Reneilwe Letsholonyane waited five months to return to work at Highlands Park, his fourth Premier Soccer League topflight club, due to lockdown restrictions.
But he’s had to wait even longer to get back to his side-hustle with long-time friend and former Kaizer Chiefs teammate, Siphiwe Tshabalala, the 2010 World Cup poster boy.
For two years now, the dreadlocked duo have been running what was fast becoming a popular hang-out spot in Dobsonville, Soweto: ShaYe Lounge. It’s a social café in the heart of the township where they grew up before turning into elite footballers. They chose to combine their nicknames – ‘Shabba’ and ‘Yeye’ – to launch it.
What was a hype of activity pre-Covid has stood quiet, with patrons denied their “groove” while 13 staff have also had their salaries affected since the outbreak in March.
“That is the reality of this pandemic. We decided to close because of the restrictions around the sale of alcohol,” says Letsholonyane, who adds that even with the ban lifted the first time on June 1, ShaYe Lounge did not reopen.
“Shabba and I felt we can’t compromise our brand or how we want to run the business by doing takeaways. We don’t want a tavern set-up. But with Level 2 we are thinking about reopening, although we don’t yet have a firm date. What’s clear to us is that we have to stay in touch with the industry and help our staff support their families.”
‘Yeye’ is pulling off a double act. At 38, he is not too far from hanging up his boots, so he’s had to look beyond the beautiful game to consistently put bread on the table.
He’s also explored the fashion industry with the opening of 88 Apparel Q, another business venture he started three years ago.
What’s kept that going under lockdown is being able to tailor uniforms for schools, companies as well as clothes for any events and the occasional matric dance.
“That’s honestly kept us afloat. We were in the process of getting our own building, but those conversations are different now because of the current economic climate. Prices keep changing for rental space,” says Letsholonyane.
Both he and ‘Shabba’, who turns 36 next month, are entrepreneurs in their own right – their dream for their joint venture was born out of their countless conversations about life after football during their Chiefs days, more than four years ago.
“That building was a four-room house with a lapa at the back and two more rooms – it was a pub before we came along. We demolished everything and started afresh to turn it into a three-storey building. The money mostly comes out of our own pocket. For example, just to build our roof we spent about R250,000,” explains Letsholonyane.
“When Shabba and I were at the peak of our football, we bought that building in Dobsonville for R450,000 and did nothing with it for two years because we did not have the time. Our careers were the main focus then, I would argue. But at the same time we were coming up with plans and visualising how and what we want the place to be.”
The majority of footballers are handsomely rewarded, especially if you play for Kaizer Chiefs, but ‘Yeye’ emphasises that they had to save and weren’t necessarily walking around with bags of cash to drop on a building without a vision.
“We put away a lot of money even though we were busy with football,” explains the man who is yet to renew his Highlands Park contract for the new season.
Tshabalala has also not had a club since leaving Turkey in August last year – so maybe it won’t be long before they swap their boots for suits.
“It’s always been the two of us. We bought a pub and turned it into what it is today. We’ve always known what we want.”
Just like how their football careers turned out.