From street child to open water athlete

Thabiso Molefi ran away from home at 14. Five years later he swam from Robben Island to Blouberg

Photo  of two men

Arafat Gatabazi (left) coached and mentored Thabiso Molefi who, last week, swam from Robben Island to Blouberg. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

By Ashraf Hendricks

13 January 2020

Thabiso Molefi ran away from home and hitchhiked from the Free State to Cape Town in 2014. Only 14, it took him months to hitchhike to Cape Town. When he arrived, his first stop was Lagoon Beach in Milnerton. He couldn’t swim but nevertheless, he took off his clothes and then “just went to play around in the water”.

Five years later, he completed the 7.5km open water swim from Robben Island to Big Bay on his first attempt.

Molefi was born in Welkom, Free State. His parents were immigrants from Lesotho. Family life was hard. His parents were often absent and his father was arrested, although Molefi doesn’t know the reason why. He also had to look after his younger brothers.

Molefi wasn’t registered at birth and does not have a birth certificate. He does not officially exist and so, when he arrived in Cape Town, he was unable to register for school.

“I ran away from my parents to get a better life,” he says.

For two weeks after arriving in Cape Town Molefi was homeless and relied on strangers to survive. He met a woman, and with her family’s assistance, he was given new clothes and was brought to the Homestead Project for Street Children, an organisation that provides a safe space for street children.

At Homestead he met Arafat Gatabazi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who was formerly homeless himself and had also previously been taken in by Homestead. In 2017 Gatabazi swam from Robben Island to Sea Point. He now runs a swimming program for Cape Flats children.

“The idea of the program is to try and inspire” says Gatabazi. “Swimming helped me deal with my problems.” He says that when you’re going through difficult times, being “alone in the water” clears your mind.

Gatabazi wants to “try and help boys and girls see the world differently”. The ocean “doesn’t allow you to come with your negative energy in it,” he says. “When you go in it, it’s as if you just left everything outside.” For many of the children staying at the Homestead, life on the streets was hard with alot of negativity. That is why a program where someone believes in you is important, he says.

Molefi joined the swimming program in 2016 and Gatabazi coached and mentored him.

Many of the boys come from chaotic pasts, dealing with drugs and gangs. “You can’t be sitting calmly in a circle talking about things when you’ve been living your whole life on high adrenalin,” says Liezl Conradie, Manager and Social Worker at the Homestead Project. “Once they get in sports that are high adrenalin like open water swimming it almost replaces that.” Conradie says that the swimming program dramatically changed the lives of both Gatabazi and Molefi.

Molefi loves the sport because “it’s simple”. “I forget about everything and I focus on where I am going.”

Molefi trained about three to four times a week for the open water swim from Robben Island. He would use a tidal pool as well as the public swimming pool in Long Street to swim two to three kilometres daily.

On Sunday 5 January he swam from Robben Island to Big Bay in 3 hours and 4 minutes in water that was about 13 degrees centigrade. He says that the hardest part of the swim was to “not focus on the negative thoughts”. During difficult parts in the swim, Molefi would imagine his coach next to him and he would try and keep up.

Completing the swim, Molefi says that he is proud of himself. “I never believed that I would do it.” And even though he has had a difficult past, “I am able to do something different.”

In January last year he went back to Lesotho to sort out his birth documents. This year, at the age of 19, he is back in school to complete grade 11 and is helping Gatabazi teach at the swimming program. Molefi wants to become a social worker. Because of what he has been through, he believes he’ll be good at it.

Video supplied by Arafat Gatabazi