Aaron Mokoena: global South African

15 November 2010

Aaron Mokoena, only the second South African to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London, personifies the gains the country made in hosting the 2010 World Cup: pride, confidence, resilience. He is also a symbol of the huge asset SA enjoys in its global citizens abroad.

Aaron Mokoena, who led Bafana Bafana with a steady hand and generous spirit during South Africa’s triumphant hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, radiated South African pride and dignity as he read the age-old declaration of honour bestowing on him the Freedom of the City of London.

On Wednesday 10 November, standing before the robed Chamberlain’s Clerk, Murray Craig, and a top-hatted orderly with a long red jacket and a distinctly Dickensian air, Aaron Mokoena performed the ancient ritual of obedience to the Queen and the Lord Mayor of the City of London.

The Bafana captain, surrounded by tradition stretching back almost 1 000 years in the heart of London’s financial heart known as the “square mile”, was totally comfortable in his own skin while clearly moved by the magnitude of the honour being bestowed on him as his wife and daughter and colleagues looked on.

In Mandela’s footsteps

Mokoena is only the second South African to receive the freedom of the city. The first was Nelson Mandela, back in 1996 while on a state visit to Britain.

And as the Clerk pointed out, Mandela was not the first Nelson to receive the honour. England’s own Lord Nelson of Waterloo and Trafalgar fame received the freedom of the city in 1797 and his parchment hangs in the same chamber as that of Mr Mandela.

The original purpose was to bestow the freedom to trade, but it has now become a symbolic rather than functional honour for the 1 800 or so who receive it annually. Other famous names to have been award freeman status include Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, Nehru, Theodore Roosevelt, Florence Nightingale and Margaret Thatcher.

Lord Mayor with strong South African links

The ceremony for Mokoena was held only two days before the first Lord Mayor to have openly declared his strong South African connections, Michael Bear, was sworn in as the 683rd Lord Mayor, to the singing and dancing of a group of Zulu warriors in traditional gear who braved the cold to parade through the streets of London and then sing from a barge in the Thames.

Alderman Bear was born in Kenya, studied at Wits University in Johannesburg and worked in South Africa for some years. His wife was born in Klerksdorp.

The Mayor of City of London Corporation, which runs the financial centre, is not to be confused with the Mayor of London, who is elected for renewable five-year terms and presides over the City of Westminster – the area that tourists would define as London.

The Lord Mayor is elected for a once-only 12-month period by the head of the livery companies of old, which today are all financial services companies. He represents London’s banks and financial institutions in the global economy. During his one-year term he travels abroad about 30 times and makes some 750 speeches.

Because he was traditionally elected by the livery companies – and not appointed by the Crown – the Lord Mayor had to make the journey to Westminster to swear allegiance to the reigning Monarch. Anyone awarded the freedom of the City by the Lord Mayor had to do the same.

‘A very proud moment’

Which brings us back to Aaron Mokoena.

The Clerk, who presented Mokoena with a framed parchment scroll proclaiming him a Freeman of the City, then held up a little red book as though presenting an errant football/soccer player with a red card.

“This he said you will need to study and follow the rules for leading a righteous life,” he said, pointing out that the current Chamberlain was the 37th in a continuous line going back to 1294.

The freeman ceremony goes back to 1237, and the first Lord Mayor was elected in 1189.

Mokoena gracefully thanked the clerk on behalf of the Lord Mayor, and the official photographer began a long session to record the magic moment.

“London is such a fantastic city, and to be presented with this award as a South African playing football in the UK is a very proud moment for my country, my family and myself,” Mokoena said.

Pride, confidence, resilience

On 11 June 2010, Mokoena carried the hopes and aspirations of millions of South Africans as he led Bafana Bafana onto the field in the Johannesburg stadium for the match against Mexico which produced “the Tshabalala moment” – widely regarded as the goal of the tournament.

When it came time for Bafana to bow out of the tournament, Mokoena’s guiding hand was crucial in transforming those aspirations of victory into those of being dignified hosts of a triumphant World Cup.

Mokoena reflects in his own stature and dignity the gains that South Africa has made as a country in hosting the 2010 World Cup: national identity, pride, confidence and resilience.

In that sense, he symbolises the legacy of the World Cup: reflecting the values of South Africa’s own transition to democracy, gearing for growth, nation-building and forging a modest but crucial space in the global economy as active participant in a changing world.

A truly global South African

He is also a symbol of the huge asset South Africa enjoys in its global citizens abroad.

Mokoena has played club football/soccer – in recent years for Portsmouth – and has travelled abroad for almost a decade of his life.

In that sense, he is a global South African with a contextualised sense of his country’s place in the world and South Africa’s potential to leverage its unique history and transition and the diversity of its people for the good of all its people.

Mokoena is mobbed by young autograph hunters wherever he goes in Britain, and the youth look to him as football/soccer hero.

But he is clearly far more than a football/soccer icon. He has dedicated himself increasingly in recent years to empowering other, in particular the youth, to excel in the game that has given him so much and made him the magnanimous human being that he is today.

Aaron Mokoena Foundation

Mokoena, whose days as a professional player are likely to come to an end in the next three to four years, has a new passion: reaching out to the youth of his hometown of Boipatong in Sedibeng and the wider Gauteng region – and eventually nationwide – to identify and offer training, coaching and mentoring to talented young players at school level.

In so doing, the coaches and mentors will look for the qualities of leadership that will serve the country beyond the football/soccer field.

To this end, Mokoena and a group of dedicated colleagues in South Africa and the UK founded the Aaron Mokoena Foundation to establish his academy and a team of coaches and mentors.

Mokoena’s teammates at Portsmouth are as enthusiastic as he is about the venture and have vowed to assist him.

A new approach to sport

His passion reflects – and is helping forge – a new approach to sport and mega-sporting events globally. It is increasingly about the legacy rather than the victory and conquest which has made football/soccer and Olympic sports the highly competitive multi-billion dollar industry they are today.

In a changing world – and one which needs to become more sustainable, inclusive and equal – nurturing the human spirit becomes part of its triumph.

It means embracing the generosity of the human spirit as represented by South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Laureates: the late Chief Albert Luthuli, Presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

That spirit has been movingly captured in the String Quartet of Peace, four string instruments crafted by Cape Town luthier Brian Lisus, which will play the beautiful piece Uxolo (reconcialiation in Zulu and Xhosa) composed by the South African-born Eugene Skeef in the UK in various global capitals in the year ahead.

It was that spirit the predominated when Aaron Mokoena received his freeman status in what was an extraordinary week for South Africa in London.

John Battersby is the UK Country Manager of Brand South Africa. He is a trustee of the Aaron Mokoena Foundation.