Former athlete credits Special Olympics for giving him his 'dream job'

Ephraim Mohlakane, who met Mandela, provides for his family by working as a sports coach

Abu Dhabi, March 18, 2019.  Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Interview with Ephraim Mohlakane, a decorated Special Olympics Athlete.
Victor Besa/ The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Dan Sanderson
Powered by automated translation

Ephraim Mohlakane does not like to imagine what his life would be with without sport.

“If it was not for the Special Olympics, I think I would just be at home,” the South African, 41, said. “I would just be sitting doing nothing, learning nothing.”

Instead, he spends most days working as a football and basketball coach at a leading Johannesburg private school. With the help of people, he met through the Special Olympics, he was offered a two-week trial. That was 14 years ago, and he is still in what he describes as his dream job.

When he got tired of being on a waiting list for government housing, he bought his own home. Although his intellectual disability, which makes it difficult for him to read and write, meant he needed help to make sense of the mortgage papers, he was determined to provide for his wife and two children, a son, 12, and daughter, 2.

He represented South Africa in the Special Olympics for the first time aged 16. Now, he is assistant head of his country’s delegation in Abu Dhabi, assuming responsibility for almost 100 athletes and acting as their advocate and mentor.

“God did not create everyone all the same,” he said. “We can’t all be academic. I wish I could be a lawyer. I wish I could be a doctor. I went to school and I studied hard, I tried. But I realised being academic was not my thing. But I wanted to achieve something. You have to accept the way you are, and be happy.”

His success means he is able to pass on wisdom he received from Nelson Mandela, who he met several times, even sitting next to him on a 13-hour flight from South Africa to Dublin for the 2003 Games. “He told me I must not look down, but look up,” he recalls. Arnold Schwarzenegger is another acquaintance who he says has guided him.

Mr Mohlakane is now determined to change perceptions, in Africa in particular, about what people with intellectual disabilities can achieve.

“Sometimes, the community, they don’t take people seriously,” he said. “They think you are useless, that there is nothing you can do, that you don’t belong to the world. It’s very bad. In South Africa we still have a long way to go.

“People still need education to learn a lot of things in a lot of countries, especially in Africa. Without education we are not going anywhere. If you don’t have education, people are blind, they don’t see the right direction. The reality is you can achieve. I focus on my ability, what I can do.”

He is also keen to instil confidence in a new generation of people with disabilities.

“You only get to live once, so you have to fight to achieve,” he said. “It was not easy for me. But I told myself, I’m not going to look down because of my disability. Life is tough, but you have to fight.

“People with intellectual disabilities might not finish school, but we are still normal people. My big challenge is to teach people they can stand up for themselves and they can change the world. You must believe in yourself and be proud.”