Karate dojos are sanctums, spaces of pin-drop silence punctured by devastating guttural noises as limbs sweep in grand arcs. A dojo is a world unto itself, with its own rules, ethics and codes. But for a generation of Black karate practitioners, dojo walls were permeable; they could not secure refuge from an oppressive society. The racial discrimination against Black people, segregated and oppressed under apartheid, came into dojos with whoever walked in.
From the 1970s until the turn of the century, South African Black townships were awash with dojos. You couldn’t practise a mae-geri (front kick) without striking a fellow karateka, which means a practitioner of karate in Japanese. Karate’s spread in townships was buoyed by the popularity of martial arts-based films. The slang word “starring” came to describe the characters played by lead actors such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude van Damme, among others, while “karate” became a catch-all for Eastern martial arts including taekwondo and kung fu.
The decline in township dojo networks and the number of Black karateka happened over decades. “The facilities in the 1960s and during the dark days [of apartheid] were extremely substandard for people of colour,” says Sonny Pillay, a veteran who holds a black belt eighth dan grade and is president of Karate South Africa (KSA).
“It would be fair to say we were challenged on all fronts – facilities, technical ability … and the privileged few, who were in command in those days in the field, were not happy to impart their knowledge and skills to people of colour. Very few of them did. It all became a collective challenge. Some of us rose beyond those challenges and are here to tell the story.”
Karate encompasses the pursuit of physical and spiritual self-mastery on the one hand, and competition as a sporting code on the other. Self-mastery through karate is an inward-facing exercise. The competitive aspect of karate pits individuals and groups against each other, and victory belongs to those who perform best according to a set of rules.
The frequently used “traditional” and “combat sport” categorisations of each type of karate lose the symbiosis that exists between the pursuit of self-mastery and competitive success. The internal stilling and focus required for competition, for example, can aid self-mastery. And without the fundamental techniques and sequences of karate systems, competition would not be possible.
A karate dojo typically has one sensei who is a master of a particular karate style and teaches any number of students. He or she might elect one or more students as assistant teachers (sempai). High-ranking karateka have often broken away from their original styles to establish their own. The highest global karate memberships are to karate styles based in Okinawa in Japan, where karate practice was originally systemised into styles such as Goju-Ryu, Kyokushin and Shotokan.
Typically, a karateka wanting to establish a dojo would request membership to an organisation in one of the karate styles. These organisations elect chief instructors for the country and region to oversee training, teaching and grading on their behalf.
The South African context
A martial arts practice that was available freely or at relatively low cost, organised by a network of formal and informal dojos, affiliations and structures, once thrived in South Africa. But no longer. The current state of karate in the country, especially in Black townships, mirrors South Africa’s grappling with the continuing effects of its harrowing past in a rapidly changing and modernising world.
The overwhelming majority of chief instructors in South African karate are white and male. The mechanisms of apartheid were applied from dojos to organisational executive committees, and karate’s leadership has only recently had the prospect of meaningful racial and gender transformation.
“Normally, when a Japanese instructor would visit an organisation,” Pillay recounts, “Black [people] were not allowed to form part of the training with the Japanese instructor. The white men would, after they were taught techniques, come and teach you part of the technique, not the complete technique.”
Black belt sixth dan karate master Lucas Tau, 65, adds: “They took all these Japanese [masters] to white areas and they pampered them with a lot of money, knowing that the Black [people] don’t have the money to do that. They didn’t bring them to kasis. That is why all the powers were given to white [people]. They never made any championships in the rural areas or whatsoever. Their [organisational] strategy was one Black [person] and 10 white people.”
Knowledge transfer and recognition of progress through periodic grading is an integral part of practising karate. During apartheid, preference in ranking, promotion and power structures at the dojo level were given to white karateka. Black belt eighth dan and KSA vice-president Sydney Hoaeane says this happened summarily and as a matter of course.
“A white man would join karate today. When you teach him as a senior, after some time he becomes your sempai, [then] your sensei, which was very unfair. Even if he did not know anything, because of the colour of his skin, they would make him your senior. We were treated like the second class.”
