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How Banyana Banyana Coach Desiree Ellis Has Become A Game Changer

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From being in the presence of two South African presidents to high-fiving the third, South Africa’s national women’s football team coach Desiree Ellis is determined to grab headlines at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. 


As the country celebrates 25 years of democracy since the fall of apartheid, South Africa’s women’s football team Banyana Banyana will make a landmark appearance at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, to be held between June 7 and July 7 in France.

 The years of toil, tears and sweaty perseverance beyond the pitch are indescribable for the team’s coach Desiree Ellis months after qualifying for the acclaimed international football championship.

When we meet her, she vividly recalls the qualifying match, one of the most defining moments of her career.

With 10 minutes left to the final whistle, as tension mounted on the field, Ellis ascended a ladder for a closer look as history unfolded, that day in 2018 in Ghana.

Banyana Banyana Coach Desiree Ellis. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“I knew we were 10 minutes away but in football, anything can happen,” she says.

Ellis recalls a previous World Cup qualifier when things went completely wrong.

In 2014, Banyana lost to Nigeria during a semi-final qualifying game. After the match, the mood was somber as the team drove home, she recounts. It’s moments like those that make this 2019 qualification that much more precious for Ellis.

As they faced Mali’s national team, The Eagles, in the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) tournament hosted in Ghana, a tired and overworked Banyana team played to their fullest leaving Ellis with no choice but to scream in celebration of their ultimate victory.

 “I tried to stay calm so that the players could be calm. They kept shouting ‘manage the game’ and we kept control of the game fantastically. We were leading two-nil and when they said two minutes I could’ve screamed.

“When the final whistle went, the scenes were amazing. Oh goodness, you just didn’t know where to run, who to hug or what to do,” Ellis exults.

A solid defence strategy mixed with a patriotic passion for both the game and teamwork ensured an eventual win. 

“Many of them were there in 2014 when we didn’t qualify and for a lot of them, it might have been the last opportunity to go to a world cup. That really drove them. We needed to take it seriously and make sure we don’t go to the third and fourth place.”

Armed with renewed confidence and a French translation book to speak and understand basic French, Ellis is equipped to lead the women’s team to possible glory at the international championship this month.

 She owes her passion for the sport to her community where she started playing at the tender age of six. Back then, little did she know how far soccer would take her – or how far she would take soccer. 

If that six-year-old girl from Salt River, a Cape Town suburb, had looked into a crystal ball at the time, she would have seen herself lead the team she once played for, and also rub shoulders with three South African presidents.

READ MORE | Thembi Kgatlana’s Long And Hard Road to Houghston

 “When you talk about significant moments, it most probably is your first game, your first cap or being made captain but I think those are small milestones. I have had the privilege of having lunch with the late President Nelson Mandela, with a lot of other athletes in Cape Town, at his residence,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

Ellis has also received a presidential silver medal from president Thabo Mbeki and interacted with former president Jacob Zuma when she was an ambassador for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. 

“We played a game in Cape Town during the World Cup. The game was 10 minutes before the Argentina game, and I came off the field as president Zuma came on and we high-fived each other.

“It comes with the work you put in. I don’t think many people can be fortunate to say that they have interacted with all three presidents.”

Ellis regards the role leaders play as an important one in relation to sport, particularly when it comes to creating opportunities for the marginalized.

“When president Nelson Mandela was released, I got the opportunity to play national football. Prior to that I never played. I was 30 years old,” she says.

Her unwavering focus on the game, she adds, and the many sacrifices she has had to make along the way changed her story from just playing soccer with boys on the streets of Salt River to achieving national glory.

Banyana Banyana Coach Desiree Ellis holds a portrait of the team in 1993. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Her career goals even left her financially vulnerable, at times. At the peak of her football career, a young Ellis, who worked at a local butchery, had left for a football weekend and could not make it back to her workplace in time to mix spices. That lapse resulted in her losing her job.

  “Knowing your worth can open doors,” she advises as she speaks to us at the state-of-the-art headquarters of the South African Football Association (SAFA) in Johannesburg.

“Our federation is excited that they took the opportunity to appoint female coaches for female teams. Most importantly, it is not just making those decisions in appointing us, but also supporting us.”

Support does not only come from management but also fans who play a role in encouraging the women to reach their potential – both on and off the field.

“We played in Cameroon in 2016 and the stadiums were packed, we played in Ghana and there were full stadiums. We came to Port Elizabeth and they [fans] were the 12th and 13th players for Banyana. The best fans we had [were] in Durban. It was absolutely amazing, and it [support] hasn’t only grown on the stands but on the field as well. The Under-17 team qualified for the World Cup, so it shows how the game has grown,” says Ellis.

Although local leagues for women have increased on home soil, there needs to be more opportunities that give African players a chance to break into the sport and develop their global competitive edge.

It starts with prioritizing junior levels.

