Pioneering paddler 'will be sorely missed'

The South African canoeing community is mourning the death of pioneering black paddler Robert Lembethe, who passed away at the weekend after a short illness.

Lembethe (56) died a week before the Hansa Powerade Dusi marathon, the race that attracted him to the sport in the early Eighties. This year’s race, which starts in Pietermaritzburg on Thursday morning, will serve as a tribute to Lembethe.

Born in the Valley of 1 000 Hills at Pietermaritzburg on January 14 1950, Lembethe’s vision for the sport, and his passion to take it to rural and disadvantaged youngsters, led to the formation of canoe clubs at Midmar and Nagle dams.

It was the Nagle Dam club that flourished under his guidance, and it now bears his name. The Robert Lembethe Canoe Club has produced several top paddlers such as Dusi gold medallists Michael Mbanjwa and Loveday Zondi, and regularly hosts national marathon and sprint events, as it has the country’s only permanent canoeing sprint course.

In 1992, Lembethe was invited to attend the Olympic Games in Barcelona as part of the historic South African delegation to the first Games since the nation’s return from sporting isolation.
It was during that trip that Lembethe became determined to become a skilled paddling coach.

In a short space of time, he became one of the country’s top coaches, and in particular skilled at the difficult art of technical coaching, having worked closely with national coach Nandor Almasi.

Lembethe raced the first of his 17 Dusi marathons in 1984, and went on to become one of the top sprinters and marathon racers in the veteran and master classes. He represented South Africa at the Masters Cup marathon championships on several occasions.

“Robert will be very sorely missed,” said Canoeing South Africa’s president Tim Cornish, who won the masters’ division in the 1998 Dusi with Lembethe. “The success that the sport’s development programme is currently enjoying is largely due to the pioneering work that Robert did over the past 14 years.”

“Robert was an icon to paddlers all over South Africa,” said Hansa Powerade Dusi chairperson Cameron Mackenzie. “His legacy will live on for a long time.”

Dusi title contenders Michael Mbanjwa, who was coached and mentored by Lembethe, and his partner, Len Jenkins, will wear black armbands during the race as a tribute to Lembethe.—Sapa

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