Racing stalwart Cecil Mthembu has long service in his bloodline

Cecil Mthembu's voice is synonymous with the coverage of horseracing.

This week I was honoured to host the Multichoice Long Service Awards gala dinner at the Sandton Convention Centre at which close to 1 000 employees were recognised. I have been with SuperSport for 32 years so it got me thinking about career longevity and what it means to give so many years of one’s professional life to a single organisation.

On Wednesday my horse Laudato broke his maiden at Greyville and while that is a story I will run with next week, the congratulatory call I received from senior racing anchor Cecil Mthembu proved perfect timing.

Cecil has been presenting for over a quarter of a century. His career has spanned the breadth of horse racing coverage in South Africa. From the halcyon IGN days through SuperTrack, Tellytrack and now to DStv’s current racing offering on Channel 240.

Although the Mthembu family roots are in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, by the 1950s Cecil’s mother had moved to Sophiatown and young Cecil Enoch Mthembu was born in the Bridgman Clinic at 35 Bartlett Road, Mayfair, Johannesburg.

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Opened in 1928 by American missionaries Frederick and Clare Bridgman, the clinic was the preeminent maternity facility for black and coloured communities of its time. In 1963 the hospital was closed by the apartheid authorities on the grounds that it catered to black patients in a white area, but by then Cecil was out of the starting stalls and on his way.

As a single mom with her three-year-old son, Cecil and his mother moved to what was then Rhodesia and it was there that he grew up. In 1974, after a living for a year in Malawi, Cecil left for the United Kingdom and settled for a while in the Somerset cathedral town of Wells.

Although he wrote his O levels in Birmingham, Cecil swears he never met any of the Peaky Blinders but he did dabble in the catering industry for a while before moving to the bright lights of London in 1981.
In the capital, he lived in Highgate, less than four miles from White Hart Lane. No surprise then that soon, spellbound by Glenn Hoddle, he fell in love with Tottenham Hotspur FC.

Cecil returned to the land of his birth in 1995, his return coinciding with the euphoria around South Africa’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup.

While chatting to Cecil via video call, one thing became abundantly clear.

Despite being a good few years my senior Mr. Mthembu has a significantly better memory than I do as he kept reminding me of events that I had long forgotten.

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When I asked him who has been his favourite jockey he was quick to say, “well that has to be Superman himself, Anton Marcus, don’t you remember when we were driving back from the Vaal and he stopped to help us with your flat tyre?”.

In addition to his natural ability it was Anton’s thorough professionalism that impressed Cecil most.

Urban legend says that Cecil was “discovered” by the late Terence Kirchner whilst working in the M-Net tape library. Cecil confirmed this but added “you should know, you were there, remember I was at Broadcast Services training to be a vision controller”.

He further regaled a story of how I took him to the racecourse and urged him to take the presenting plunge. He was beyond nervous but I was insistent, so when a horse called In Limbo won in the colours of the late Chris Gerber and he spotted some friendly faces he took the decisive step, interviewed trainer Alec Laird and jockey Robbie Sham and has never looked back.

That said, Cecil recalls he was shaking like a leaf so much that to this day whenever he bumps into him, Robbie Sham always quips “have you learnt to hold the microphone steady yet?”.

Mthembu is a scholar and a gentleman. He boasts an expansive vocabulary and exceptional command of the English Language that he puts down to his enjoyment of reading and a penchant for literary classics (he is currently re-reading Gulliver’s Travels, ‘Swiftly’ I hope).

Not a fan of social media and its negative energy, Cecil is blessed with an inquiring mind and he frequently watches shows such as the BBC’s Hard Talk. He told me has never sought to imitate but believes the exposure to such content and style has influenced him.

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The lived experience from his years in the UK not only ignited his passion for Spurs but also for horseracing.

On reflection he reckons that it was the Aga Khan-owned Shergar, who in 1981 famously won the 202nd running of the Epsom Derby by 10 lengths, that was the likely genesis of his love of the sport. Those early seeds of interest were germinated by the media coverage afforded the colt’s infamous kidnapping in February 1983.

Does he have a particular race that is his most memorable?

You bet he does, and he remembers it like it was yesterday. His broadcast schedule seldom allows him to be on-track but he was at Greyville when Pocket Power dead-heated with Dancer’s Daughter in the 2008 Durban July and it was unforgettable.

Cecil’s voice is synonymous with the coverage of horseracing but despite a recent prostate cancer health scare he remains 25 years not out and being the nephew of Theo Mthembu, he’s unlikely to get knocked out anytime soon.

Simply put Uncle Theo was boxing royalty. Known in his boxing days as the Brown Panther, Theo was born in Newcastle and was schooled at Adams College, whose alumni include Noble Peace Prize winner Albert Luthuli and the recently passed Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. Theo Mthembu devoted his life to developing talent at his Dube Boys’ Boxing Club and famously groomed South Africa’s most celebrated world champion “Baby Jake” Matlala.

Clearly a commitment to long service runs in the Mthembu bloodline and for that we should forever be grateful.

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