Beast Mtawarira is determined to use his platform to empower and inspire others, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Mtawarira has never wanted for passion and intent. Who could forget his reaction after he’d hammered Dan Cole at the scrum in the 2019 World Cup final and earned the Springboks yet another kickable penalty?
Mtawarira pumped his fists before roaring at the sky. Teammates raced in from all corners of the Yokohama Stadium to slap the big prop on the back. In the aftermath, the 117-Test veteran said he was retiring from the game with a full heart.
One year on from the Boks’ World Cup triumph, Mtawarira has thrown himself into several charity projects with the same enthusiasm and energy that characterised his playing career. Following the launch of The Beast Foundation, Mtawarira spoke passionately about his intent to change South Africa – and his native Zimbabwe – for the better.
‘All I’ve ever wanted is a platform to give back,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I didn’t grow up with a lot, and I’m well aware of the challenges young men and women from underprivileged communities face on a daily basis.
‘I want to lift these youngsters up and show them that they can have a future and family. Rugby gave me that chance to provide for my wife and kids. I’ve made it. Now I have a responsibility to the next generation. I want to use my platform to empower these youngsters. I want to change the world.’
Mtawarira refers to his own humble beginnings in Harare. The Sharks offered the promising player – then a loose forward who counted Bok No 8 Bob Skinstad among his heroes – a place in their academy.
One thing led to another, and after moving from loose forward to prop, Mtawarira went on to play for the Sharks senior side and the Boks.
‘I jumped at the opportunity to come to South Africa. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I was determined to make it work at the Sharks.’
One of the most endearing stories is that of a young Mtawarira riding a bicycle to training each day. He points out that he was fortunate to have a bike at all at that stage of his life.
‘Sharks coach Dick Muir had a deal with a local bicycle shop in Durban and had arranged for the lot of us to get bikes. Most of the players used their bikes every now and then for recreation. For me, I saw the bike as an opportunity to solve a big problem regarding transport. I cycled to and from training every day. I cycled to the shops and to friends’ houses. Unless someone gave me a lift, I cycled pretty much everywhere.
‘In the pre-season, we used to go through a series of punishing fitness exercises,’ he recalls. ‘At the end of the day, the guys got in their cars and drove home to relax. Meanwhile, I got on my bike and began the long uphill cycle from King’s Park to my flat in Morningside.
‘I look back on things like that and think that it was tough. Perhaps that helped me in terms of developing a strong character. I still think I was incredibly fortunate to get my chance at the Sharks, as a kid from Harare. How many kids won’t get that chance?’
The Beast Foundation launched in late August. While Mtawarira has worked with various charity organisations in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the past, his own foundation will allow him to pursue his vision and make a greater impact.
‘The Beast Foundation has partnered up with the Henley Business School,’ he says of one of the foundation’s projects. ‘We’re looking at offering 100 scholarships. The bottom line is that we want to change lives.
‘I had so many sleepless nights because I was worried about my future. Even as a young player, I wasn’t sure about what I would do if I suffered a career-ending injury. Players of all ages can benefit from the right mentorship as well as a scholarship. I had a great mentor in former Sharks and Bok flank Wahl Bartmann, who took me under his wing and got me onboard with Fidelity Security.
‘My foundation is about equipping these youngsters with the skills to succeed in life as well as sport. For example, we plan to offer financial literacy courses that will ensure these young sportsmen and women can better manage their affairs. ‘We want to talk to them about what comes next, what kind of career they’re pursuing, what degree they need to obtain. Again, not enough professional sportsmen and women are thinking about the future.’
Mtawarira reiterates that he would not have made it as a professional player if he didn’t have help from various mentors. He speaks with pride when he singles out a schoolboy who will be the first recipient of a scholarship through his foundation.
‘I’ve been looking after Mpumi, who plays rugby at Westville High. He had a tough upbringing and struggled with his support structures. A friend of mine told me about the situation and I decided to get involved. He’s a big boy with a big laugh and smile. It’s fair to say that he reminds me of myself as a kid.
‘I’ve been mentoring Springbok Women’s captain Babalwa Latsha. She’s set to be one of the foundation’s ambassadors. We’re determined to help girls as much as boys. We want to empower both genders. I believe Babalwa will be a great role model for the youngsters.’
The Beast Foundation has also partnered up with Teach SA. Mtawarira has asked Asics, a long time sponsor during his playing days, to help out with equipment and clothing for aspirant sportsmen and women.
‘It’s a very exciting time, but an important time,’ he says. ‘The work we do now will set the platform for the future. The funds we obtain will help us increase our reach. I want to reach as many people as possible.’
The first of the foundation’s rugby and basketball bootcamps will be held in early 2021. Mtawarira plans to rope in a few old teammates for the rugby clinics. He’s equally excited about the basketball camps and believes there is an opportunity to develop the next generation of global superstars. ‘As a kid, I watched a lot of the NBA and even played a bit of ‘ball myself. What I’ve noticed over the years is that so many young players excel at high school and then don’t find an opportunity to play basketball thereafter.
