Thulani “Michael” Mbanjwa has been a star of the South African paddling scene for many years. He has worn the green and gold in international competition, but it was only at the recently held KwaZulu-Natal Canoeing Union (KNCU) Awards, in June, that he received his national blazer.
“I was very happy,” he said. “It was actually quite a surprise. It was special for me.”
Mbanjwa was the second black man after the legendary Robert Lembethe to receive his national colours in canoeing.
Lembethe had begun his canoeing journey as a caretaker at Natal Canoe Club (NCC), where he went on to become a strong canoeist and a very good coach. After three years, he left the club and moved into the Valley of a Thousand Hills where he introduced paddling to black youngsters. Their progress has since become one of the biggest success stories in the development of sport in South Africa.
“The man was very good to me, “Mbanjwa recalled, “and he taught us very well and we still respect him and without him I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“He always enjoyed sprinting and marathons. I also did sprint for a while and then I changed to marathons and I’m now in river marathons. I don’t like sprints any more. With sponsorship and other things, it is difficult to just concentrate on sprinting.”
Today, Mbanjwa is following in his mentor’s footsteps, taking paddling to the talented youngsters living in the Valley of a Thousand Hills as the KNCU’s head of development paddling. There is a strong programme in existence funded largely by the Department of Sport and Recreation KZN, who take great interest in the sport. The MEC for Sport and Recreation has been paddling at Natal Canoe Club on numerous occasions, and even participated in a race during the build up to the 2013 Dusi Canoe Marathon.
“I am grateful because I was working up in Joburg and suddenly I got a job back in KZN as head coach of development,” Mbanjwa said.
“I work with all the development around the Valley and I’m now trying to grow the sport, from the young kids at primary school all the way to high school. I think we’ve got a very strong development programme and I think that is what Robert wanted to see, a lot of guys coming up in the sport.”
In 2008, Mbanjwa became the first black paddler to win the famous Dusi Canoe Marathon when he teamed up with the Dusi Duke, Martin Dreyer, to take victory in a K2. The first black K1 winner will be crowned soon, he believes.
“I think it is very close. If we look at this year’s [Dusi Canoe Marathon], Eric [Zondi] was very close. He was just unlucky and I think we have a few other young guys that are coming up, so I think it will happen very shortly.”
The Dusi holds a special place in Mbanjwa’s heart. “The Dusi is one of the biggest races for me. It is the one race that goes through the Valley, where I live,” he explained.
“Growing up, I watched all those guys, before I even took up the sport, paddling down our valley, and then, finally, Robert came along and we joined up with him.
“For me,the one thing I had in my mind once I started paddling well was to win the Dusi. That was always my dream and in 2008 when I won it with Martin [Dreyer], that was really special moment for me.”
Looking ahead, Mbanjwa said winning the Dusi is still hugely important to him. “Most definitely, Dusi is my biggest race, so I still want to do the K2 Dusi [in 2014].
“I’m still looking for a good partner for next year’s race. That will be one the biggest races I will do. I will still participate in the Breede, Fish and those other races, but the big one for me will be Dusi.
“You’ll see me there and I’ll be strong again.”