Richard Henyekane: From hero to zero

2015-04-12 15:01

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As Free State Stars striker Richard “Kimberley Express” Henyekane (31), who died in a car accident this week, was laid to rest in his home town, a dark side emerged of a player battling alcohol dependence.

Henyekane’s funeral service began at the Mittah Seperepere Convention Centre in Kimberley, with soccer bosses and various government officials in attendance.

Henyekane’s young sister, Keaobaka (14), moved mourners to tears when she recited a poem, titled For My Brothers – a dedication toher brothers Joseph – also a soccer player who died in his Kimberley home in December last year – and Richard.

Richard Henyekane

“My brother should rest in peace even though it is not easy. I loved Richard a lot, just like I loved my other brother Joseph,” said Keaobaka.

Orlando Pirates boss Irvin Khoza thanked the Henyekane family for producing two players for the country. “We are here today to thank the Henyekane family and Richard’s mother for giving us this talented young man that we are gathered here today to pay our last respects to. Our country has lost a warrior,” said Khoza.

But close friends and a former coach described the soccer star as a “party animal” and “boozer of note”.

A friend and team-mate, who asked not to be named, told City Press Henyekane enjoyed his drink but couldn’t handle his alcohol.

“He was a ‘cheap drunk’. After two bottles – he was out,” said the friend.

Friends and team-mates of the star, who died behind the wheel of his friend’s VW Golf 6 in the early hours of Tuesday morning, are now wondering whether his partying may have had something to do with his death.

His former coach at Golden Arrows, Manqoba Mngqithi, said Henyekane had admitted to his drinking problem when he was still with the team.

“We once called him to a meeting and he confided to us his only problem was alcohol. We tried to help him as much as we could,” said Mngqithi.

He said it was sad that our country was losing talented soccer players because they partied too hard and didn’t use their time off wisely.

Henyekane's girlfriend, Nomsa Nxele, and dauhter, Kamo Nxele (11). Picture: Emile Hendricks

“The problem is the culture of drinking in black communities has changed. It is no longer about drinking any more, but we calculate the number of bottles you’ve drunk,” he said, adding Henyekane’s problem didn’t affect him much on the pitch.

Mngqithi said, besides his battles with the bottle, Henyekane was a humble and good player.

Another friend added Henyekane was a great guy to hang around with but his problem was he was easily influenced and had too many friends who gave him bad advice.

“He used to attend every party,” the friend said.

Henyekane died when the car he was driving collided with a truck and caught fire on impact on the N5 between Harrismith and Bethlehem in the Free State. Henyekane was with four other passengers: Ayanda Motete (19), Nthabiseng Motsoetsoe (20), Limpho Moloi (18) and a male friend who has only been identified as Mzambiya. They all died at the scene.

The truck driver and his passenger survived. The car belonged to friend and team-mate Bokang “Grosso” Thlone, who was a passenger in another car travelling a few metres behind Henyekane when the accident happened.

Thlone said: “We were in four different cars, but we first stopped at a chill spot called Five Star. At around 6pm, we decided to move to Stern Village restaurant in QwaQwa. From that moment I decided I wasn’t driving any more, because I was a bit tipsy. I then gave Henyekane my car keys?...?We were all tipsy,” he said.

At around 10pm, Henyekane said he was tired and went to Tlhone’s car to take a nap. An hour later, Henyekane told them he wanted to leave the place.

The group stopped at a nearby garage, where Henyekane called Tlhone to one side.

“Richard called me and said: ‘Grosso you will remember me. We’ll meet at the front [sic].” He said he didn’t understand what his friend meant, but those were Henyekane’s last words to him.

Tlhone said 10 minutes later. they watched in horror as the car he was driving burst into flames.

“Our friends were standing at the scene, screaming and crying. We knew something was wrong. We all broke down in tears. It was a horrific accident,” said Tlhone, looking down.

Before they went on a drinking spree on Saturday night, Free State Stars coach Kinnah Phiri warned Henyekane and the rest of the squad not to go out celebrating, as they had lost to Amazulu.

Free State Stars captain Paulus Masehe told City Press their coach made it loud and clear there was “nothing to celebrate” that night.

He described Henyekane as a happy and reserved person but said his “actions spoke louder than words”.

“He would save the team by scoring goals,” said Masehe.

On Thursday, the hall was packed during Henyekane’s memorial service at Dihlabeng township in Bethlehem. Among the mourners were Mamelodi Sundowns team manager Mike Ntombela, Sundowns supporters mobilising manager Alex Shakoane, former striker Daniel Mudau, Moroka Swallows public relations officer Sipho Xulu and Free State Social Development MEC Sisi Ntombela.

Bloemfontein Celtic chief executive Khumbulani Konco pleaded with soccer players to learn from Henyekane’s tragic death. “If you know you have training the following day, what [are you doing] at 11pm on the road?” Konco asked.

“We are not saying do not drink, but drink responsibly. Players, admit you love partying, but rest. This could have been avoided,” Konco added.

Orlando Pirates administrative officer Floyd Mbele told the mourners Henyekane’s passing had evoked a lot of memories at the Soweto team. Last year, Pirates captain Senzo Meyiwa was shot and killed at his girlfriend’s home.

Mbele said soccer players should remember that before they became stars they were members of the community. He urged players not to become too big headed when they become famous.

Another of Henyekane’s team-mates, Reuben Thebakang, could not believe the friend he met a year ago was no more. They used to share a room when in camp. “Now who am I going to share a room with?” asked a heartbroken Thebakang.

He said Henyekane had told him he wanted to score more goals because he could see he “belonged” in the team. He said his fondest memories with Henyekane were going fishing and cooking together. “I could see he was ready for a change. Everything he was doing now was for his unborn child,” said Thebakang, battling back the tears.

– Additional reporting by Ezekiel Morake

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