At district, regional, provincial and national karate tournaments, Black karateka were unfairly adjudicated in kumite (fighting) and kata (sequence) events. For some Black kumite competitors, their go-to strategy was to win by knockout when facing a white opponent.
The stunted and sometimes altogether curtailed progress of Black karateka at dojos and tournaments is the main reason for a huge decline in participants in the sport. Tau, who runs a dojo from his home in Pretoria, says: “I was oppressed. I was the one who struggled with white [people]. Remember, Pretoria is where more oppression is, even now. All the powers were under them [white sensei]. We had to follow. That is why Black [people], most of the good guys, dropped off from karate. We are few who are still sticking to it. I still keep on.”
Too little time and money
There is a growing range of activities to occupy leisure time for those fortunate enough to have it. “When I started to train, there was karate,” says the head instructor of the largely independent, not-for-profit Kushido Karate Do style, Lawrence Milward-Bridges. “Now, there is karate, and various other martial arts, Netflix, gyms. What else could somebody be doing in that slice of time?”
And there is money to be made during that time. “Now karate is a business,” says Tau, “where if you don’t have [the means], you’ll have the skill but you’ll stay back. We used to pay R10 for monthly fees, R20 [to participate] in the championships. Now participation at district and provincial is about R250 and for national about R500. We used to buy karate suits for about R150. Now, World Karate Federation-approved karate suits are about R2 000.
“Remember, at home you want to eat, your mother is working at a kitchen, you don’t have a father. That is why they drop [out]. The only thing [left] to do is go for nyaope and do all sorts of negative things.”
A young karateka’s development over a long period of time is expensive and parents are not always able to provide the necessary support, agrees sensei and KSA development officer Wiben Mabada. “You find that parents work for lower salaries, they cannot support their kids. In the townships, you find there’s a kid who’s good at karate, winning at district, provincial and national [levels]. But when they’re supposed to go overseas, there’s no support. Now karate is expensive. The time we were doing karate, we were paying R10.”
In a bid to close the racial and class divides in South Africa’s karate, various organisations – from different styles as well as the government – and individual sensei have tried to make changes to create more dojos in Black townships. But they have come up against the imposed structures of the sport, which have made it difficult for dojos to exist without recognised affiliation to a style’s representative organisations.
“A lot of informal dojos have disappeared because now there are very strict measures in place in karate for you to open up a dojo,” says Tau, who is also a development officer for KSA.
Yearly subscriptions, monthly tuition fees and transport to and from the dojo are only the base costs of being a karateka. The World Karate Federation, which spearheaded karate’s debut at this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, requires that karateka competing in tournaments it has sanctioned wear uniforms and protective gear approved by it.
“For karate, we don’t necessarily need equipment,” says Mabada, “but we need facilities in terms of the building where we teach. Back in those days, we never used mitts, we never really fought on tatamis [mats]. We fought on cement floors, it didn’t really matter where we were fighting. But guess what, full-contact [styles] are still doing it and they are [still] very popular.”
Hopes for the future
Karate is perceived as a martial art that is wise in its practices, fair in its responses, unbiased in its judgement of merit, and one that can be available to most. But the dojos where karate is practised in South Africa have historically not upheld these virtues.
For Tau, the work of revitalising karate begins in its past. “We have to revive those karateka who dropped [out] because of the apartheid regime,” he says.
But for Pillay, finance and facilities are vital, especially in areas with widespread poverty. “The challenges in townships, informal settlements, socioeconomically challenged areas are immense,” he says.
“There is no magic wand to wave those challenges away, that suddenly you’re going to get up one morning and all those challenges have disappeared. They are there for us to contend with. First and foremost is the issue of finance. It’s all bread-and-butter issues that are [potential participants’] priority, not sports.
“Therefore, sports federations need to come forward and provide facilities and provide the expertise. And that is what Karate South Africa has been trying to do. Our challenge, primarily, is finance.”