Rulani Mokwena is a popular character around South African football. His family history with football development in the country and his own successes on the pitch as a football coach has made him a household name in the South Africa Premier Soccer League (PSL). Having never played the game beyond the touchline, the 35-year-old has been fortunate to work as head coach (or assistant) at some of the top clubs in the PSL. He has worked at Orlando Pirates, Chippa United, and now Mamelodi Sundowns, with whom he won the PSL title in 2021.
However, success does not come alone. His popularity has generated its fair share of negative criticism, name-calling, and trolling, but he is committed to his calling as a football coach irrespective of the downside. So far, Rulani Mokwena is riding the challenges of his job and milking success from it. According to him, if it were possible to do the job with the attention and fame that comes with it, he would choose that any day.
Rulani Mokwena Is A Successful Football Coach At The Age Of 35
At 35 years old, Rulani Mokwena can already be termed a very successful coach. And for someone who never kicked a ball on the green and white pitch professionally, it is a testament to his hard work and ethics that he has achieved all he has at this age. Perhaps, it has to do with the fact that the South African coach was into a family with a football heritage. Mokwena was born on the 8th of January 1987 to Julius “KK” Sono, an ex-Orlando Pirates footballer.
He also has an uncle who is another legendary South African footballer named Jomo Sono. Jomo owns the Johannesburg-based club, Jomo Cosmos FC, which plays in the National First Division. Rulani Mokwena learned advanced footballing tactics and was groomed by both his father and uncle. However, his late grandfather, Eric Bhamuza Sono, is the football patriarch in the family.
For his education, it is known that the Mamelodi Sundowns coach was brilliant as a student. The institutions where he studied for his basic and tertiary education are unknown at this moment. However, he obtained a Diploma in Sports Science from the college he attended. His choice of Sports Science as a course of study was a show of intent that he wanted to follow the family tradition of football. According to reports, one person in the family was not totally supportive of his course of choice.
His mother wanted Mokwena to study Law as against any sport-related course. She wanted him to move his focus from football to becoming a lawyer. However, young Mokwena was not having any of that as he was already vested in pursuing a career in professional football.
A Look At Mokwena’s Family Football Heritage
As mentioned earlier, football is the legacy of Rulani Mokwena’s family, so very few people might be surprised at the success he has achieved so far in the sport. His grandfather, Eric Sono, was nicknamed Eric “Scarra” for his talent and dribbling skills on the pitch. He was a left-footed player, and he played for Orlando Pirates while captaining the side in 1957. At the time, the apartheid rule in South Africa and segregation between the white and the black South Africans were the order of the day. However, Eric’s influence on the football pitch played a role in bringing white footballers to join the Brazilians (nickname of the Orlando Pirates football team).
Sadly, Eric “Scarra” died in a fatal car crash in 1964 but not without bequeathing the football heritage to his two sons – Jomo “Black Prince” Sono and Julius “KK” Sono – who continued his legacy. And while they both played the game, Jomo went a step further to own a football club – Jomo Cosmos FC – which he manages. On the other hand, Julius played for Orlando Pirates for five years in the 80s before moving to his brother’s club, Jomo Cosmos.
Rulani’s family home is a sanctuary of some sort, and it carries memories of their achievements in the game – from the time of his grandfather to his father and uncle. Black and white pictures tell the story of how they built their legacy on the pitch. They have continued to grow football in the Orlando community and keep their home (pictured above), as they hope that someday, authorities will declare it a heritage site – regarding his grandfather, Eric “Scarra” Sono.
He Started His Career As An Assistant Coach And Won The CAF Champions League At Age 29
Armed with a Diploma in Sports Science and rich footballing family heritage, Rulani Mokwena felt he was ready to test the waters of professional football. Since he did not play professional football, his first job in football was as an assistant coach in youth football. Mokwena joined Silver Stars (now called Platinum Stars) and worked as an understudy in the youth system under Steve Komphela, Cavin Johnson, and Allan Freese.
The year Rulani Mokwena joined the Silver Stars B side is unknown. However, in 2014, at the age of 27, he moved to the Mamelodi Sundowns youth team. The team recorded visible progress in his time there, so much that he was quickly promoted. He was moved to work in the first team with the legendary Pitso Mosimane, the head coach of Mamelodi Sundowns F.C at the time. Mokwena served as one of Mosimane’s assistants – alongside Manqoba Mngqithi and Alex Bapela.
Their time together was successful as their Mamelodi Sundowns’ side conquered the African continent as they won the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League in 2016. One year later, he moved to Orlando Pirates F.C as an assistant coach and served under the Serbian tactician, Milutin Sredojevic. In a twist of fate, Rulani Mokwena earned his long-anticipated managerial debut when Sredojevic resigned from the club without warning in August 2019, forcing the club to turn to Mokwena.
He took over the reins and coached the side as an interim coach for five months. He lost his first match as a manager 1-0 against Highland Park F.C. His record in 14 games as the interim manager of Orlando Pirates was four wins, five draws, and five losses. In December 2019, the club appointed German football manager Josef Zinnbauer as Milutin Sredojevic’s replacement. This saw Rulani move back to his role as an assistant coach.