‘I look at the NBA, and I see how many Africans are excelling on one of sport’s biggest stages. The 2019-20 MVP was Giannis Antetokounmpo from the Milwalkee Bucks, who is of Nigerian descent. Pascal Siakam, who plays for the Raptors, is from Cameroon. ‘We have the talent here in Africa, it’s waiting to be discovered. I want to get involved in scouting the stars of tomorrow. I’m affiliated with NBA Africa, and I hope to build a good relationship with the NBA in future.
‘I met some officials at an exhibition game in Johannesburg last year and told them about my passion for the game and vision for the future,’ he adds. ‘They then invited me and my family to an LA Lakers game in Orlando. I hope they will partner up with The Beast Foundation, as I believe we can do a lot for the sport in Africa and the youngsters determined to have a professional career.’
All eyes are on the Boks following their incredible victory in Japan last year. Siya Kolisi has signed with Roc Nation, the entertainment agency that is part-owned by American rapper Jay-Z.
Perhaps the Bok captain, who spearheaded various charity projects during the lockdown period, can put in a good word for Mtawarira with his high-profile American connections? Mtawarira laughs when the question is put to him.
‘Maybe I should call in a favour from Siya. All jokes aside, Siya and I have had many conversations about this kind of thing, using our platforms to help others. The way he’s conducted himself recently, going out into the communities and making a difference … it’s incredible what he’s done. He’s my inspiration.
‘We have a special friendship. Eben Etzebeth is the third member of the tripod. That’s something I never want to lose, that special bond. Together we can do great things for this country.’
Kolisi and Mtawarira have been vocal about their support for causes such as Black Lives Matter. When teammate Makazole Mapimpi started a campaign to raise awareness about gender-based violence – #Mapimpi67 – Mtawarira didn’t hesitate to get involved. ‘Gender-based violence is a massive issue,’ he says. ‘We as men have a duty to highlight this issue. It’s also our job to educate the next generation about how we as men treat women. ‘How do you handle a certain situation? What are your values? These are the things you need to talk about with young people. Mentors like myself can help mould their characters at a critical stage of their development.’
Nowadays, you’re unlikely to catch Mtawarira for a chat on the phone until late in the evening. Apart from his business interests and the foundation, he is working towards a post-graduate diploma that will put him in line for an MBA in 2021.
‘It’s a lot to take on, but I’m loving the challenge. I want to keep growing and I realise that I will need more tools to be a success in the business world. ‘In my past life as a player, I pushed my body to the limit. Nowadays I’m pushing my brain. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.’
The British & Irish Lions will tour South Africa in 2021. Mtawarira established himself as a player of note when he destroyed Phil Vickery at the scrum in the first Test of the 2009 series.
Would the 35-year-old ever consider coming out of retirement for the next instalment of the famous series? If Bok coach Jacques Nienaber sent Mtawarira sent a SOS – just as Rassie Erasmus did to the retired Schalk Brits in 2018 – would he accept the offer to have another crack?
‘You’re not the first person to ask me that,’ Mtawarira says. ‘Eben doesn’t think I’m done yet. He’s always wondering if I will be back. Never say never, but a call from Jacques or Rassie would come as a big surprise.
‘I still get time to work out. I’m in pretty great shape. I’ve been on a mission to add more muscle over the past few months, you could say I’m on a mini body-building plan. The big difference between now and when I was a player is that I no longer have someone watching me and telling me what to eat. That’s the big challenge.’
For now, his focus is on helping the next generation realise their dreams. ‘You want to leave a legacy,’ he says. ‘In a way, the hard work starts after you stop playing. There’s potential to leave a bigger legacy off the field than on it. ‘You want to change lives. It’s great to see so many of my former teammates doing something similar. We have the platform and ultimately we have an opportunity to help. We must make the most of it.
BRIGHT START FOR THE BEAST FOUNDATION
Beast Mtawarira and his wife Kuziva recently joined forces with power tool manufacturers Husqvarna to ‘green’ the spaces at Salt Rock’s Sizani School. The event doubled as a launch for the World-Cup winning Springbok’s new endeavour, The Beast Foundation. ‘Following the outbreak of Covid-19, people are worried about two main things, getting food on the table and being healthy,’ Kuziva Mtawarira says. Over the years, Sizani has grown from 150 to 900 learners and resources have been stretched to the limit. The Mtawariras – through the Beast Foundation – and Husqvarna have come together to build a sustainable vegetable garden that will serve the school. The loosehead prop, who hung up his boots after the 2019 World Cup victory, has big plans for the foundation.
‘The Beast Foundation will give kids a physical and mental boost through sport,’ Mtawarira says. ‘We’re really excited about the project and its potential to help younger people realise their dreams.’