Sport AND Resilience with KG Montjane
AND is the Future podcast
Season 2, Episode 6
Performance, perseverance AND a desire to go beyond
KG Montjane overcame many challenges to become one of the world’s top wheelchair tennis players and the first black South African woman to compete at Wimbledon. Ilham and KG talk about her incredible journey including her introduction to wheelchair tennis at the age of 19, her desire to help others, the importance of inclusion in sport, business and life, her advice to young people and much more. What a fantastic story of determination and resilience!
3:01- Introduction to tennis
6:48 - First black African woman to play at Wimbledon
9:44 - Toughest challenges in tennis
12:56 - Responsibility to help others
14:31 - Challenges off the court
16:36 - Diversity, equity and inclusion in the world of sport
18:07 - Advice to young people
19:35 - Starting the Multi Sports Development Foundation to help underprivileged kids
21:24 - Importance of inclusion
25:24 - Hobbies outside of tennis
Meet Kgothatso “KG” Montjane
KG Montjane is one of the world’s top wheelchair tennis players. In fact, she is number 1 in Africa and number 4 in the World! In 2018, she became the first black South African woman to compete at Wimbledon. She was born in Polokwane, Limpopo. Due to a congenital birth defect, she went through a single amputation below the knee at the age of 12. She began her tennis career when she was 19, after receiving the equipment necessary for her to play wheelchair tennis.
Ilham Kadri: Hello everyone, today I am so happy to be speaking with KG Montjane, one of the world’s top wheelchair tennis players. In fact, she is number 1 in Africa and number 4 in the World! In 2018, she became the first black South African woman to compete at Wimbledon. We are beyond proud to sponsor KG as she continues to do amazing things. This is a special episode because KG is sitting right here with me today on Solvay’s campus to record this podcast and to meet and inspire our employees. KG, thank you very much for being here in Brussels with us today!
KG Montjane: Ah, thanks for having me.
Ilham Kadri: Well, thank you. We are so honored. And, it happens. You are also from South Africa, right? I love, I'm African born, but just in the opposite North, but when I visit Cape Town or South Africa, I feel like in my home in Morocco. And, you know, KG I’ve started out by sharing some bio information about you, but I'm curious, how would you describe yourself?
KG Montjane: I mean, I'm pretty, laid back. I'm very chilled. I'm very funny. So, I mean, beyond that, I'm an athlete, but other than that, I mean, as a person, I'm a very laid back person, very chilled, you know, very observant, you know? Yeah. So I like to really keep up with what's going on around the world, you know? So yeah. Beyond me being an athlete, I'm just, yeah. I'm just someone who works around their own thoughts about the world. So yeah.
Ilham Kadri: Are you an inside out person, or outside in?
KG Montjane: Inside.
Ilham Kadri: You go to deeper layers.
KG Montjane: Yes. I'm mean, I'm an inside, inside person, you know, but, I love sharing myself with people other than, like in my own space, but I prefer to share myself with the people because I think I have a story to really inspire others, so that's why I believe it's really important of me to really share myself and not keep myself to myself.
Introduction to tennis
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. Yeah. So we started, and we'll come back to this because I think we want you to inspire us and having read a lot about you, it's just inspiring on paper, but I know it's gonna touch the heart when we will hear it from you. You only started playing tennis at age of 19, and yet you went to become one of the greatest players. Number one is. South Africa, number four in the world. So record after record. Tell us a bit more about that journey before we come back to your upbringing, was there a moment in your life that made you really excited about playing tennis and going into sports?
KG Montjane: Look, I was into sports before tennis to be honest. I was doing wheelchair basketball, table tennis. I was involved in athletics and when tennis came I was not interested cuz obviously I was in the final year of high school. When they say come and try tennis, I feel like, but no, I have so many things I'm doing already. And I have to focus on my studies. I mean, it's important to pass your final year so that you can go to university. So I wasn't so keen, but they were not asking me if I would like to try or they were just like, you are going to do this for the school. And that's how it started. I had no choice to say no, I don't wanna do it. But I normally say I ended up in tennis accidentally cause that was never my choice. It was someone's choice. But what happened when I went to university the following year, I wanted to play sport. Wheelchair tennis was the only sport for people with physical disabilities. So I sort of, trained and be like, I'll just push time in some business study. But, I was really convinced that you can play, try it out. If you don't like it, you can stop. But, you know, I fell in love with the challenges within the sport and that's what really made me just carry on. And I was just like, I will just figure it out as times goes by.
