How is a young man without a family or permanent home inspiring residents of Cape Town’s leafy Southern Suburbs to reach their fitness goals? SIPHO NJENGEZI shared the story of his life, his fitness business and a community’s response with NANINE STEENKAMP
Being abandoned at birth and longing for a family hasn’t stopped Sipho aiming high: ‘Most of all I want others to grow,’ he says | Photos: Bjorn Krietsch and Ronelle de Villiers
Sipho (21) grew up between Johannesburg and Cape Town in children’s homes and foster families. He’s currently residing in Cape Town’s Wynberg
WHEN I WAS BORN, my mother abandoned me in a hospital in Nelspruit. At three months, I was moved to a children’s home in Johannesburg run by the Salvation Army. At three years, I was fostered by a lady in Cape Town.
At 13, I was sent to Girls and Boys Town, a children’s home in Kenilworth. Living there, I often felt so sad not to have a family, but it nonetheless gave me skills and discipline for which I’m grateful.
I attended church holiday clubs during this time at St Stephens Church in Claremont. I loved this because the church was like a family. At the age of 13, I decided to follow Jesus and accept God as my Father. Sometimes I struggle not to blame Him, but I feel I can talk to Him about everything. I know He understands me, that I just want to be happy and have a family, a goal that keeps me going.
A young Sipho with James Eedes, his foster brother and a fellow rugby enthusiast
I attended Claremont Primary School, where I played soccer and cricket. When I started playing rugby at 13, I was told I was particularly good at tackling. I had no fear and started to love and understand the sport. I played open side and blindside flank, and playing rugby distracted me from my painful background and made me feel good about myself. I then attended Batavia School of Skills until 2018 and I was head boy in my final year. Thereafter, I was offered a scholarship by Western Province Rugby Academy, and I was also assisted financially at this time by the children’s home and Anthea Eedes, my most recent foster mother.
Sipho played for the Under-18 Western Province Learner Education Needs Special (LENS) team. Attending Batavia School of Skills precluded him from much mainstream school rugby
That was a really good year for me. I got the opportunity to tour with a team to Argentina! I hoped the plane wouldn’t crash and be one of those stories on the news! But I wasn’t scared, it was just so awesome meeting different people and going to a new place. I stayed with a host family who were most welcoming and I got along well with the son who also played rugby. It was such an honour and I even learned a bit of Spanish. When I walked around, people would call out, ‘Siya Kolisi! Siya Kolisi!’ asking to take a photo with me. I’d love to give other people the privilege of this experience.
As part of the Western Province Rugby Academy programme, we were given the opportunity to take a personal training course through the Health and Fitness Professionals Academy. As an athlete, I was interested in personal training to understand what I was working on in my body.
At the Western Province Academy, Sipho took up the option of a personal training course. ‘I was interested to understand what I was working on in my body,’ he says | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers
‘PEOPLE ARE BEAUTY, MAN’
Watch a little bit of Sipho! | Video: Annette Davis
Once the programme ended, I lived in a few places but still had no permanent home. When the first Covid-19 lockdown came, I ended up in the homeless shelter in Kalk Bay. I felt so tired of moving around. ‘When will I find a spot where I can just stay for a while?,’ I asked myself. Initially, I was accepted there for three months but it was extended because of lockdown.
Going to the shelter was a decision: these people were now my brothers and my father and mother. I was going to love them. I told myself, ‘I have to use this opportunity’. I decided to trust people, not worrying about them stealing my phone or my clothes. It was a defining time for me and I had to ask myself: ‘Do I have grief about my family being here? Am I ashamed of being here?’ I chose to turn my difficulties into something positive.
everyone has problems
I contacted Vusi, a mentor I had had at school, and he helped me register for a free six-month entrepreneurship course at the Entrepreneurship Leadership School in Cape Town. This course taught me a lot about leadership and uplifting myself, such as success being a choice. Everyone has problems and it’s our choice whether we navigate through them or not.
Sipho: ‘In lockdown I ended up in the homeless shelter in Kalk Bay. I felt so tired of moving around but I told myself I had to use the opportunity and trust people. I did daily workouts at the Dalebrook tidal pool, where I met a lady who encouraged me to start a personal training business’
Once lockdown was relaxed a little and we were allowed to go out for early morning exercise, I started stacking rocks to stay calm with the help of someone I’d met on the beach. I spotted a guy who was balancing big rocks on top of one another, and he agreed to teach me. I decided to make this part of my strength workout.
I did daily workouts at the Dalebrook tidal pool, where I met the Moodliar family, a YouTube influencer called Ben Brown and a lady called Laurianne Cloete who encouraged me to start a personal training business.
‘Life’s about helping others, isn’t it?’ asks Sipho, who recently started training Grade 3 boys at SACS Junior, an historic Cape Town school
I also met a photographer called Jenna, who asked me to train her, saying she got so much positive energy from me. I said, ‘Ok, tomorrow?’ She agreed and showed up, even though it was raining! Since then we’ve got to know one another very well. She’s helped me a lot with marketing my business and I call her ‘sister’! I have learnt so much from her. My business helped me get to know people. A kind lady even invited me to stay for some weeks in her apartment in Clovelly and I house-sat a house for a while, then moved around to wherever I was offered accommodation. But I’m always careful to not take advantage of people’s hospitality.
