Cup.

"On the 16th of February my husband passed on and on the 19th I got an email from INF, when my husband was still in a mortuary, that we won the 2023 Netball World Cup bid. I read it but it didn't say anything to me at the time. I couldn't find a way of smiling. I was in a dark space. I had to keep it to myself. It was only five people in the country who knew about it," she remembers.

The INF were going to make the announcement a few days later in Cape Town, the host city. The occasion would be streamed worldwide through the internet and social media platforms. Australia was the other bidding country. African tradition dictates that a widow needs to spend a certain amount of time before mixing with the world again. There was no room for this in Molokwane's case.

"[CEO of NSA] Blanche [de la Guerre] and Mami [Diale, NSA's Director of Demarcation and Structures] had to beg my husband's aunt to release me. Remember it had not been a month since my husband had passed on. They were given so many rules and they had to adhere to those rules. They had to make sure things go according to plan," she says.

The auditorium at the Cape Town International Convention Centre was filled with tension as reporters, politicians, netball administrators and city officials awaited the announcement. Molokwane, dressed in an all black pencil-skirt suit, white shirt, shawl over her shoulders and head wrap, walked into the room with the then minister of sports and recreation, Tokozile Xasa, then deputy minister Gert Oostheizen and INF president Molly Rhone. None of their facial expressions showed which way the announcement would go.

"It hit me when Molly made the announcement. That's when I had a bit of a smile on my face. I looked up and said, 'God, thank You.' Out of all the sadness that I am from, it has given me something to smile about and something to look forward to," she says.

Covid-19 positive test

Molokwane didn't just lose a husband. She lost much more than that.

"My late husband was my girls' best friend. He was genuine about everything. I don't have someone I can talk to. I don't have someone that I can consult with. I don't have anyone to take my mask off to. He was my worst critic and best supporter," she says.

Another tough challenge that Molokwane had to face since her husband's passing was the novel coronavirus infection.

After returning from the United Kingdom where, together with De la Guerre, she met with the INF in preparation for the 2023 World Cup, she tested positive for Covid-19. Prior to testing positive, she met with several media outlets for interviews and even attended an event in her home province where she was in contact with a number of politicians and media personalities too.

She was slammed and called reckless for honouring the invitations to all these engagements when the spread of the virus was rapid, especially in Europe where she had been. She fought the infection and has since fully recovered.

"I didn't know I had Covid. We were screened when we got to the airport and we didn't have symptoms. How would I have known that I had it when I didn't have any symptoms? How do I become reckless about something I didn't know? I was not reckless," she says.

The backlash she received, as well as having racism charges levelled against her by AfriForum, haven't shaken Molokwane from her conviction and her job of ensuring South Africa hosts a successful World Cup. She has overcome negativity throughout her life.

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