At 33, Rulani Mokwena Landed His First Coaching Job With Chippa United
Rulani Mokwena would finally get his first job as a first-team coach in 2020 – and in doing so, he made history in the process. On the 4th of March 2020, just 12 weeks after his 33rd birthday, Mokwena earned his first managerial job when he was appointed the head coach of the PSL club, Chippa United, on ‘loan’ till the end of the 2019/2020 season.
Footballers are known to go on loan spells to other clubs to gain much-needed game time, aid their development, or improve their match fitness. It had never been heard of in the PSL that a coach went on loan; however, this move made Rulani the first-ever coach in the South African PSL to go on loan.
Even though it was a managerial job he always wanted, it seemed the universe had other plans. The joy of landing his first managerial appointment did not last very long at all. Rulani got going in his new job, and he prosecuted the first match with his new team – Chippa United – against Bidvest Wits which ended in a 1-1 draw. And that would be his first and only game with the Port Elizabeth outfit.
Just a few days after that game, the PSL was suspended as the COVID-19, which was ravaging China and Europe at the time, had gained its way into Africa, forcing league matches to be suspended. The subsequent lockdown directive by the government meant that Rulani Mokwena would not have another chance to coach the Chippa United side until his short-term contract expired – which meant he had to return to Orlando Pirates.
He Was Appointed a Member Of Mamelodi Sundowns Coaching Crew In 2020
Having come to the limelight with his role at Mamelodi Sundowns between 2014 to 2017, Rulani Mokwena returned to his roots in 2020. This move delighted most of his fans but not so much as it delighted his father, Julius Sono, who was not pleased to see him leave in 2017 when he joined Orlando Pirates F.C. He joined the Mamelodi Sundowns side – who already had Steve Komphela and Manqoba Mngqithi – as co-head coach on the 4th of October, 2020, following the departure of Pitso Mosimane, who was leaving to fill up the managerial vacancy in the Egyptian football side, Al Ahly.
The trio of Steve Komphela, Manqoba Mngqithi, and Rulani Mokwena on the bench of Mamelodi Sundowns F.C. meant the PSL side had on its payroll some of the best football minds South Africa had to offer. If those who pull strings around the Mamelodi Sundowns club expected to have a team capable of establishing itself in the domestic scene while pulling its weight on the continental front, then that is what they got.
In their (the trio of Steve Komphela, Manqoba Mngqithi, and Rulani Mokwena) debut season as joint head coaches, the Brazilians clinched the DStv Premiership title and while reaching the quarterfinals of the CAF Champions League (where they were sent packing by none other but Pitso Mosimane’s Al Alhy side).
They have continued to play attractive football and maintain the winning culture, making them one of the top clubs in the DStv Premiership.
Mamelodi Sundowns Won The 2020/2021 Inaugural Edition Of The DStv Premiership
With the PSL sponsorship changing hands from ABSA Premiership to DStv Premiership for the start of the 2020/2021 PSL season, fans watched on to see who would be crowned champion of the inaugural season of the new league sponsor. It was a tough run with several tops running for the PSL title early on in the season. However, the Brazilians pulled away, opening up a 13-point gap between them and the nearest rivals and then ultimately lifting the inaugural title of the DStv Premiership.
As they rounded off their season with a 3-0 win over Cape Town City at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium for the final game of the season, Rulani Mokwena could not believe what he had just achieved in his first season as a first-team coach. Even though they had wrapped up the title a week prior, the festivities continued with players, technical staff, and fans celebrating the title win on the pitch.
Truly, the Brazilians under the tutelage of the dynamic coaching trio of Manqoba Mngqithi, Rulani Mokwena, and Steve Komphela have been molded into a winning machine. Winning the DStv Premiership by a mammoth 13-point gap with Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs, and SuperSport United in the runner-up positions shows the kind of grit the Mamelodi Sundowns team are made of.
Another interesting part of their league triumph is the fact that not only did they win by double-figure points, but the Brazilians also made sure they were the only ones in the running for the league crown for a long time. The fact that they held their own and did not allow complacency into their game speaks volumes of the team’s mentality.
He Is Among The PSL Highest Paid Coaches
Rulani Mokwena is among the highest-paid coaches in the South Africa football league. This will come as a surprise to many because his experience does not in any way command the fee he earns – but he earns big anyway. Although financial details of coaches in the PSL are made out to be top-secret, his salary is said to be around R650,000, putting him among the top 10 highest-earning PSL coaches.
Based on experience, Mokwena is the least experienced among the three head coaches of Mamelodi Sundowns. However, he is proving to worth his pay with every game and every title the Brazilians win.
Rulani Mokwena Gives Back To Society Through His Foundation
Rulani Mokwena seeks to give back to society in the little way he can with such a fat paycheck. He does this through his foundation – The Rhulani Mokwena Foundation. Through the foundation, Mokwena seeks to provide access to education to young boys who otherwise may not afford it. Also, using football, the non-profit organization upholds its commitment to sustainable development goals.