Chainsaw attack was ‘just another chapter’ in Mhlengi Gwala’s life — now he wants to conquer Paris 2024

Chainsaw attack was ‘just another chapter’ in Mhlengi Gwala’s life — now he wants to conquer Paris 2024
Mhlengi Gwala believes discipline and hard work are what training for the triathlon is all about. (Photo: Instagram / @mhlengi_gwala)

Despite unimaginable adversity, triathlete Mhlengi Gwala is fighting fit and working hard to get to Paris.

It is March 2018 and rapidly rising South African triathlete Mhlengi Gwala is on a routine early morning cycling session in the Durban suburb of Glenwood.

Then tragedy strikes. Three assailants force him off his bicycle and drag him into the bushes. He begs them to spare his life and take whatever they want, but they ignore his pleas.

One of the attackers is armed with a firearm and another carries a chainsaw. Horrifically, they begin to cut into Gwala’s right leg, aiming to sever it completely. As they penetrate skin and muscle, the saw becomes stuck in the bone.

By this time, an immense amount of damage has been done to the leg. The attackers have cut through about 80% of it. Before they can cause similar harm to Gwala’s left leg, they are spooked and make their escape. He manages to crawl to the road and flag down a passing private security vehicle for help.

Shock and disbelief

The attack sent shockwaves throughout South Africa and beyond. Locally, many physically active citizens were concerned about their safety during morning routines of walking, running or cycling. The biggest uproar, though, was caused by the viciousness of the attack.

“This inhumane treatment of a budding athlete has not only caused pain to [Gwala], but also threatens to jeopardise his international career,” said the Sports Ministry at the time.

Amid an outpouring of support from all directions, Gwala had to battle to adjust to his injury. Doctors said they could save his badly damaged leg. After numerous hospital procedures, this became a reality. Gwala was back on the road, though he now had a limp. His leg had been mostly mended and he could focus on his journey to both physical and mental recovery.

Then, just more than two years after the inexplicable act of violence done to him, Gwala suffered a setback. His damaged leg became infected. A tough decision had to be made. It was, and in October 2020, Gwala’s right leg was amputated at the knee to prevent the infection possibly spreading further. Now he had to readjust once more and learn to use a prosthesis.

Despite still having questions about why he had been attacked, Gwala picked up the pieces once more. First, he learnt to walk and then to run with his new artificial limb. Now he can even ride a bicycle and is back competing as a para athlete in his beloved triathlon.

Regeneration process

What has his journey to recovery been like, however? How has he navigated all the peaks and valleys after the horrific incident? What mental and physical scars has it left?

“It only makes sense that one would be depressed and sad. But at the end of the day there’s nothing you can really do,” Gwala told Daily Maverick from Durban.

“Life has to continue, so I didn’t see the incident as the end of the road for me. I viewed it as just another chapter in my life story. If you are going to dwell on what has happened, despite the fact that you can’t go back in time and change the situation, you are going to end up depressed and beating yourself up.

If I had cried myself to sleep every night or constantly questioned why this had happened to me, I would not have healed.

“I just told myself that this is my new life now and I have to make peace with it in order to move on. That’s what I did,” said Gwala, who works as a lifeguard.

Throughout his journey to recovery and readjustment he could depend on the un­­wavering support of his family, friends and the tight-knit community of triathletes. He also leaned heavily on his belief in God. Nevertheless, he was aware that only he could truly heal his psychological scars.  

“Even with all the support I had, if I did not dig deep from within, I would not have been able to be where I am now. I had to help myself first, before depending on others to help me in whatever way,” Gwala said.

“I just accepted the situation, because if I had cried myself to sleep every night or constantly questioned why this had happened to me, I would not have healed.”

Mhlengi Gwala

Mhlengi Gwala in training. (Photo: Instagram / @mhlengi_gwala)

Love at first tri…

Gwala (33), who was born and raised in Chesterville, was late in coming to the triathlon. When he was about 23 an acquaintance introduced him to the sport. He instantly fell in love, being intrigued in particular by its multifaceted nature.

“The fact that it combines three different elements is what made me really fall in love with it,” Gwala said. “The fact that you can have a bad swim, for example, but you can make up for it on the bicycle or the run.

“I also like how challenging it is. It’s a very challenging sport because you have to prepare for three different sports in one.”

Despite his somewhat late arrival on the triathlon scene, Gwala was already a promising prospect before the attack. Competing in local and international races, he rose rapidly through the ranks. He attributes this to a number of people around him who saw his potential and invested in it.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ntando Mahlangu runs to hear the wind whistling past his ears – and to try to win more Paralympics medals

“The only way to grow in a sport is to be consistent and disciplined. There’s no other way to do it if you have ambitions of improving,” he said.

“But I also received a lot of support from the triathlon community when I started. I assume they saw my potential.

“The sport is quite expensive to be involved in. You can pay up to R10,000 to participate in an event. So, for me to raise those funds and enter events was always a challenge, but there were people who helped me by sponsoring my entries.

“Knowing that also aided my quick development, be­­­cause I could not let their belief in me go to waste. But again, nothing beats discipline, train­­ing and hard work.”

Paralympics dream

Since that fateful day, Gwala has twice placed first in African championships and twice in national championships. Now his heart is set on a place at the 2024 Paralympics.

He has a handful of races left to earn enough points to confirm a ticket to Paris, France, where the Paralympic Games will take place from 28 August to 8 September. 

“If I can make it to the Paralympics, it would mean a lot because I’ve been working hard and I’ve been through a lot. If I succeed at arriving on such a massive stage, I will feel as though I have fulfilled my purpose. Even if I don’t win a medal, it would be such an indescribable achievement,” Gwala said.

To date, his assailants are yet to be caught. However, Gwala says he has moved on with his life and is not particularly interested in whether they are ever brought to justice. His energy and focus are mainly directed towards himself and improving his athletic skills. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Syd Boston says:

    We salute you, young man! Unimaginable pain and experience for any human to have to endure. Do hope Mhlengi Gwala goes from strength to strength. Unfortunately this article shows both sides of living in SA. The crime took place > six years ago and to date no one has been arrested – which in itself is unbelievable.

  • Fiona Ronquest-Ross Ronquest-Ross says:

    This is such an inspiring story. I love that he focuses on positive steps he can make rather than the setback. A lesson for us all.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    What an amazing human being ! I am thrilled that someone of your calibre will represent us.

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