‘Having gone through abandonment makes me wiser and helps me relate to other people,’ says Sipho
Many people around me have helped and encouraged me not to feel bad about myself. One day I met a family on the beach who pointed me out to their kids, ‘Look at the strong guy!’ The fact that they recognised my talent motivated me. They invited me to church and I could ask them questions about God. One of them was: ‘Why has my life been like this?’ But then I hear an inner voice that says, ‘Sipho, it is what it is. It’s part of your past and don’t let it define you.’ This helps me move on and choose to grow in my relationship with God, rather than get stuck on what I don’t know. He knows what I’m going through.
I also received great support from the False Bay Rugby Football Club, who I knew from my rugby days. I currently play for their first team. Some people there encouraged me to pursue this business and believed in me from the start.
Last year really didn’t unfold as I thought it would, but I’m glad about what’s happened. People keep encouraging me to keep going and it gives me motivation. Sometimes I work hard and after the session I’m sad, wishing I had a family. Couldn’t I too have had a childhood with a family who take care of one another and enjoy life together, having fun? But I understand we all come from different backgrounds and that is my situation. I have been through a lot of abandonment and rejection since I was a baby. I’ve had to accept that. It makes me wiser than others and I can relate to older people.
sometimes it’s hard
Sometimes it’s hard to see families doing things together because I don’t have a permanent home. I’m trying to sort my life out and not be discouraged with my situation.
All the support from the Kalk Bay community last year made me feel that others also believe in what I want to achieve. People seem happy to be part of my achievements. Together with my friends Laurianne and Sham, we organised my 21st birthday party and they and Anthea also helped me pay for it.
Sipho’s friends and former foster family helped him organise and fund a small 21st birthday gathering. ‘An inner voice tells me not to let my past define me. The community support I received has made me feel others believe in what I want to achieve,’ he says
I’m driven because of my circumstances. It’s about how you push yourself through difficult circumstances to get where and who you want to be. I am already doing what I am loving. I am helping people and they are helping me. Even if you don’t believe in God, life is still about helping others believe in themselves, pursuing their dreams, isn’t it?
In 2021, I started coaching rugby to youngsters at SACS Junior School in Newlands, as well as strength and conditioning to water polo players in Wynberg . This was organised through Sham, my friend. I’m currently renting an apartment in Wynberg and walk quite far to get to SACS because I want to avoid a Covid risk, but it doesn’t feel exhausting at all, I am so happy and it’s so great to be doing what I’m passionate about.
My dream is to become a professional rugby player and a rugby coach to impact youngsters by doing things differently and influencing them positively through sport. It would be amazing to play for a foreigner’s club in England, or perhaps even a provincial team or the Springboks! But it’s not about me, I’m already doing what I love: most of all I want others to grow.’
‘SIPHO’S GOING PLACES’: A COMMUNITY SPEAKS
Sivu Nobongoza, head of communications at SAYes: ‘When I met Sipho he was living in a homeless shelter but within a short time he turned a trying time for everyone into an inspiring time for himself and his peers. He encouraged the people of the Southern Suburbs to fight back and find themselves with a fitness routine. He’s an incredibly gifted young man, and one of the most charming characters I’ve encountered.’
Gill Taylor, athlete mentor at the Sports Science Institute: ‘Sipho has always been someone who tried to see how far he could go. He was player of the year at Primrose, and was an inspiration for everyone. He often only sees the pros and ignores the cons. He gave 100 percent.’
Anthea Eedes, recent foster mother ‘I met Sipho on a visit to Ethembeni Children’s Home in Doornfontein when he was six months old. In spite of many challenges, Sipho has developed into a fine, responsible, young man. He has a gift for teaching, training and caring for children. He is patient, kind and fair. My grandchildren love him dearly!’
Sham Moodliar, Kalk Bay resident and CEO of Datonomy Solutions: ‘Sipho’s a remarkable individual with discernment and a learning mindset who asks life’s big questions. He’s doesn’t wait for things to happen, he’s out to make them happen himself. He’s going places and it’s an honour for anyone to support him.’
Ben Brown, former world champion marathon canoeist, kayak business owner and vlogger: ‘Sipho refuses to have a victim mindset. He uses his challenges as motivation to go forward in life and help others with his expertise around health and fitness. His enthusiasm about life, despite his challenges, is incredible. If you ever have the privilege of being in his presence, you’ll receive something special from him.’
Laurianne Cloete, marketing lead of Under Armour: ‘Sipho’s determined to build a platform to reach his dreams has taught me not to give up on mine, ever. In return, I’m teaching him how to flesh out a plan. Besides business acumen, which can be taught, this takes massive grit and determination, which Sipho has in bucket loads.’
Riaan O’Neill, former team mate at False Bay Rugby Club: ‘Sipho has all the excuses in the world to give up, yet continues to put one foot in front of another. It’s incredible to see how he has done this with grace, pride and a no-handouts approach. It’s also inspiring to see the support that a community can create.’
Jenna Flynn, photographer and fitness client: ‘I’ve got to know Sipho like a brother. He has unrelenting drive and determination. Not only is he able to self-motivate, he has the incredible gifts of fitness, rugby talent, rock art, humility, passion and a zest for life from which we’re all fortunate to learn.’
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