Hailing from humble beginnings, powerful Vodacom Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka has launched a foundation for children from disadvantaged communities, writes BRENDEN NEL.
Gqoboka is a player who had to fight his way out of poverty and squalor. Who clawed his way into a game he never knew, and now stands on the brink of a Springbok Test cap. It is the typical rags-to-riches story we all have come to love in modern day sport.
But Gqoboka is more than that. He goes one step further. He gives back. And while it is normal to see sportsmen lend their support to causes that are near to their heart, few have invested so much of their time, energy and resources as a man who knows what it is like to be on the other side of the coin – to watch those who have, when you have not.
This is why Gqoboka feels it is his mission, his life goal, not only to try to inspire on the field with his play and off the field with his amazing story and life testimony, but to also make a difference for others who don’t have the helping hand they need to get a start in life.
For a man who only took to the game of rugby at the age of 19, Gqoboka is an inspiration, but while others are busy investing their time and money in coffee shops, developments and spending time playing Xbox and PlayStation, he is making a difference one life at a time.
The Lizo Gqoboka Foundation is more than just a passion project for the big prop. Hailing from Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape, he has seen his fair share of squalor and poverty, with folks from his home town struggling from day to day.
While he loves his home, he saw a need for upliftment, and the only way he knew how was to start something himself. In his own words, he started the foundation ‘because where I am from there are no opportunities, people still spend half the day getting water from the river. Coming from a place like that, it can’t be that I am the only one who has a talent for sport. It is more that there are no opportunities, nobody is teaching the kids about sport. Nobody is giving them a chance. That is why I started the foundation.’
Gqoboka’s foundation has a simple goal – to find children who have sporting talent and lift them out of poverty through sport and education. He uses his own resources and time to help those from his former community and uses the foundation to drive his message home and attract sponsors at the same time.
Busy with his own studies – doing his honours in business management – Gqoboka sees his calling for a life after rugby, to continue and expand the foundation to ensure that more than changing lives, he also uplifts the community.
Given Gqoboka’s own life story, his late start, forcing himself through hunger to follow his dream and eventually getting a breakthrough at Eastern Province, he knows what it takes to get to the top.
Without a contract he was forced to ration food, and his story is a triumph of hope over adversity that resonates with the daily struggles of many in South Africa.
‘It was a tough time. I had no salary, I quit my job and was sleeping on the floor. It was easily three or four days without electricity at a time. One day I was left with flour and sugar. I boiled water and mixed the flour and sugar and ate the mixture for four days. I didn’t have any other food,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine.
‘I had to ration it because I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. I didn’t know anyone in PE, but I was hungry for success. I am grateful God gave me the courage and perseverance to go through those hard times and still smile. Nobody could see what I was going through.’
And having lifted himself up from that to be on the brink of the national side, Gqoboka has focused on helping others. The foundation started by finding young talent and giving them a vehicle to attend trials for sporting sides close by – a small step that has grown into something bigger.
‘We took around eight talented youngsters to trials for Ajax Cape Town at U13 level. One child we took last year for trials got a fully-paid sponsorship at the School of Excellence and has moved up to Johannesburg,’ Gqoboka smiles.
While the education is one thing, life lessons are another. Gqoboka’s home is open to that youngster on weekends, inviting him to be part of his family and to mentor him in his goals, far away from home.
‘We saw how talented he was and we took him for trials everywhere until we got him a sponsorship at the School of Excellence. His name is Andile Sobaka… I want to teach him a lot of things – character, the environment of sport, discipline and focus.
‘I teach him how to handle things when everything is going right for you and how to handle things when everything is going wrong. Just to build him, and not to just give him an opportunity and then leave him to fend for himself. He knows nobody here in Johannesburg except me. I am very big in grooming character, because that stays with you longer than sport.’
Gqoboka has taken the project further, finding children with talent in the community and inviting bigger schools to attend and see the talent. Last September, the Lizo Gqoboka Foundation launched its first annual tournament in Mount Frere. The one-day event involving rugby, soccer and netball introduced the foundation to the people of Eastern Cape, as well as other provinces.
‘We organise a tournament a tournament back home and we invite the bigger schools to see the talent. If one kid gets an opportunity, gets a bursary, they get sports opportunities and education. Even if they don’t make it in sport, their minds will open because they are in a different environment, a big city with different cultures. I had to learn other cultures at a very old age, so it was very difficult for me.’
Gqoboka spends much of his free time on the foundation and it is growing steadily, using the focus of his rugby form to attract others to invest.
‘It is my dream to find more children from disadvantaged backgrounds and give them a chance. Hopefully they will also do the same, and the more people who do this, the more it will grow. You know they say charity begins at home. I’m starting at home, but I will go to any place where I hear someone is struggling and they have a challenge and are willing to work hard.’
The foundation has expanded since with two more young girls receiving educational opportunities through Boston College. Two more youngsters, chosen at the football tournament last year in Mount Frere will also be getting opportunities shortly.
Many will be hoping Gqoboka cracks the nod this year for the World Cup squad, if only to further his dreams for the foundation and to help others. If he does, that dream will take a step closer to fruition, and so many more deserving sporting talents will find their chance to shine.
And that, more than anything, makes Gqoboka a shining light in country filled with rugby dreams.
*Nel has been covering South African rugby for 25 years and writes for supersport.com and Rapport newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @brendennel.