Fresh from his first week as the newly appointed Head Coach of Mamelodi Sundowns, Rulani Mokwena sat down with Masandawana’s Digital Magazine crew and gave us an exclusive interview on the challenges, changes, and the choices he will face as the new man at the helm of the premier soccer league champions.© Gavin Barker - Backpage PixHead Coach Rulani celebrates a victory with Cassius MailulaMamelodi Sundowns (MS): Who was the first person you called to share the news about your appointment as Head Coach of Mamelodi Sundowns?
Rulani Mokwena (RM): I called my mother. Linda Mokwena. I deliberately keep a very small circle of people in my life because trust is very important to me. One person who knows almost everything that happens in my life is my mother, hence she was one of the first people to know about it.
MS: What was her reaction when you told her the good news?
RM: She was at work and had to lower her voice and retain her excitement because I asked her not to say anything until the club released an official statement. However, mothers being mothers, there’s always that euphoria and pride for their children's achievements. She was excited, but you know mothers are very quick to remind you of the challenges you have faced (and pitfalls ahead) because of their protective nature.
© Gavin Barker - Backpage PixHead Coach Rulani celebrating at the last DSTV Premiership match before the FIFA breakMS: After sharing the news with your mother, is there any scripture that you went to recite?
RM: The first scripture that I posted on my WhatsApp after speaking to her was Philippians 4:19 which reads: "And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus”. What this scripture declares is that regardless of what one might not have, always believe and have faith that God will provide. He does not bring you a challenge that is beyond His provision.

One of the things I shared with Flemming Berg (Sundown’s Sporting Director) was the analogy of David & Goliath. When I was at Orlando Pirates, I was in a similar position when Micho (Milutin Sredojevic) moved to Zamalek on the back of a 3-1 loss to Supersport United; he is someone who also wished me well on the position whom I still maintain a good relationship with.

I told Flemming that I was reminded of that situation because of the battles and lessons I encountered at that point. David fought Goliath, but only a few people know that he had fought a bear prior to that battle. Him fighting the bear was preparation for his bigger encounter with Goliath.
MS: You talk about the analogy of David and Goliath from the Bible and preparing for battle. Who are some of the mentors that you talk to that assist in preparing yourself to tackle challenges?
RM: I have been fortunate enough to be in a situation where I have two of South Africa’s most prominent football leaders, Coach Manqoba (Mngqithi) and Coach Steve (Komphela), provide mentorship and support that goes beyond the football pitch. Additionally, I also look up to Dr. Irvan Khoza me and the greatest lesson he taught me is that “You cannot dry tomorrow’s washing with yesterday’s sun.” This means that you must keep going no matter what.

Finally, Dr. Patrice Motsepe is a father figure who always shows care, love, and a sense of loyalty. When I left Mamelodi Sundowns, he sent me messages when I celebrated my birthday during the 3 years I spent away from The Brazilians. When someone does good to you, even when there’s no possibility of getting anything back in return, they deserve so much of your loyalty, love, integrity, and sacrifice. Ever since I've joined Sundowns I always feel that I must give back and reciprocate that loyalty, love, and support which has been shown to me by sacrificing my time and investing in the club to ensure that we are successful.
© Gavin Barker - Backpage PixCoach Rulani encouraging Haashim Domingo during a DSTV Premiership matchMS: What would you say is the most fulfilling thing about being a Coach?
RM: I look at myself as a Coach but also at what the Bible calls a Steward. Stewards are known for taking good care of things that are not their own. Having the responsibility to take care of something that can influence the happiness of millions of people is important to me.
MS: What improvements did the players make to adjust to your leadership when you played your first match against Maritzburg United? did you make any leadership adjustments from your side?
RM: I really need to give incredible plaudits and gratitude, not just to Flemming Berg, who assisted in giving clarity but also to the Club Chairman, Tlhopie Motsepe. Before the first match, the Chairman offered a heartfelt prayer which gave me the energy to be brave and lead from the front during a moment of uncertainty at the club. Being a spiritual person myself, I was touched by Thlopie’s prayer and could feel the connection galvanized by his energy.

Additionally, I need to give also give credit to the coaches. As difficult as it was for me, I can only imagine how difficult it was for them and the rest of the technical staff. Changes come with a lot of uncertainty. At that point, the boys needed calmness, clarity, and good leadership, which both Coach Manqoba and Coach Steve were exceptional in providing for the team. We had to put aside how we felt and trust that the decisions made were in the club's best interests. The coaches provided a sense of calmness and reassurance, showing that their leadership goes beyond their own interests. I cannot let a moment pass without expressing sincere gratitude for the support they provided to me and the players.

I am also grateful that we have an honest group of players. We are privileged to have players who maintain professionalism and portray an unwavering commitment to the team. They also perform their duties with the utmost diligence.

After downloading videos of the last five games that we played, we were stuck trying to find a solution for achieving better results. While analysing the games, I made notes about the individual players and spent most of the matchday against Maritzburg United having one-on-one discussions with each player. I intended to ensure that there was clarity and calmness among the players.

