Swiss basketball megastar Thabo Sefolosha has got some serious game. Not only has the towering 6 foot 7 inch guard been blazing a trail through the ranks of the NBA, but he’s also been helping his team Oklahoma City Thunder score some pretty inspiring victories against teams like the Brooklyn Nets during the grueling 2014 season. Off the court the 29-year-old is no less impressive: just ask Sefolosha what else he’s passionate about and he’ll tell you about a special after-school project he’s running in a South African township that’s keeping kids off the streets and uplifting a community.
Sefolosha grew up in Vevey, Switzerland, one of the ‘pearls of the Swiss Riviera’ on the shores of Lake Geneva. It’s idyllic and serene, and headquarters for both Nestlé and Häagen-Dazs. It’s also about as far as you could possibly get from the bustling impoverished township of Mamelodi, on the eastern outskirts of Pretoria in South Africa. Here Sefolosha’s charity is running an after-school program using sports as a tool to understand leadership, teamwork, and what it means to work hard to achieve success. “It brings a whole lot of values to you from different aspects of life, not just sports but real life, that you apply to your own life,” explains Sefolosha. “It teaches you to listen to rules, to understand the rules, how to work in a group, self-esteem and to be good role models.”
“When I came to Mamelodi there was nothing for children to do after school… I saw a lot of young people in the corner, shooting dice, smoking, drinking at an early age. That isn’t really the best start for anyone to be successful.”
The NBA player first visited Mamelodi 11 years ago after years of hearing stories about it from his father, who was raised there. His parents — South African musician Patrick Sefolosha of Malopoets fame, and his Swiss artist wife Christine — met in South Africa but fled the country’s then strict apartheid laws banning interracial marriage. Though even in their new Swiss home there were constant reminders of his heritage. And after seeing the poverty and need in his paternal homeland, he knew he had to do something to help.
His first move was becoming the spokesperson for the Swiss-based foundation IMBEWU, which manages sustainable projects in South Africa. Then, along with his wife Bertille, they held a fundraiser in Oklahoma (where his NBA team OKC Thunder is based) in 2011 to raise funds for the after-school initiative — their new neighbors gave generously and they were able to fund 150 needy youngsters from eight different schools in the area. “Sometimes you wonder what drives people to be so generous to kids they don’t know in a country they barely know,” says Sefolosha. “I’m just amazed by their generosity. Without them this wouldn’t be possible.”
It was a good start, though it turns out, not nearly enough. While the program has been incredibly successful Sefolosha explains there’s now a waiting list of children for the program a mile long, and they’ll have to hold more fundraisers soon so they can expand: “We really want to open another program for more schools, this time on the west side of Mamelodi… and then to have more people to take it to other schools all over the country.”
Despite Sefolosha’s rising star in the NBA, he remains firmly committed to his charity work; and his connection to his South African roots is a strong one — though he doesn’t speak any native languages he loves listening South African house music and he enjoys dappling in the country’s local cuisine (his favorite food is Chakakala, as made by a close friend of his). But more importantly, he’s determined to see the youth of the country rise: “I wish I could do more. But for now I just want the youth to understand that they are the future, and that you shouldn’t put a limit on what you’re capable of doing… You gotta dream big to make big things happen. Shoot for the stars, and if you fall you’ll only hit the clouds, and that’s not so bad after all.”