“Players are getting opportunities to study. I remember back when we were playing, you were either unemployed or you had a job and 80 to 90 percent of the players were unemployed back then. If you look at the national team now, 80 to 90 percent of the players have a degree or are currently still studying. Players are getting opportunities to study or play abroad. We have a lot of players playing abroad but I think more can be done.”

As a national asset, Ellis argues that focusing on the game is far more important than worrying about issues that are beyond control.

Once focus is lost, it manifests in all areas. 

“When people ask me about the money, I tell them I am a technical person. You tend to concentrate more on your job as a coach and leave the rest, because you can get side-tracked by all the other things. We don’t worry about those things,” she says.

Desiree Ellis and Portia Modise’s portraits at the SAFA headquarters. Picture: Gypsenia Lion

“As a technical person, your job is to prepare the team, [use] the training sessions to improve the individual and the team. That is why we have a manager, but when it influences team performance, I come in.”

As the national team jets off to face world soccer, Ellis is working round the clock to ensure that the team will make the nation proud.

“Coaching is not just blowing the whistle, there are other things in between. You need a schedule; people want to know what you are doing. You have to do reports as well, so it is not about blowing the whistle at the end of the game.”

It’s also about analyzing the opponents with the technical team and coming up with strategies and a definitive plan of action.

“Playing against top countries is difficult as they play regularly against other top countries. That is where you want to measure yourself and that is where you really want to go out and bloom. People call it the group of death, but it is what it is. We will just take it one game at a time.

“If we do more, football in Africa can only grow and grow.”

It seems more work happens off the field than on the field, and Ellis, who prides herself on her technical prowess, hopes Banyana will pull up its socks and bring home a glistening  cup.

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Get Set Mo!

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Morongoa Mahope feeds her love for extreme biking with petrol and adrenaline. The funds for her pet passion come from her nine-to-five accounting job.

About 10kms north of the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in South Africa is another racetrack, where superbikes and sports cars are noisily revving up their engines, getting ready for a practice run on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Johannesburg.

At first glance at the Zwartkops racetrack is a melange of male drivers and mechanics.

But also revving up a superbike, the one numbered 83, is Morongoa Mahope from Mahwelereng in the Limpopo province of South Africa.

READ MORE: ‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya

She is about to clock 270kmph on her black bike, tagged #Mo83 in pink.

When she is not burning rubber on the racetrack, Mahope is an accountant working for an advertising agency in the city.

“When I started [superbiking], it was mainly only for leisure because I love the sound bikes and cars make. I’m a petrol head and just wanted it to commute to work,” she says.

Morongoa Mahope

Her journey started in 2013 when she convinced her husband and family about buying a superbike. Her family was initially apprehensive and viewed superbike racing as dangerous.

Her husband finally relented and Mahope went for a day’s training to see if she really would be interested in the bike before investing in it. The 36-year-old sports fanatic succumbed, and indeed pursued her wish.

“I still have my first bike; it’s a green and black Kawasaki Ninja 250cc. I was just using it to [go to] work until I met a biking club, the Eagle Bikers Club Limpopo,” she recalls.

Mahope was riding with the club, doing breakfast runs between Johannesburg and Limpopo; but, in 2015, they took a trip to Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

READ MORE: Making Up For Millions

Navigating the mountainous, curvy roads, Mahope was overtaking men with her small 250cc bike at the bends.

She was then goaded by her fellow riders to try the racing circuit.

“I went to the track and met a superbike racer; Themba Khumalo, and I started following his journey. I spent more time on the track, practising so I could start racing in 2016. The love for the sport was getting deeper and deeper,” says Mahope.

Khumalo, a professional superbike rider who has raced in the European Championships, says he met Mahope at Zwartkops and it was her first time at the track, and she was quite fast at the corners.

He went up to her to introduce himself because it was rare to see a black woman on a racetrack.

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“I then took her through the fundamentals of racing and the basics; the type of bike she would need and the equipment. I could see how committed she was and how quick she was learning, and her lack of fear. She was going farther than where she was,” says Khumalo.  

However, her male counterparts were not impressed with her pace on the track; they remarked negatively about her. But Mahope didn’t let the minimizing comments derail her mission.

Unfortunately, Mahope was involved in an accident during training on Valentine’s Day in 2017 and fractured her clavicle before her first race. That took her off the bike for six months.

She joked about the incident with friends, but they persisted and told her it’s an unsafe sport. That encouraged her even more; she wore her helmet and gloves, clocking higher speeds than ever before on her superbike.

Indeed, it was a learning curve. A few months later, she was invited to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe to race.

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Her first official race was the same year as the injury; it was a club race in Delmas, Mpumalanga, at the Red Star Raceway. She had never been on the grid nor practised how to stud, but for her, it was more about the experience despite the shivers and nerves.