Ilham Kadri: So you are skeptical, intrigued, and then you jump into the train and then you enjoy this because that the first season if I remember, you went to the Netherlands, right? And they invited you again, right?
KG Montjane: Yes. Cause I mean, I go there, I see these other kids playing so well and I'm like, so I can actually be like them, you know? But, you know, that first year it was just like, I was just happy to get into the airplane and, you know, be in a different country. And for me, I just saw an opportunity to really travel the world. I was like, oh, actually, if I stick to this I might travel the world, you know? So, cause I didn't know much about sport. I knew nothing about grand slams. I knew nothing about many of the tournaments that they have. So, for me, I just thought, this is what we do. Get into the plane, go to a different country. Okay, I'm up for it. Just so that's how I saw it at the beginning cuz I was still studying. So I was, I didn't care much about it to be honest.
Ilham Kadri: But I mean, the caring is that you are wired for success. You wanna do it right?
KG Montjane: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Because I feel like it provided me with a huge opportunity that I would've never thought about as an individual. Cuz for me, before I played tennis, I'd never seen it before. So for me, I just thought it was just another activity to do, to push time. But actually I grew to realize it was more than that. You know, like the first time when I went to Grand Slam, I hear people talking about Serena Williams, etc. I started being curious like, why are you guys making it a big deal? Who are these people? So when I find out, that's when I realized actually what I'm doing, it's quite big. I need to take it seriously. So that's when I started being serious and having a goal that I'm gonna, you know, strive for a better thing in this sport.
First black African woman to play at Wimbledon
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. Yeah. And then it gets into training and hard work. By the way, you are the first black African woman to play Wimbledon. Was there a special feeling at that time when you got there or it's over already?
KG Montjane: Look at that particular moment in time, I knew nothing about that, for me I was just excited to go play on grass. Whether I was the first one, I didn't know that. I mean, after I win my first match, I start seeing all these things and at first I was like, do I get excited about this being the first? I was like, no, no, it's not really exciting. Yeah, actually, this really shows opportunities that were denied before me, so I'm just gonna take this as a moment of hope to my other fellow black kids at home who want to take up tennis as a sport. It's good that they have the first person who have done it. But for me it's about seeing many more of them. Cause after so many years this sport existed, then I become the first person to do it. Yeah. It's quite an achievement, but for me it was just like actually shocking that so for so many years, we haven't. I never knew about tennis cuz I've never seen anyone that represents me playing the sport. So I just thought this is the moment where I really need to give it my best so that I can inspire hope to the upcoming ones so that they can know they can, they can make it.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. What's a great wisdom because often for minorities or, you know, women or, or you know, women of color, et cetera, and other minorities, it's always, and it's a traditional question, which actually I dared asking you, coming also myself from the minorities pool. It's how do you feel? And actually you don't think about it this way. You just go there to perform and achieve and thrive, and that's what you are telling us, right? You know, I was there to enjoy the game on grass. This is it. And you took it seriously and you trained. You trained every day hard work, right?
KG Montjane: Yeah. Cause for me, I feel like if I knew before that, that I was going to be the first one, I don't know how I would've approached it, you know? But the fact that I didn't know, and when it happens and everyone saw it as an achievement, then it gave me a hope that, you know, as people of color, it means we are getting somewhere you know? And that's what life is about. We never had opportunities as people of color, but the more there's representation of us, the more that will open more doors, the more people will realize our existence. You know? So for me, I'm just grateful I didn't know about it. Cause then I wouldn't have known how it was gonna go, how would've handled the whole moment.
Toughest challenges in tennis
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. Don't make your mind busy with things which are not counting for performance and with all that's going on in the world, mental resilience has become a necessary trait for everyone to adopt. Right. In sport, in business, and I think it's characteristic that athletes must adopt it first and foremost. So there is probably much that we can learn from KG in these respects. Could you please describe for us one of the toughest challenges? Really tough. Maybe you felt it as a failure you have had to overcome in the world of tennis and other words, and what you learned from it.
