"I always try to encourage them to focus on school work, and I’ve even started doing the same myself"

“Sonny, I would love the opportunity to interview you and share your story for the HBUFC newsletter, is this something you are interested in?”
“Yes, sure.”
“Can we meet tomorrow at 13:30, we can have a coffee and take it from there?”
“Yes”.

Sonwabile Phulo is the head coach of HBUFC’s Goodhope LFA teams from u10 to u16. That means he oversees and coaches 4 separate age groups, and is responsible for approximately 36 players.

“Sonny, I would love the opportunity to interview you and share your story for the HBUFC newsletter, is this something you are interested in?”

“Yes, sure.”

“Can we meet tomorrow at 13:30, we can have a coffee and take it from there?”

“Yes”.

This dialogue, or something similar, happened three times before I could corner Sonny into sitting with me, but it was worth the wait. After weeks of trying, I finally had the opportunity to sit down with him on one very hot afternoon, to discuss his journey through life, the ups and downs of his time with HBUFC, and to gain a clearer understanding of who he is. I realise now, and completely understand, that to Sonny, taking time out of his day to sit with me and have a conversation about his life just wasn’t a priority. How could it be when he is responsible for over 30 youth team players, when he is in the process of learning to read and write while rebuilding his grandmother’s recently destroyed house, and when he is aiming to start his own business, a restaurant in IY.

The HBUFC Circle

 

Sonny and his story speak to one of the main characteristics of HBUFC that set it apart from other football clubs. That is, the HBUFC Circle. Traditional football clubs have hundreds of youth team players that start out and aim to rise through the age groups, with only a handful making it into the first team and the majority being released (picture a triangle with all the academy players at the bottom, and the very select few that make it into the first team at the top). At HBUFC however, players who are released fall out of the triangle and into a square, where they receive vocational or educational opportunities and are still very much a part of the club and organisation as a whole. If they happen to fall out of the square, then this is where the circle catches them and ensures they are never alone and always part of our community. The aim of the circle is to provide these individuals with love, second chances, emotional support and opportunities to climb back into the square, or potentially even back into the triangle.

Sonny has been in all of these shapes and his story is a testament to this model, however more so than that, it is a story of a survivor who, looking back, can be proud to have overcome incredible adversity, without letting this take away from the kindness and love he shares through his warm smile and gentle nature.

 

Sonny

 

My mother and father split up when I was young. It was tough because it was done with a lot of anger and, looking back, I think that affected me. My mother moved to Samora and my father to Khayelitsha (Samora and Khayelitsha are both townships on the Cape Flats) but I ended up staying with my Grandmother in Imizamo Yethu (the township here in Hout Bay). My mother didn’t want me staying with my father, and wasn’t that happy with me staying with his mother either, but in the end that is how it panned out. My grandmother never chose sides and always wanted what was best for me – “I owe her a lot.” I could sense a shift in Sonny as he began to acknowledge his grandmother. His speech slowed down and a hint of sadness crept into his tone.

“Are you okay?”

Yes, I’m fine, I just really need to finish building her house.

Sonny and his grandmother’s house recently burnt down. All of their belongings, gone, and instead of his priority being to build himself a house, or to revisit his plans of building and opening a restaurant (he had lost a fridge and a stove that he intended to use in the restaurant due to the fire) he was set on repaying the kindness and love he received from his grandmother by building her house first.

Let’s rewind again.

I started playing football when I was 8 years old. At first with African Brothers (one of the many football clubs that participate in Hout Bay’s local football association, the Goodhope LFA). I completely fell in love with the game. By the time I was 13, I was playing for their U15 team, while becoming the assistant coach for the U12s.

“Did the U12’s respect you as a coach even though you were just 1 year older than them?” Yes, I was one year older than them, but I was playing with boys 2 years older than me, and playing well, and I think they respected that, although, by this stage I had built up a reputation for being a good fighter too, so anyone younger than me wouldn’t mess with me. “Where did this reputation come from?”

From school. I went to Moravian Primary school but I didn’t like it. This was around the same time that my parents were splitting up, and while playing football felt like an escape from what was going on at home, school felt like the opposite. I was stuck. Forced to sit through lessons I didn’t enjoy, being taught by teachers I didn’t like. This frustration would build up inside of me until I couldn’t hold it, I was going to explode. Many primary school fights later, I somehow managed to pass and was accepted to Hout Bay High for my grade 8 year.

