By Michael Vlismas
Dr Andrew Mlangeni remembers the day during the 26 years and four months that he was incarcerated on Robben Island when he found three golf balls that gave him hope. Three golf balls, hidden away in the long grass of a field he and his fellow political prisoners were clearing on the island. When he found them, he thought he was dreaming.
At Soweto Country Club on Monday this week, the 94-year-old Dr Mlangeni felt a similar sense of disbelief when the South African Open hosted by the City of Joburg came to Soweto Country Club. The second oldest national Open in world golf hosted its official pro-am on his beloved golf course.
â€œNobody ever dreamt that one day weâ€™d play the SA Open pro-am in Soweto and on a golf course belonging to the people of Soweto. When I saw this, I said to myself there is nothing we cannot do if we all have a common goal,â€ says Dr Mlangeni.
The hope of working towards a better future sometimes appeared bleak for Dr Mlangeni during his time in prison. At one point he even admits that the game of golf he grew up loving seemed all but gone from his memory. And then he found those three golf balls.
â€œOne day we were working in a field picking out clumps of grass. Then I picked up three golf balls. I thought it was a dream. I worried about how I was going to get them into my cell because they would search us, and I needed those golf balls to remind me of the game. I couldnâ€™t understand where the balls came from because the grass was so tall. But then years later, when Tokyo Sexwale was being interviewed by the media, he mentioned something about this nine-hole golf course on the island for the warders. Then I knew I hadnâ€™t been dreaming when I found those golf balls,â€ he said.
And on Monday he reminded himself that he also wasnâ€™t dreaming as he watched another historic occasion in the transformation of Soweto Country Club.
Dr Mlangeni was there for that first conversation with Sunshine Tour Commissioner Selwyn Nathan, who outlined his vision to the oldest surviving member of Soweto Country Club to give the people of Soweto a golf course they can be proud of and which is good enough to host a major tournament.
With the support of original course designer Gary Player, who upgraded the golf course at no cost, as well as the City of Joburg, The R&A, the PGA Tour, the European Tour and a wealth of private and corporate benefactors, Soweto Country Club has already hosted a Sunshine Ladies Tour professional tournament and now the pro-am of a major international golf tournament. It is also home to a South African Golf Development Board (SAGDB) chapter named after Dr Mlangeni.
All of it is another powerful representation of the Sunshine Tourâ€™s core statement that #Gr8nessBeginsHere â€“ whether itâ€™s the greatness of a future Major champion emerging from this Tour, or the greatness of what has taken place at Soweto Country Club.
And in the mind of Dr Mlangeni, it represents even the greatness in the potential of South Africa.
â€œIf we donâ€™t work together, we wonâ€™t be successful. So, to the people who want to leave South Africa, I would say please learn from those who left and came back. Come back home. This country belongs to all of us who are South African. Letâ€™s build it together.â€
And itâ€™s given him renewed hope that at the age of 94 and still recovering from several serious health setbacks, he will again play golf on these fairways.
â€œIâ€™m losing my eyesight and my hearing has also been affected. The doctors told me I need to remember Iâ€™m 94 and not a young man anymore. Then I had an issue with my leg. I said to myself when my leg heals, I want to play again. But I am worried about my eyesight. My brother-in-law said to me, â€˜Donâ€™t worry. Practice just a little bit every day and donâ€™t worry. Remember, bietjie bietjie maak baie (little by little becomes a lot). Keep on practising every dayâ€™. So thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll do. Iâ€™m really hopeful I will play golf again.â€
Itâ€™s the same hope that carried him when he found those three golf balls on Robben Island. When he was released from prison, he still had those three golf balls with him. He took them straight to Soweto Country Club and used them to play his first round of golf as a free man.
And he knew he wasnâ€™t dreaming.