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UJ’s mascot Hoepie graduates!

The University of Johannesburg (UJ)’s beloved mascot, Hoepie, has joined the ranks of thousands of graduates who crossed the stage this graduation season.

Thanks to the efforts of 26-year-old Sandile Mbatha, the man inside the costume, Hoepie—named after the African hoopoe bird—now shares the pride and joy that come with graduation. Hailing from Soweto, Mbatha described his journey as Hoepie as both special and fun.

Sandile Mbatha

Mbatha’s path to becoming Hoepie wasn’t straightforward. He initially auditioned for the role of mascot during the DJ auditions at the university’s sporting events. “I auditioned for the role at APK. Initially, I saw a Facebook post saying they were looking for a DJ, cheerleaders, and Hoepie,” Mbatha said with a chuckle. “I knew I had already won when I got to the audition,” he added.

Perhaps, it is Mbatha’s energetic and vibrant demeanor the moment he steps into the suit that won over the judges that day. It is this energy that has made him a beloved fixture at UJ sports games, even one that got him international acclaim at the 2022 International University Sport Federation (FISU) World University Mascot Challenge semi-finals. Hoepie made it all the way to the semi-finals where he was narrowly defeated by the Mexican Kuako, the official mascot of the UAEM University in Mexico.

“I’m a person that’s quite energetic, so it wasn’t difficult to transfer that energy to Hoepie. I entered that suit knowing anything can happen I should expect the unexpected and keep on entertaining the UJ fans,” he said earnestly.

Mbatha approaches the role of Hoepie with great seriousness and dedication. He shared that one of his key principles is to ensure that he ‘wears’ Hoepie well.

“I made sure to always remain humble, respect the suit, and take my job seriously. I was always on time because the shows couldn’t start without me. I kept in mind that when wearing that suit, I was representing my institution, so I always did my best and, most importantly, I never let any other mascot outshine me!” Mbatha said.

One of the key challenges he experienced as Hoepie was staying hydrated and not succumbing to the heat of the suit. Mbatha quickly learned a few tricks to keep the show going. “I learned to manage my water consumption to avoid needing frequent bathroom breaks, which would pose a challenge during events. I also learned to drink just enough to stay hydrated and keep my energy up,” he said.

General view at the start of the match during the Varsity Cup match between FNB UJ and FNB UWC at the UJ Stadium on 08 April 2024. Photo (Christiaan Kotze)

In his daily life, Mbatha was a Diploma in Transportation Management student. Fortunately, most sports events took place during the evenings and weekends, allowing him to dedicate ample time to his studies.

When things got tough, his friends kept him motivated. “I didn’t have a lot of friends at school, but the few I had played a huge role in making sure I didn’t fall behind in my schoolwork. To a certain extent, my housemates were also quite supportive,” he said.

Amid many exciting moments as Hoepie, Mbatha said the most memorable was the Varsity Netball semi-final against North West University—a nail-biting game that came right down to the wire.

“If I remember correctly, it was our first time playing at that stage of the varsity netball and we won in front of our fans who also travelled with us … YeyI! It was a bit emotional for all of us. The second one is the final of the netball again in Pretoria against the home favorites University of Pretoria (UP). We were twelve points down and everyone had lost hope-myself included- but the girls pulled through and covered that 12-point gap! We lost the game, but I was proud of the Orange Army!” he said.

Sandile will now take off the suit and go onto his next challenge, perhaps in the Transportation Industry. He did however have some parting words for the next Hoepie: “If you’re in it for the fame then you won’t perform your best because you will always be dictated to. Anonymity is your biggest superpower. Do what you do best inside the suit and act normal outside the suit, like I did,” he said.

A new student has now taken over as Hoepie. And the mystery continues.

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