KG Montjane: Look, for me, my biggest challenge in tennis, it has always been, you know, the issue of funding or finances. Cause for me, I didn't know how much tennis is demanding financially. I personally, when I started, I just thought it's nice that I'm going on a trip, but I didn't know how much it goes into that until it was my own challenge when they say, we don't have money to fund you. And I'm like actually how much it is to just even get to the tournament. And when you realize and you hear all those amounts and I'm like, actually I can't afford to play the sports, but what do I do? Do I quit? Or do I seek for alternatives to keep playing? And that's when I realized that I spent most of my youth years in the sport. So the least I can do is make it possible. So I went out looking for help, hoping someone can come through and assist me, and people came through and it just made me realize how tough it actually is to actually decide between quitting something that you love and carrying on. So for me, giving up wasn't an alternative. Like I said, going to Wimbledon, being the first one, I felt like there was a responsibility for me to keep doing this. So, I can inspire others, so, I am just grateful that mentally our money is to come up with a better solution instead of giving up or quitting. Cause that is not always the solution, you know? So there's just so many alternative solutions out there that you can look for other than just giving up and feeling like it's impossible. So I believe we live in the world of possibilities. Something always has to give in. It doesn't matter what challenge you're in, if you just sleep on it and think thoroughly about it, something will give in. There's always a solution. There's always a possibility. That's what I believe. Being in this sport with lack of support and finding myself being supported by a company in Belgium, for me, that's a win. It's missing to an African child that it's possible. We live in the world of possibilities and as an athlete, I would like to think and wish me being part of Solvay my story can inspire the employees, you know, realizing that coming from nothing doesn't really determine your destiny. So that's, that's just me. I hope my story inspires them and motivates them to realize that you are not being defined by what you go through. You know?
Responsibility to help others
Ilham Kadri: Wow. Wow. Goosebumps. No, you know, you are inspiring. You are a role model, and I'm sure all the audience who are all fans, world of possibilities, right? Perseverance. Go after your dreams, right? And, as you said that one point of time you feel it's a responsibility. I need to do it not only for me, but for the others. And if I can do it. You are hoping that others can, you know, around you in South Africa and beyond can also do it. What a lesson.
KG Montjane: Yeah, that definitely cause you know, at some point in life, some, some people have to be sacrificial lambs. You know what I'm saying? From the country where I'm coming from with our history, people have to be sacrificed for us to get democracy. So I feel like I'm in the same shoes. Being in this sport that is not so popular, the community that I come from. So I cannot be chasing a dream to become, you know, a sports minister or while there are people who really need to be inspired to really take it up simply because from the community that I come from or the villages where I come from. We've never had anything like that. We never had facilities. So if there's someone who's going to sacrifice their own life, it has to be me. Cause already I've got an opportunity to be there. So I have to make it work for the next generation. So I just feel like some of us are going to be sacrificial then, but it's for the good cause as long as it's for the good cause I don't see why not do it. Yeah. So sometimes we're not only responsible for our own lives. But for others too.
Challenges off the court
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. What a great sense of belonging and you regularly overcome challenges on the court, but talk to us about some challenges you have had to overcome off the court. What should we learn from your experiences?
KG Montjane: What you should learn from my experiences? I think just being able, carry on a positive mentality, you know? Cause when you're positive, I believe you can overcome everything. Cause you know, off court. sometimes you think, yeah, I'm not playing, how am I gonna pay my bills? You know? But you know, I grew up in a big family. We used to just share a loaf of bread, you know, so you realize that actually. You know what? Life is just much bigger than having a decent meal in a restaurant. You know, so whatever you can feed your stomach, it works. So, those things, I think, yeah, they really, really help me, you know, keep going as a person. So, the positive attitude towards life. I think that's what really carries me to be able to deal with off court, you know, challenges.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. So you stay always rooted right. With your, you know, grounded and rooted in from where you are coming. Although you are opening up to a word full of resources right when you travel, I guess.