I failed grade 8 at Hout Bay High so my father enrolled me into Silikamva High School. This is where the real problems began. I was an angry child needing an escape. While football was one way I could do this, drugs were another. I began experimenting with buttons (mandrax) and getting into even bigger fights than before. Eventually the school expelled me. Too ashamed to tell my grandmother, I would put on the uniform each day and pretend to go to school, but instead would land up at the field and play football all day. This lasted for a month before anyone found out, but when they eventually did, I was forced to go and live with my mother in Samora. I felt very far away from everything I had known, especially from football. My friend Lunathi (Lulu, a former HBUFC first team player and youth team coach) told me he was going to attend an open trial at Ajax Cape Town and that I should come too, but I was too far and couldn’t make a plan to get there. This hurt. Here was an opportunity to take a step towards my goal of making it as a professional footballer, but I wasn’t able to do so. A month after moving to Samora, I decided that was enough and I managed to get back to my grandmother in Imizamo Yethu.

 

The Triangle

 

I was offered the opportunity to play for Camps Bay FC’s Centre of Excellence Academy, and although this setup didn’t last long, it enabled me to explore what structured football was like outside of Imizamo Yethu, and outside of Hout Bay. From there, I had a brief stint with Chippa United when they were still based in Philippi (prior to their relocation to Port Elizabeth) before returning to Hout Bay, this time to play for Hout Bay Barcelona, and then Rising Stars. The year I turned 18 (2014) was the year that HBUFC was officially formed. I came on a trial right in the beginning, and was signed by the club. I was at an age where I needed to start earning some money, and although it wasn’t much, I was now able to do so through my passion for playing football. On top of this, I was given other opportunities to work via HBUFC’s Employment Hub (an employment initiative used to provide beneficiaries with job opportunities) which enabled me to earn a little bit more.

My first job was working for Jeremy’s (Elson) taxi company, Home Heros. He had set up a carwash in the Portside building in town, and I was one of two players in the team who was given the opportunity to wash cars. After training, we would catch a Myciti Bus, get to the carwash and begin work. These were long, tiring days. My first time in a football environment that was trying to be as professional as possible, as well as my first job. One day, after a very hard training session, I was cleaning a customer’s car and somehow managed to fall asleep in the back seat. Knock knock knock. It was Jeremy. He was not happy. I was given another chance back at the carwash, but this happened on another two occasions. Jeremy had had enough, and so had his customers, and I began to realise that this was not for me.

I was fortunate enough to receive two more opportunities to work through the HBUFC Employment Hub. First came Hout Bay International School where I was able to get a job working as a groundsman, however due to an injury I’d picked up at football, I had to stop. Next came an opportunity to work in the scullery for a local restaurant in Hout Bay. I got close with one of the other guys who was working there as a chef, his name was Anderson. One day, he was behind on some of the food preparations and asked me to help out. I enjoyed helping him and I think he could see this. “You could be a chef!” he said to me. I was inspired! I began trying to help him as much as I could, whenever he needed anything.

 

The Circle

 

Unfortunately, my actual job was to wash dishes in the scullery. I began to resent this and was frustrated. I wasn’t getting lots of game time with the HBUFC first team, and I wanted to be in the kitchen, not the scullery. One day, instead of going into work, I told my boss that I was going to visit my mother in Samora. Instead, me and some friends went to the stadium to go watch Cape Town City vs Kaizer Chiefs, and for some reason, I took and uploaded photos of myself at the game with a beer in my hand to my WhatsApp status. I got a warning from work as well as HBUFC. I felt like I was back at school. I was a man now and I knew I needed to earn money, but I was stuck in a job I didn’t like and this time with the one thing that used to bring me joy and allow me to escape, football, bringing added frustration due to my lack of playing time. A few weeks later, it happened again, I was supposed to be in for work but instead I was out with friends, and because of this, my time at the restaurant was over. It was about this time that I was released from the HBUFC first team. My dream of playing professional football had taken a knock, and I was unemployed.

 

The Square

 

Strangely enough, when most people lost their jobs during Covid, I was offered one. Thanks to HBUFC placing myself and some of my teammates at Yebo Fresh and Love In A Bowl, we began delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to the communities in Hout Bay that were most affected by the virus. It was while doing this that I met Tjarla. She approached me one day and asked if I would like to work as a chef for Community Cookup, her programme which would provide food initially to kids in Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg, but now to just about anyone who is hungry within those communities. I was happy that I could pursue my passion of being a chef, so I jumped at this opportunity. When things had started to return to normal, and football was once again being played post Covid, myself and Yanga (another former HBUFC first team player, now also in the square) were tasked with cooking all of the first team’s pre match meals. I really enjoyed this as it enabled me to still feel part of the first team. The guys would call me “chef” and I felt like I was still part of the team, this time though, supporting my team mates through my passion for cooking.

