Team South Africa

Players, colleagues pay homage to the late Letha Zulu

Gumede: I could write a book about the guy

LETHUXOLO ‘Letha’ Zulu’s is one of the most revered basketball coaches in South Africa. The reason being, he has helped to mould and shape some of the country’s best and most promising talents. 

Samkelo Cele, Thabo Sithole and Liam Reid are among the players who had their game was shaped by Zulu, the head of the famed Durban High School basketball program.

When the news of his untimely passing last Sunday came to light, it was a cruel blow to the game in the country. A blow felt by his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, the players nurtured by him, his friends, colleagues and most importantly, his family.

At the time of his death Zulu was meant to lead South Africa’s men’s team at the FISU World University Games (28 July – 8 August) in Chengdu, China.

With this sad state of affairs, one can only imagine the pain of the players. The Games being close by and the man who was supposed to lead them not being there. Players and colleague spoke to The Big Tip Off about the impact of Zulu on them and the game.

Kwazi Gumede
Kwazi Gumede says Zulu knew how to engage with players. Pictures: The BTO and Getty Images



Players and colleagues spoke fondly of Zulu

Kwazi Gumede, shooting guard of the South African team, spoke of his sadness at the loss of Zulu and describes as being genuine with players.

“I think about the moments he shared with us individually or as players, and it breaks my heart that he is no longer with us. Coach will not be with us on the flight to China. He is not going to coach us. He is not going to be there,” said the Tshwane University of Technology player. “Coach Letha knew how to engage with players. South African basketball has lost a real one.”

“I could write a book about this guy. He is just amazing. We are going to miss him. I do not doubt that coach Mandla (Ngema) and ourselves as players will make him proud.”

The University of Pretoria’s big man Nhlanhla Vela, who is part of the student team, felt Zulu had a lot to give.

“Coach Letha was a great coach. The news (of his passing) hurt. I had known him for a while and I feel he still had a lot to teach. He believed in me and thought I have what it takes to become great in this game. I want to make him proud and finish what he has started (with the national team),” said Vela.

Cape Town Tigers players Samkelo Cele and Liam Reid, had nothing but praised their former mentor: “Coach Zulu was more than coach to me. He was more than a coach to anyone who played under him. He taught me the game, and he taught me how to love the game,” said Cele, who starred for the Tigers at this year’s Basketball Africa League. “Beyond the game, he was a great and selfless person. I don’t know any other person like that in the world.

“He is a guy who probably had opportunities to leave DHS. Instead choosing green pastures, he stayed to give kids, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, opportunities to see the world differently.”

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Samkelo Cele says described Zulu as a selfless person.

Tigers centre, Reid says Zulu helped to set him on his present path in the game.

“Coach Zulu was the first to show me I could have a future in this game. His teachings have brought me far in life. He was a guy who believed in me. And believed all the players he coached,” said the former KwaZulu-Natal Marlins player. “He was an open-hearted and selfless man… A role model for many people in and around basketball.

“Whenever I reached out, he wished me the best.”

Another former DHS player, Thabo Sithole, developed under the tutelage of Zulu. He played many a game under Zulu from high school level, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the junior national team. Sithole described his former coach as a disciplined man who worked to “instill” the same principle in his players.

“On and off the court, he used to push us… Running suicides and doing other basketball drills. He was trying to instill that strong work ethic in us. Off the court, he was present for players. I would say he was great dude,” said Sithole, who represented South Africa at the 2017 AfroBasket.

Coaching colleague Craig Gilchrist says Zulu was one of the pillars of the game in KwaZulu-Natal and the district of Ethekwini.

“We were all shocked on hearing the news of the passing of Letha. He was one of the fathers of KZN Basketball. He has left a huge hole. The game survived the tough times thanks to him,” said Gilchrist, who led South Africa at the 2017 AfroBasket.

“Had it not been for him starting the EBA and providing a platform for the players to participate, basketball would not be what it is today in KZN. He was an inspiration and mentor to many young players who came through DHS in the past 15 years. It is truly a sad moment for KZN basketball as we mourn the loss of one of our own.

“Condolences to the Zulu family. They will be in our thoughts and prayers.”