“I finished the race and I was second last. It’s part of how you start but you will improve to be better. And now, I have lost count of the races I have competed in,” she says.

Mahope is racing in the short circuit series for women who use the 250cc, being the only black woman to participate. She also participated in the Extreme Festival tour series, a regional race in which she used her Kawasaki Ninja ZX600cc, racing men with bigger and louder bikes.

“I am the first black woman to be in the grand prix and the challenges that I faced were having to teach myself a lot of things. I had to learn how to ride on the track, the speed, the decelerating, all was new to me. I wasn’t helped.”

Mahope started at a late stage with the sport, and had to put in more time and effort in a short period to get to where she is currently.

READ MORE: Linda Ikeji : Nigeria’s Queen of content raking in millions

Today, she assists women who are starting with the sport.  

Sadly, in South Africa, there is no national league for women to race and represent the country despite finishing in the top three in the 2019 races.

With all her achievements thus far, Mahope’s salary sustains her motorsport passion.

“Racing is very expensive; the more you practise, the more you get better and the more you spend money. On practice day, I spend about R3,000 ($206) and would practise twice a week at different tracks. In total, I would spend R18,000 ($1,235) a month for the track excluding the travel costs to the track and race day,” she explains.These costs cover tyres, fuel and entrance to the tracks.

A sum of about R40,000 ($2,744) can get you geared up for the bike and track.

It just shows this daredevil accountant can balance both the books and the bike.

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Playing Two Shots Ahead

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The 16-year-old dreams of lifting the French Open title in the future, but also hopes to inspire a generation of black players to take up tennis.

Khololwam Montsi, 16, a rising star of South African tennis, recently broke into the list of top 20 junior tennis players in the world after an excellent year that has seen him take part in tournaments in Australia, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Belgium and Japan, as well as take the South African circuit by storm.

The young prodigy trains at the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Cape Town, the same facility that developed Lloyd Harris into a top 100 player on the men’s senior ATP circuit.

Montsi was not actually all that interested in tennis until his older brother, Sipho, took up the game.

“I was focussed on karate and squash, those were my two main sports,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“But when I saw my brother playing tennis, I also wanted to join in. You know what it is like when you have an older brother, you want to follow him and impress him.

“At that time, I was representing South Africa in karate, but I decided to drop the sport for tennis because I started to enjoy it more, was getting better and doing well in tournaments. It motivated me a lot.

“I come from a very sporty background, my father, Xolani, played rugby and soccer; my mother, Phumla, was a sprinter. When I was younger, I did everything – rugby, soccer, cricket, swimming, athletics, the lot. I just love to compete.”

Montsi has developed quickly and, despite his relatively short frame, excelled with racquet in hand to emerge as arguably South Africa’s leading young talent.

“For me, since I am usually always playing against guys bigger than me, my game is not all about power,” he says. “My strength comes from my mind, I feel like I’m smarter than everybody else on court. I can pull off any shot.

“I read the game really well for someone of this age. I play two shots ahead of my opponents and can hit the ball into areas where I know where they will return it to me. That gives me an advantage to be ready. It is the big strength in my game.

“I would love to win the French Open, I’m a big fan of clay courts, you get more time to play. It is better for me at my height.”

And as for his personal role model?

READ MORE: The Highest-Paid Tennis Players 2019: Roger Federer Scores A Record $93 Million

“I would take a few players and combine that. I love Rafa Nadal, he never gives up. I love [Novak] Djokovic, the way he moves across court and is super flexible. Then someone like [Gael] Monfils for the way he can pull off amazing shots.”

South Africa has lacked a black player on the singles circuit and Montsi is hopeful he will break the mould, saying he takes great satisfaction from being a pioneer.

“I want to lift up tennis as a black boy. We do not see tennis as a big sport in South Africa, barely any black kids play. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, but I do feel a responsibility to help black tennis players get opportunities.

“I play for myself, my family, my coaches and for black people. I would like to help grow the game in South Africa for them. It would be cool if I could help get more people to start playing tennis.”

The obvious question is how he juggles traveling the world and his school work, but Montsi has found a solution.

“I do online home-schooling, which means I can do all my work at tournaments, anywhere in the world as long as I have my laptop. It is tough to balance the two, it takes a lot of discipline.

“I do sometimes think, ‘I’m tired today, I won’t do it’ and I was behind for quite a while, but with the home-schooling system, it is perfect, I have caught up quickly.”

Montsi is preparing for the Australian Junior Open in January, the start of a busy year that will hopefully also see him take part in the senior ATP Tour at some stage.

“To be the first black African to win a Junior Grand Slam would be amazing for me,” he says, adding his future success may depend on funding.

“To become a successful tennis player, you need financial support to get to tournaments. I am being helped a lot, but things can change quickly. I do see myself playing on the pro-circuit, that is my dream. I feel like I can keep my tennis up, but if the finances aren’t there.”

By Nick Said

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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