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Thato Mabelane is one of SA's premier rowers. Picture: REUTERS
Thato Mabelane is one of SA's premier rowers. Picture: REUTERS

Rowing across the Atlantic Ocean is no laughing matter. But for Thato Mabelane that was something of a “sideshow” in her busy life.

On any other day you’ll find her unique sense of humour has people rolling on the floor, or she’ll be rolling out a human resources programme. These are the multiple talents of one of Tembisa’s top humans.

Cape Town-based Mabelane, 40, has been involved in rowing for 25 years, and her latest adventure was to immerse herself in the World Masters Regatta hosted at Gauteng’s Roodeplaat Dam.

There are no half-measures when it comes to Mabelane — she wore several hats during the competition: as a volunteer, a competitor, a comedian and commentator.

She started rowing as a teen at the Holy Rosary School in Edenvale and attributes her love of water to her grandfather being a fisherman, and the regular family visits to Centurion lake as a child.

“It was called Verwoerdburg then and I can remember being on the water and in those paddleboats from about three-years-old already,” she laughs.

Mabelane carried on rowing throughout high school and while studying at Rhodes University, and was under the eye of national rowing coach Roger Barrow at one point.

The Atlantic Ocean crossing in 2015 coincided with her comedy awakening. “A multinational crew of eight rowed from Spain to Barbados as part of the Ubunye Foundation. I was the stroke, so in charge of setting rhythm. We were hoping for a record, but the trade winds were against us and we still did it in 43 days.”

Proceeds from the trip were used to help the cause of early childhood development in the Eastern Cape, a region that suffers particularly from a lack of resources for pupils and teachers.

Let’s be clear: the long-haul trip put the fear of God into her. “I really freaked out a bit before the expedition. My friends told me I was going to die, so I started bargaining with myself and told myself that if I could do something that scary I could take something else on — skydiving, bungee jumping and comedy were all on my list.”

Before she attempted the Atlantic she was human resources executive of BBD, the largest bespoke software house in SA, “so I didn’t really have time for skydiving or bungee”.

“So I tackled the ocean and it was so scary, but at the same time I learnt so much from myself. I finished and swopped the sea for the stage and registered for Comedy at the Joe Parkers Comedy and Jive. Nine years later I’m touring my comedy special called ‘3rd generation Coconut’ that saw its debut last year at the National Arts Festival with outstanding reviews ... and my show is really about my whole lived experience.”

That same lived experience saw her making a return to rowing at the World Masters Regatta where she picked up three medals, which were, surprisingly, the first three international medals of her career.

For more regatta background, Colleen Orsmond, a two-time Olympian rower (1996 and2000) for SA who also spent time working at World Rowing, played an integral part in delivering the World Masters as event director of the local organising committee (LOC).

“SA bid for the event in 2018, we were awarded it in 2019 and we’ve had a small core, organising committee since then,” Orsmond says.

“We wanted to deliver a world-class event that was truly African in nature and that delivered a lasting legacy for rowing and the local community around Roodeplaat Dam ... the main thing was to use the regatta to upgrade the infrastructure and in that regard we got great support from the Gauteng provincial government, RMB, Balwin Properties, G4 Civils, Betway. There’s been about R10m invested into the course and it’s looking brilliant.”

This was Africa’s first world rowing even, so it was a big one for the local organising committee, and being so far south in the continent it had its own challenges.

“Anything out of Europe means one has to work hard to get people to make that trip, but we had just over 800 athletes and they absolutely loved it.

“We’ve built some good relationships with provincial government who see Roodeplaat as key to the Dinokeng master plan for developing the reason as a tourism hub. Ideally we’d love to see Roodeplaat being used for rowing, canoeing, swimming and all watersports.”

Orsmond says it was wonderful to have Mabelane at the regatta, in more ways than one. “I remember coaching when she was rowing in the early 2000s and it was really great to see her back in the rowing world and it was the opportunity to race at a world Masters that was key to her return.

“On top of that she offered her services as a volunteer [on top of racing]. She was so helpful on the ground and she graced our entertainment programme with one of her stand-up comedy routines — she was just involved on so many levels.”

Back to the multitalented, Mabelane and her Masters races.

“I managed to get silver in the single sculls, and won the double sculls with Lawrence Ndlovu and then also got gold in the doubles with Carl Schreuder, a single-leg amputee.”

Of course, who can forget that Ndlovu is an Olympic gold medallist as part of the men’s lightweight fours in London 2012, and they both celebrated their birthdays (43 and 40, respectively) on the same day during the championships.

But life hasn’t always been plain sailing or side-splitting laughter for Mabelane.

Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “That was something that shook me really badly. The cancer has gone now but it’s just led to me immersing myself even more in life, and apart from my comedy career I do public speaking and motivational speaking.”

Life these days finds her based mainly in Cape Town, with her beloved “little punk” called Tatum, a 16-month old cross pit bull/Africanis canine.

One thing’s for sure, in Tatum’s owner, SA is blessed with a cross-cultural African national treasure on so many levels.

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