The University of Pretoria’s junior program and second team coach coach Lesiba Molothane said in his memorial message: “We had the privilege of meeting Letha Zulu back in 2003 during the Olympic Solidarity Coaches’ program, and from that moment, a special bond was formed. Letha was not just an exceptional coach; he was a mentor, a guide, and a source of inspiration for all those fortunate enough to know him. His dedication and unwavering passion for basketball were unmatched, and he poured his heart and soul into nurturing young talents, moulding them into confident athletes.”

The overarching theme of Zulu’s character is that of a player’s coach. A man who gave his all to the game and expected the players he coached to do the same. The gratitude towards him is understandable, he left an indelible legacy.

Go well, Coach Zulu. You have served, and deeds of your work will forever live in those you impacted.

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South Africa eyeing a medal at Student Games

Mametja and his teammates are in a tough group

AFTER a 14-year absence from the FISU World Student Games, the South African men’s basketball team will make their return this year in Chengdu, China. Naturally, there is excitement from the players and a desire for the team to do well.

The South African men’s team last appeared in the Games in 2009 in Belgrade, Serbia

Also, the Games were set to take place in 2021, unfortunately, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic led to their postponement. Now they will resume in the same country and city (28 July – 8 August).

Two players in the form of team captain Allan Mametja, and his University of Pretoria teammate Nhlanhla Vela look forward to testing themselves against some of the best countries in basketball. Both players, who spoke to The Big Tip Off at the launch of Team South Africa on Tuesday at SASCOC (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee) House, stated almost similar reasons for their excitement.

South Africa captain Allan Mametja (middle) looks forward to leading his troops in Chengdu, China. Pictures: The BTO

Mametja, hopes the South African team, coached by Luthando Zulu, will inspire young people to believe in their dreams.

“Firstly, I want to thank everyone who helped me to get here. It’s not everybody that can get this opportunity. I am grateful to be named among the players that will represent their country,” said Mametja, who is studying towards a Bachelors Degree in Education. “We have not participated in the FISU games for a while. There is an opportunity for us and other upcoming players to get noticed because we do not get much exposure in this country.

“Also a young kid out there, who has seen us, will be inspired to put in their work to achieve their dreams.”

Big man Vela, who hails from the Eastern Cape, says it’s a privilege to be part of the team, as many youths from where he is from struggle to make it out.

“I feel excited. I thank God for blessing me with this opportunity and giving me the gift of basketball. Lots of people back home have supported me, so, I want to say thank you to them as well. Where I come from, not everyone makes it. So to be here, I appreciate it, and it’s a blessing,” said Vela, who is studying for a degree in Sports Science.


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While both players salivate at the prospect of wearing the national team vest, one player knows a lot rests on his shoulders. That is the captain of course. It is something he is aware of and a challenge he has accepted.

“There is so much responsibility, but I can handle the pressure and lead the guys. As the captain, I have to ensure the guys are comfortable. We have to play the right way so that we can get the results we want,” said Mametja.

Vela says being part of the South African team has made him realise that he is playing for something bigger than himself.

“When I play for my institution (University of Pretoria), I realised I am one of those players who can help the team win. We recently played with the national team at the Ashraf (Lodewyk) tournament, I realised it’s not just about me. It’s about the team,” said Vela.

“I should trust that my teammates. They are capable players, and we are like an all star team representing South Africa.”

In Chengdu, South Africa will be in Group A with hosts China, Brazil, Lithuania and Taiwan. All four countries have a high basketball pedigree, making Mametja and his teammate’s task difficult.

Despite the degree of difficulty, Mametja says he and the players can learn from their opponents.

“The matches will not be easy, but it is an opportunity to learn. It’s also a chance to see what other countries have and how they run their programs. We also have the chance to improve as players. We may think we are the best in our country, but there is more to this game than what we see here at home,” said Mametja.

FISU Student Games
Nhlanhla Vela, Sibongile Maswanganye (USSA Basketball Chairperson) and Allan Mametja.

The two players were not short of confidence about South Africa’s chances at the basketball tournament.

While Mametja spoke about “finishing on the podium”, Vela felt the team could win gold.

“I believe in my team. We are capable of winning gold. Yes, we are playing some of the best players, and it will not be easy. We have work hard and trust each other and win the gold. That is the goal,” said Vela.

The last word went to Mametja on the teams objective: “Everyone plays to win. So we have to perform at our best levels and have fun. But we want to be on the podium. If we see ourselves there, I think it will make a lot of people happy,” concluded Mametja.

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