KG Montjane: Yeah, it's important to be grounded, to be honest. I feel like it's really, really important if you struggle. They didn't teach you anything you wouldn't appreciate more. But when your struggle told you a lot, you going to appreciate more. It doesn't matter how small it is or how big it is, so you just learn to really appreciate so, and yeah, that keeps me really grounded cause I know how tough it is to really have nothing. And when you have everything you still like no guys, we have to share this is too much and people will feel like, no, it's not too much. It's like, yeah, but you have to share so that you can inspire and believe in someone. So, it's just who I am. I just feel like my struggles really keep me grounded.
Diversity, equity and inclusion in the world of sport
Ilham Kadri: Wow. This is, this is a great lesson, again, sharing, sharing the wisdom, sharing the resources, et cetera with others. The sense of belonging is very strong. So based KG on your experiences, do you find, you know, the word of sport to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive? And what could business learn from your experience?
KG Montjane: I think it's getting better in sports when looking at, you know, diversity and equity and equality, I think it's getting better. I believe the world of business, they need to realize mostly when coming to diversity. We might be different as people. Like if you have people here in Solvay, the most important thing, you guys are working towards a goal. And it doesn't matter if you're a woman, you're a man or you're a woman of color. You guys are working towards the same goal, and for me, that's what's really important, that we shouldn't overlook each other because you're a man, you're a woman. And that's what happens in sports. When we fight for an equal pay, when it happens. Everyone gets paid the same way. There's nothing like here, but women, these men, no. So I think that's something that could be learned from by companies from sports, that unity, it just brings everything together and it makes everything happen. So I just feel like that's one thing that the companies can learn from sports.
Advice to young people
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, no, definitely. And in the industry and in business there is still a long way to go, including finding a pipeline and what you said about inspiring youth and other people from your country, but also in the disability area and, and the gender and bringing them to the industry so critical. And we are missing this pipeline. So it's our, I feel it like you, it's my duty to also build that pipeline for the future. You started inspiring us, including me from the first seconds you started talking, what would you say to young people at Solvay or, or outside soy, right. I mean, you know that they are facing their own crisis, be it the identity crisis, the climate change. Right. The urgency of living them a world, you know, full of resources, they can leash their own potential. What would you tell to the youth in South Africa and beyond?
KG Montjane: Yeah. What I can tell to the youth is just dreams don't come through, don't come true through magic. You know, you need to have their ability to work towards what you believe in. So work towards your dream and you can achieve it, cuz yeah, they don't come true through magic. We don't live in a magical world. We make things happen as individuals or for whatever they believe in. They need to just keep working towards it because there's a possibility then.
Starting the Multi Sports Development Foundation to help underprivileged kids
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. So, yeah. Hard work again, it's not always easy and we are not here because it's easy, but we can do it. You started the Multi Sports Development Foundation to help rural kids have access to facilities to play sports, which is amazing. This is how I see how you are obsessed by leaving an impact and helping giving back. That's what you said. It's nice for me to go outside, but I'm here also to give back and it's amazing to see it for a young, talented lady like you. Can you tell us more about the foundation?
KG Montjane: Yeah, I mean about the foundation. For me, it's like opportunity denied to me. It shouldn't be the opportunity denied to the next generation. So where I come from, we never had facilities and that's why we've never got interested in playing sports like tennis. So for me it's about going back and, you know, erecting all those facilities to give everyone an opportunity to actually play sports, whatever sports they really wanna play in. So for me, that's really, really important and bringing facilities like that in villages where I come from, you know, it's not only going to inspire hope, but it's going to really educate people about the world. Cuz when we are out there, we don't see the real world, we think this villages are what we have. But the world is beyond that. So with the foundation for me is to be able to bring the real world to them. Cuz I didn't have those opportunities back in the days. So I don't see why I shouldn't, you know, share and give back and let them be able to decide What they want for their own future.