One of my dreams is to be able to open up my own restaurant in Imizamo Yethu. I have been working on this dream for a while, and even saved enough money to buy a fridge and a stove. Unfortunately, all that was lost in a recent fire that destroyed my grandmother’s house. I remember that feeling of losing everything. It was a difficult thing to go through. I called Tjarla and Mamzo (Iris) and told them what had happened. Luckily they were able to help with some donated clothes. I have already started saving money so that I can rebuild my grandmother’s house, build my own house, and then revisit my dream of a restaurant.

 

Trouble with the LFA

 

Around the same time I started working with Tjarla, I began coaching again too, this time as the head coach of African Brothers’ first team in the Goodhope LFA. I was also given the opportunity to begin coaching the U10s and U12s for HBUFC’s Goodhope LFA squads (HBUFC’s junior ranks include Two Oceans LFA City Stream squads from U12 – U18, arguably the highest level of competition in any of the Western Cape’s youth football leagues, as well as teams in the Goodhope LFA from U8 to U16. These teams are used for players who are on the fringes of the Two Oceans squads to get more game time and improve, with the goal of climbing back into contention for their respective Two Oceans age groups). It felt good to be back involved with football and working with the kids again.

 

Looking Forward

 

I feel as though I let myself down a few times when I was younger by wasting time on stupid things and not being focused enough, but I am really grateful for the opportunity I have to help the kids that I coach learn from my own mistakes. I always try to encourage them to focus on school work, and I’ve even started doing the same myself. Twice a week I have English lessons with Erik, a German volunteer, who is teaching me to read and write. Funnily enough, by the time you read this story, it will have been one of the latest things that I would have read, as we plan to use it to practise reading in our next lesson.

We have set up a private Give n Gain account for Sonny. If you would like to help him continue on his journey so that he can reach his goals of rebuilding his grandmother’s house, building one for himself and opening his own restaurant, you can do so by clicking this link and making a donation:

A special note from someone very close to Sonny!

 

Sonny literally popped up at the school I was attending in Hout Bay as a groundsman, dressed in an overall, brushing and picking leaves up off the floor. It was an emotional, almost poignant moment seeing him working in this capacity as it reminded me of the stark contrast between our lives more than ever. What seemed to me like a constant cycle of him receiving another chance, getting hired, struggling to apply himself, being self-destructive, and eventually quitting or being let go, I felt again, this opportunity would only be temporary. Even though he was smiling, as he always is, I could sense that this job wasn’t for him. And of course it wasn’t.

Sonny and I met playing in the same youth team at Camps Bay FC and at the time I didn’t know his story, and frankly it didn’t matter. We were both just kids playing together, driving to and from Hout Bay for training, and enjoying each other’s company. But following his trials and tribulations from this early age, I would lie if I said his actions and behaviour didn’t exasperate me. I thought that one day the people trying to help and support him would ‘give up’ on Sonny. How many chances does he need before he decides to commit to a job? I, and I presume others too, didn’t know what was going on inside his mind and that was even more frustrating.

He didn’t need more chances and he didn’t need more jobs. He needed patience, compassion, and most importantly he needed love. Patience to try, to fail, to learn. Compassion to realise he is seen, he is heard, he is valued. Love to know there are people that believe in him, stand behind him, and give him a second chance. And in Sonny’s case also a third and fourth chance.

This makes me all the more proud to not only see where he is now and what he’s doing, but how people speak about him. Since I’ve moved abroad, the stories about Sonny shifted from having an undercurrent of defeat to stories of his leadership, tenacity, and most strikingly his competence. This proves to me, and hopefully others that followed his journey, that people can learn, change, and persevere to become cherished and valuable members of their community.

I’m lucky to have Sonny in my life. I’m lucky to have him ring the doorbell unannounced, which seems to always be when there is a braai. Maybe he can smell the meat from his house 500 meters away. Maybe it’s a coincidence. I have a hunch it’s the former, adding some impetus for his passion for food!

This special note was written by Johannes Henkel, longtime friend of Sonny.

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