16 Jun 2010

Standing by to be South Africa’s World Cup mascot

Exclusive: mother dying of Aids, no water or electricity at home, yet Sonelisile Sotshangane tells Keme Nzerem he may be one of a lucky few ‘match escorts’ to lead South Africa out in the World Cup.

Two months ago Sonelisile Sotshangane’s mother was taken ill. She was sent to get treatment from a traditional doctor in the Western Cape.

She left Sonelisile, his brother, and sister behind to fend for themselves in their unheated shack in Soweto.

Sonelisile is seven years old. He is an Aids orphan. He hopes he will escort his country’s football team as they step onto the pitch in Africa’s first World Cup.

It is a scarcely believable opportunity – to lead “Bafana Bafana” out in front of tens of thousands of fans, and be watched by a global television audience, as the rainbow nation tells to the world it has thrown off the shackles they inherited from apartheid, to join the elite group of countries deemed mature enough to host the world’s most popular sporting event.

But Sonelisile simply cannot believe it. Things like this do not happen to boys like him.

From the litter-strewn scrap of land that makes for his front yard, Sonelisile can see and hear the venue that hosted the World Cup opening concert.

One of South Africa’s most successful football teams, the Orlando Pirates, play their football barely a throw-in’s length away. Yet Sonelisle has never been inside his local football ground.

The walk to Sonelisile’s one-room corrugated home is dusty and bleak. There’s no running water, and no electricity.

The charity worker who nominated him for this honour is unsure how he’ll react to the news that he’s won. “He’s been let down so many times before,” says Mama Carol.

Sonelisile’s been told his mother is likely to die any day. Her young family survive on handouts.

About a hundred pounds a month pays for kerosene and food, and a bus is sent every day to take him and his siblings to school and back.

His older brother Theko, diffident and smartly dressed, will watch Sonelisile’s appearence at a local “viewing centre”. There is no television at home.

He says the billions of rands the South African government has spent on securing the World Cup could have been spent elsewhere.

“I am very happy about this opportunity he will get. Even if I will not be there, I will be so very happy”.

Mama Carol holds Sonelisle’s hand tight as she walks him through what will happen. He’s still not convinced. “You must believe it. Honestly honestly it’s true,” she says.

Sonelisile shakes his head, and shuffles his feet in that way that children do when they think they’re the subject of some gentle adult tease they don’t quite understand.

And when he gets it, his entire body light up. “Aaron Makoena [South Africa’s captain]?” he asks, still not quite willing to believe.

Mama Carol sheds a tear and hugs him tight.