Importance of inclusion
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. What's leadership, that's what we call it at Solvay. You, you are a true leader. Um, you know, through my career as a business woman trying to bring diversity, quality, and inclusion into the companies I worked for or I led, uh, through transformations and succeeded even financially, I always, when I look. I always discovered that I failed in one thing is to make diversity stick. And when I left, even if it was a bit there, it just, you know, phased out for different reasons. And at, Solvay we were trying something unique these days is to bring the inclusion at the heart of it, rather, because diversity statistic is what you see, inclusion is what you do. And when I read your bio and I tried to immerse myself in your world before meeting you, obviously, uh, I realized when you said that at the beginning when you were a toddler, And at school was very tough for you, right? To really engage with the kids who were rather not willing to play with you, et cetera, till you find that school where you felt, wow, this is where I can now be myself, bring my whole self. And then you started really, you know, probably in a very stable way. Can you tell us more about that and what's, is that inclusion? Is that something like this? Help us understand?
KG Montjane: I mean, the issue of inclusion, it's quite a tough one. Yeah. Cause for someone with disability, you always feel like, it's like you're fighting for your position in the world. And you already exist in the world. So for me as a kid, I never used to understand why other kids can’t play with me, but I grew, I grew to understand that I wasn't fast enough for them. Cause you know, limping around. But just imagine if you were to educate people across the world about inclusion, the difference that will make that, like you were saying about diversity, it's not all about statistics. We need to see it happening. Absolutely. And I'm grateful in sports, mostly in tennis. We play in Grand Slams together with the everybody. We've been treated the same way.
Ilham Kadri: You are on the podium, right? You're at the top. Top.
KG Montjane: Exactly. For me that's progress. You know, that's what we mean by inclusion. It's just not about hitting the numbers, like, ah, just created a position there for them, but make them part of it. Because as people with disability, we are as capable as anyone else. I mean, it's just a disability, it's just a condition. You know, it doesn't take away your intellect, your ability. It's just a condition that you live with. So if the world can understand that we just have conditions, but that doesn't really mean we don't have talent, abilities. All we need is just to be given the platform that everyone gets. Without being seen as people with conditions, we just wanna exist. Cause like everyone else exists in this world. When I look at you, I don't be like, yeah, but you can't because you are on heels. No. The first thing, when I see you, I see a human being. That's how we wanna be seen as people with disabilities. When you see me, see me like any other person that you see, then that will be intuition. But we really wanna see it. We don't wanna write about it. We don't wanna sit here and chat about it. You know, I wanna come to Solvay and be like, ah, you know, our next HR person, you know, is someone in a wheelchair. I mean, I should be shocked when I say like, oh, should actually, your HR person is someone in a wheelchair. So that's action plan. So I just feel like we've been talking quite a lot about things like intuition, I think it's about time we see implementation, we see action plan. Cause as much as we have disabilities, we are human after all.
Hobbies outside of tennis
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. Well, it's a beautiful testimonial you are giving us. See me as a human being. And that's what we were trying to because to unleash the potential of the companies is about unleashing the potential of each one of us. And our uniqueness differences are our strengths. So we are inviting our people to bring their whole selves. But you know what took us here? We not bring us there. So we're still working on this inclusive, you know, organization and, and across the board, to really, you know, work on this even more. What do you most enjoy doing of the court? What are your hobbies apart from training and working hard.
KG Montjane: I read quite a lot. I make music. I love music. I just do it for myself, so like, I make beats. Could be house music, could be next time. We should be, could be. But I do it for me. Cause I do it for me because I just have, like I said, I'm an inside, inside, I'm an indoor person.
Ilham Kadri: Are you part of a band or you do it by your own only?
KG Montjane: No, just no. It's actually a good thing to do as I travel. Cause I'm on long flights all the time. So if I'm boarding a flight, I'll try, you know put something together and, but I just do it for fun, so that's great. That's for me. Reading, making music, you know? Playing a lot of TV games. Games. But most importantly, spending time with family as much as I could, cuz I'm always away. These are things I enjoyed doing.
Ilham Kadri: This is great. So the bonding and the sense of, you know, belonging is important. KG, I can go on for other hours, right? Like this. Thank you again for sharing your story and experiences with us and providing so much inspiration. There is much we can learn about being so focused AND resilient, being both humble AND ambitious and in both accepting and celebrating that which makes each of us unique. You are a fighter, trailblazer, and a shining example of overcoming challenges and inequity. I can’t wait to see what’s next for you.