He’s been described as a try-scoring machine on par with Bryan Habana and dubbed “a natural-born predator” by former Bok Breyton Paulse. So it comes as no surprise that the Springbok winger Makazole Mapimpi walked away with the coveted Sportsman of the Year title at the South African Sport Awards hosted in Durban recently.
“Extremely honoured to have received this award. Thank you very much South Africa,” he said on Instagram.
Punters predicted Makazole would be one of the top try-scorers of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, a belief the 31-year-old winger upheld by delivering five tries and placing second only to Wales’s Josh Adams.
Making this point-scoring maestro all the more remarkable is the fact his road to glory wasn’t honed on the fields of a top-notch school. Now his humble road to sporting glory is being brought to our TV screens in a new documentary that delves into his tough upbringing in Tsholomnqa, a rural village outside East London.
Map1mp1: The Makazole Mapimpi Story aims to inspire, Makazole says.
“This documentary is a story about the Eastern Cape and the challenges everybody faces in that region.
“It’s a story about my background, in the sense that I grew up in that environment. We didn’t even have rugby balls. We had to use a packet as a ball.”
There were no coaches dedicated to bringing out the best in this young player; no Craven Week selection for him. Makazole’s story is one of grit, passion and sheer self-belief.
Rugby was his number one focus at school, so after the bell rang each day he’d make the commute from Jim Mvabaza Secondary School in King William’s Town to East London, where he’d train his heart out with friends who went to school in town. His hard work paid off and in 2009 he was chosen to play for the Border Bulldogs in the Currie Cup First Division.
He’s always been great at the game, he tells YOU matter-of-factly, and from an early age he’d be pitted against senior players because of his natural flair on the field.
After getting his break with the Bulldogs he went on to play Super Rugby for the Southern Kings in 2017 and then had a stint with the Cheetahs before joining the Sharks in 2018.
Today, of course, he proudly dons the green and gold but the fleet-footed winger hasn’t forgotten his roots or those who have helped him along the way.
He credits players such as Lionel Cronjé, who was captain of the Kings when Makazole played for them, for helping him rise through the ranks.
“Lionel was that one guy who always checked up on me, making sure I was good,” he says.
“When you’re the underdog amid big guys such as [former Southern Kings player] Wandile Mjekevu, things can be a bit overwhelming.”
Makazole received his national call-up in 2018, debuting with the Boks when they took on Wales in the US capital, Washington, D.C.
“Making the team has got to be my biggest highlight,” he says. “It’s been a dream of mine for years now. It really is something special for me to represent the country.”
His family couldn’t understand his interest in the game. There is no future in it, they told him. Forget about it, they’d say.
“I was the only one who played rugby in my family – most of them didn’t even follow it so it was difficult for me. My sister was always telling me to go to school because she couldn’t see rugby working out for me,” says Makazole.
But the rugby bug had bitten him hard and by the time he got to high school it had become his life.
“I’d study but it was just to get it out of the way. Every day after school it was just rugby, rugby, rugby.”
He made close friends during his training in East London and those are the guys who became his biggest supporters.
“They’re the ones who always told me rugby was something I could make a living out of, that I could go far and make the big teams. But I must say I didn’t see it happening. I was just doing it for fun and to see how far I could go.”
His family finally started warming up to the idea of rugby when he made the Border Bulldogs. But 2009 was a bittersweet year for the young player: he lost his brother in a car crash, which was another devastating blow for the family. His mother had passed away in 2004 when Makazole was just 14 and in 2012 tragedy struck again when his sister died after complaining of a headache, he says. His father has never been in his life.
“So I’m basically alone now.”
What’s kept him going through the dark times is his fundamentally optimistic attitude to life.
“I’m the kind of person who’ll listen to everyone with the purpose of taking on board what I believe will work for me. What doesn’t serve me, I’ll discard.”
Makazole’s pre-match ritual is always the same. He checks in with his teammates before the start of the game and, if they're all playing the match, he shares a ritual with fellow Eastern Capers Lukhanyo Am and skipper Siya Kolisi: the trio get together to sing amagwijo (traditional Xhosa songs).
When he has a bit of downtime Makazole mostly keeps to himself.
“I’m moody sometimes so I like my space,” he says. “I enjoy being at home watching TV – I don’t even like going to the mall!”
He has a special someone in his life but doesn’t want to be drawn on the subject – he’s far more comfortable talking about rugby.
And there’s been plenty to talk about.
Even after his recent win at the South African Sports Awards, in true humble Makazole fashion, he says his achievements and accolades are for more than just him.
“I’ve always said that I’m doing this for people other than myself,” he says.
“I’m still trying to show people who come from a similar background – from the poor, rural areas of the Eastern Cape – that anything is possible. It doesn’t matter which school you go to, if you have the talent and the ability to work towards your dream, you can make it.”
Map1mp1: The Makazole Mapimpi Story premiers on 27 March at 8pm on DSTV channels 201 and 211.
Extra sources: dailymaverick.co.za, ewn.co.za