Furthermore, I had a conversation with the team’s leadership namely: Andile Jali, Mosa Lebusa, Themba Zwane and Denis Onyango to reassure them that it’s still “business as usual.” My biggest plea to them was that we have to revive the team to its former glory. We must go back to being a team that plays with energy, aggression and the mad-dog mentality of not giving up.
© Sundowns MediaMS: Are there any adjustments that you expect the players to make? As a leader, are there any adjustments that you intend to make in terms of intensity?
RM: The most important aspect of a leader is not to change. Football is about the relationships you have with the players, and I would assume that I have worked hard to establish a good rapport with the players over the past two years. I believe that my rapport has embodied honesty which has developed trust. I think they understand the kind of person I am. I have moments of humour, but I also have moments of being serious and demanding. I will continue being authentic as I believe that it is important.

I want to be remembered as someone genuine and sincere. I want to give to this team what I would want the players to give as well – sincerity.

The club is far more important than any individual. The happiness of Masandawana supporters is our top priority. We want to make the yellow nation proud.
© Sundowns MediaMS: In football, age is usually a determining factor when it comes to leadership. As a youthful leader, what do you think is the biggest challenge for youthful coaches in football?
RM: One of the life lessons that my grandmother taught me was not to learn from other people’s mistakes. She emphasised the importance of learning from people who have walked in your path to avoid making similar mistakes.

The biggest challenge for youthful leaders is that there aren’t many of them. There aren’t many opportunities for young people to take up positions of leadership. Therefore, the references to mistakes made by youthful leaders in history are very minimal. The same is true for other sectors such as politics and business. Trying to find mistakes that young leaders have made in ascending to positions of leadership successfully in those sectors is not predominant. Because of that, stepping into a leadership position as a young person is like walking into a dark forest. Therefore, when I look at myself as a leader, I have a clear understanding that I have three handicaps. These are the stereotype about me being too young to be a leader, being black, as well as the fact that I didn’t play professional football.

Those three facts put me in a disadvantageous position. However, being at a disadvantage rejuvenates my work ethic and spirit in moments when I don't have the energy to analyse games. I always remind myself that I need to work thrice as hard and be more committed because of my three handicaps.

I have a full understanding of where I am. I believe that the core elements of leadership are competence and experience. When I look back at my journey as an assistant coach for nearly 15 years, I have been on the path of self-discovery and accumulation of experience. Many coaches ran this race before but never got opportunities. I believe that experience is not about the number of years but rather the quality of the lessons learned. For the past few years, I have been building competence to be good at match analysis and conducting training sessions.
MS: Based on your experience, which qualities do you think every young leader should possess?
RM: One of the most important characteristics I have had to develop is emotional intelligence. Having emotional intelligence has allowed me to see beyond myself which is very important in football. Self-absorption is detrimental because it makes one prone to personalising everything and everything feels like an attack. Once you can focus on things outside of yourself, you can understand that everything is working for your own good. People often talk about how I failed at Orlando Pirates without understanding the context.

Three years later, I am in a similar position of having to assume leadership in a that is in a very difficult position. Being in this position has helped me because I have been here before. I am like David because I have already fought the bear.

If I was still self-absorbed, I wouldn’t be able to realise that, now is the opportunity to use my experiences, strength, and knowledge that God has given. My personal experiences of pain and suffering have prepared me to face challenges today. However, I wouldn’t be able to face these challenges without help from everyone, especially the players. This is one of the greatest lessons I had to learn while preparing for my position as head coach of Mamelodi Sundowns.
MS: You mentioned some of your past experiences as a football coach. If you have to give Rulani Mokwena advice 10 years ago, what would it be?
RM: That’s a difficult one but I would say “listen and observe more, speak less.” . You can’t be observant if you are not prepared to listen and watch. The more you talk, the less you listen.” I would tell younger Rulani Mokwena that he doesn’t have to be the loudest in the room. You can be in a meeting and not say a word, that’s what the greatest leaders do.

I remember Nelson Mandela telling a story about how he developed his leadership qualities. He explained he was the son of a tribal chief, and one of the things his father was good at is speaking last if there was a need to speak because it allowed him to understand the people he was leading. Nelson Mandela will always be the epitome of what excellent leadership is about.
MS: If you could meet Coach Rulani Mokwena 10 years from now, what would you ask him?
RM: Interesting question. The number one concern I have is that I don’t take care of myself enough, from a health perspective. Maybe in 10 years, I would ask myself, did you take care of yourself? It doesn’t matter how much quality work you can produce if you are not able to look after yourself. There was a book I read two years ago about the three former presidents of the US, the Roosevelt brothers and Lincoln. I’m not sure if it was Lincoln but his father said to him “you can’t lead if you are frail” when he was growing up as a boy. Additionally, his father told him to make himself harder to kill financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually if he wants to become a great leader.

Harder to kill spiritually by plugging yourself in, whatever religion you follow or spiritual space you feel comfortable in. Harder to kill financially, so it’s difficult to bribe you or buy your favour as a leader. Harder to kill emotionally so that you don't become biased. Harder to kill mentally by being clear and having a clear vision and putting energy and passion into it. Harder to kill physically by investing in your health and well-being because is what will make you a better leader.
With the senior team now on a break during the FIFA World Cup, Coach Rulani will be watching attentively the 2022 spectacle in Qatar and wishes the Masandawana family a safe festive season and prosperous New Year. He is looking forward to the league resuming on the 31st of December and in the New Year.