28 May

When COVID arrived, professional athlete, Sbonelo Khwela was forced to change his plans for 2020. Now he’s got a thriving business.


Story and pictures Stephen Smith.


If you’ve ever followed the Dusi Canoe Marathon or the even tougher Non-Stop Dusi – in which the PMB to Durban race is done in a single day – you’ll know the name Sbonelo Khwela. An elite athlete, Sbonelo has won the K2 Dusi Title, in 2014, and finished second and third in K1 years. He has also won the Non-Stop Dusi a phenomenal seven times, both in a K1 and a K2.

But as with just about all of us, 2020 was something of a disaster, as the COVID stick firmly thrust itself into the spinning wheel of our lives. “COVID didn’t actually affect the Dusi in 2020 or 2021, and we managed to complete the 2019/2020 paddling season before the lockdown occurred,” says Sbonelo. “But as professional athletes, we rely on our salaries from our sponsors to pay our bills. And just like other salary earners, some of us suffered major salary cuts. It happened without warning, and suddenly I was scrambling to make sure I had money in the bank for my stop orders.”

Sbonelo needed an alternative income, fast. Luckily, fate intervened. An existing block making business in the area had recently shut down, and the employees came to Sbonelo asking him to take it over. “I was looking for a business that could carry on despite COVID and could create jobs here in Shongweni, and it has worked out well.”

At the moment, Sbonelo employs five guys in his business, two of whom manufacture the blocks using manual moulds. “These guys are machines,” Sbonelo laughs, “Yesterday they made 680 blocks, all manually!”

A proud father of five, Sbonelo also bought a four-ton truck for the business, and he does deliveries himself, as well as managing orders from customers and making sure his employees have all the materials they need to carry on working.

It’s easy to see that Sbonelo is a proud and well-known member of the Shongweni community. He started paddling at the age of 16 as part of the Change a Life development program, learning to paddle on Shongweni Dam – which is a stone’s throw from his block-making business. He lives a few hundred metres further up the hill, and all of his business efforts either employ or benefit members of the community. While he enjoys a number of sports, especially playing soccer with his mates, his sporting ambition is to become the first black paddler to win a K1 Dusi, and to be a part of the first all-black team to win the K2 Dusi. This means a careful balance between his training, his businesses and his family, but he has the discipline to make it work.

Sbonelo might have the shoulders of a paddler, but he has the mindset of a true-blooded entrepreneur. He has big dreams and sees his block business growing until he owns a warehouse and industrial block-making machines, producing thousands of blocks a day and supplying hardware stores as well as his private customers. Like many entrepreneurs, he has a few businesses going: he transports factory staff as well, and he owns a number of cottages that he rents out. And, lest we forget, he is also an elite athlete sponsored by Red Bull and with a number of race victories behind his name. With his sort of drive, it would be foolish to bet against him accomplishing his dreams and more.

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