Barely a decade ago, Ntando Mahlangu was crawling about hopelessly in the dusty backyard of his poor grandmother’s modest house in the former KwaNdebele homeland, about an hour’s drive northeast of Pretoria.
Today, the teenager born with no bones in his lower part of his legs – a condition called hemimelia – is not only South Africa’s latest Olympic star, but has also inspired people from his village of Tweefontein.
Nomaziyane Mthimunye, 67, who lives on the same street as the athlete’s family home, spoke in awe of Mahlangu, who won the gold medal in both the men’s long jump T63 and men’s 200 metres T61 at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Destined for greatness
“Not long ago, he was watching helplessly as his peers were running around kicking a ball and climbing trees. We felt sorry for him then, but now we are proud that he is from amongst us,” neighbour Nomaziyane Mthimunye, 67, told The Citizen this week.
He said they started noticing that Mahlangu, who was 10 years old at the time, was destined for greatness after he was fitted with his first prosthetic legs in October 2012.
Mthimunye said the youngster, who was carried around on his grandmother Pauline Mahlangu’s back, was quick to learn to handle his new limbs, after his own legs were amputated four months earlier.
“But then he disappeared and we hardly saw him. The condition of this area was not suitable for his condition and so he never attended school here,” said Mthimunye.
Mthimunye said he was filled with pride one day when he was watching the news and learnt how Mahlangu had waltzed onto the international sports scene, winning a silver medal in the men’s 200 metres T42 at the Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016.
The Paralympian was just 15 when he made a name for himself in 2017, by bagging four gold medals and new two world records in the process in the World Junior Championships in Switzerland.
Sebenzile Ntuli, 21, said because Mahlangu could not walk, he hardly ventured outside his grandmother’s yard.
She said they went to his house to play, saying Mahlangu had always been a very energetic person but it never occurred to them that he would go on to put their village on the international map.
“Whenever they say ‘he is from Tweefontein’, I am filled with pride and hope because nothing inspirational ever happens here. It is alcohol, teenage pregnancies, drugs and joblessness, so he has demonstrated that anything is possible,” Ntuli said.
Another neighbour, Mama Skosana, dressed in colourful Ndebele garb, waited patiently alone at Mahlangu’s deserted family home, hoping the young man would come straight home after landing at OR Tambo International Airport on Monday.
She had missed the bus taking people from Tweefontein to welcome Mahlangu and his teammates at OR Tambo but had hoped to catch up with them at Mahlangu’s family home.
Her hopes were dashed when she learnt that Mahlangu would not be coming home but was rather going to Pretoria where he now lives.
“I just wanted to see him and tell him how much we love and appreciate his achievements. I did not know anything about Olympics until Ntando participated, and I was glued to my TV screen every time he was participating. He is one of our own and his achievements are ours,” she said.
Skosana said Mahlangu’s use of distinct, colourful, and symmetric Ndebele art to decorate his participating prosthetic limbs demonstrated how proud he was of his roots and humble beginnings.
With a R450,000 financial incentive for each gold medal, Mahlangu, 19, will now also be laughing all the way to the bank with a cool R900,000.
His sporting achievements also open up other financial opportunities for the youngster, as big brands will surely want to be associated with Mahlangu’s impressive rise to athletics stardom.