The green jacket is Enos Mafokate’s just reward

The legendary equestrian pioneer had to endure much racism in his heyday during the height of apartheid, and the abuse didn’t end with the arrival of democracy.

Enos Mafokate’s delight at receiving an Andrew Mlangeni Green Jacket Award resembled that of an upstart winning his first accolade. But that couldn’t be further from the truth – after all, this is a man who has the SA Sport Awards’ Steve Tshwete Lifetime Achievement Award proudly displayed at home alongside many other trophies from equestrian events the world over. 

As he walked up to the stage to receive his award from Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa, Mafokate was happiness personified, his smile bright enough to light up a small village. His eyes shone as he took the microphone, now wearing the green jacket over his crisp white shirt. He raised his hand and looked up: “Praise be to God. This is the best honour I could ever get.”

Cue long applause from the audience. But best honour? Really?

Well, yes, the award would mean so much to the 76-year-old because of its aim, which is to honour yesteryear’s sports heroes “who could not be celebrated because of the restrictive laws of the apartheid regime”. 

10 April 2021: Enos Mafokate dons the jacket he received as part of the Andrew Mlangeni Green Jacket Award, which honours yesteryear’s sports heroes.

Mafokate remembers the forced removals that ensured he could never really be certain that a place would be his home for long. “In 1958, the GG [government garage fleet that carried out forced removals] came to our house in Rivonia in January and told us to move out by February or they would be back to break down our house. We had no choice but to move.”

Mafokate also recalls other indignities, such as the day when the children of his parents’ employers tried to trick him into getting an electric shock by making him put his wet arm near the engine of a tractor with a running engine. There were also instances of physical abuse.

“Once, when I worked on a dairy farm and was delivering milk to the house, I called one of the owner’s daughters by name instead of referring to her as klein miesies [little madam]. The father did not like that and he punched me hard in my face. His daughter cried so much and that forced the father to take me to the clinic in Alexandra, and I told the nurses no ways I am driving back with him. He lied to the nurses that I’d had an accident. But I told them he had punched me and that I didn’t want to drive back with him. They helped me get out of the clinic via the backdoor so I could escape him.”

A few days after he received the green jacket on 13 March, Mafokate is relaxing at his Midrand home and playing the role of doting grandfather he so enjoys. He tells tales of his struggles against apartheid with the same passion he displays about his successes during a pioneering equestrian career that started in 1962.

From groom to rider 

Mafokate got into equestrian events such as showjumping after developing a liking for horses while working on farms. He first started as a groom and rode horses in races with fellow Black stable hands. He proved so good, though, that he was soon referred to as a “Black rider” and no longer just a groom. But that didn’t mean that whites started treating him as an equal.

“Hey, I’ve had it rough in my lifetime,” he says. “Life was very tough during apartheid, and to be a Black man in a predominantly white sport was not easy. But let me tell you, it is not as if things changed much after 1994. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences even in recent years.”

20 February 2005: Enos Mafokate in action during a showjumping competition in Johannesburg. His equestrian career started in 1962. (Photograph by Radu Sigheti/ Reuters)

It is hard to hear that a legend of Mafokate’s calibre – he was given the honour of being Team SA’s ambassador when the country re-entered the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 – could have been subjected to more racist abuse in post-apartheid South Africa. He shares tales of the treatment he endured from prejudiced whites who could not accept a Black man participating in a sport they clearly regarded as their preserve.

“In 2000 I went to an event in Thabazimbi, and when I arrived at the gate there were three Afrikaners who wanted me to pay to get in. But I told them I had already registered as a participant. They asked me whose car it was that I was driving. ‘Waar’s die baas [Where’s the boss]?’ they asked me. I told them it was my car and that ‘ek is die baas’ [I am the boss]. They got angry with me and told me to park on the side of the road while they were letting other white people through. They were saying I should show them the receipt as proof that I bought the horse. 

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“The organiser of the event came through and asked why my horsebox and car were on the side of the road, and suddenly they allowed me to go through. As I walked away, I cheekily said to them, ‘Fuck you, I have thousands of horses and about 400 people working for me.’ They were seething, but I didn’t care.” 

It got even worse. 

“There was a competition in Ellisras [Lephalale] in 2001 and I took a few of my kids [from his equestrian school] there. We competed and did very well because we won 11 of the 12 classes we participated in. After the events, when we were at the food stalls, there were some white boys drinking at the bar. I wanted to buy the kids drinks and these boys said to me, ‘Even if you can ride a horse, you are still a k****r.’ I could have told them where to get off, but I was careful not to expose the young children to what could have turned out into an ugly altercation, so I decided to leave that place.”

Because Mafokate had stormed off, the organisers invited him to another event in 2004 during which “they treated me like I was Mandela”, he laughs. 

Competing abroad

Outside South Africa, though, he often experienced VIP treatment. Having become so good at showjumping, Mafokate was invited to the United Kingdom in 1980 after being spotted by Welsh champion David Broome.

“I’d won the Blacks-only championships in Cape Town from 1977 to 1979 and was also the first Black man to participate at the Royal Agricultural Show in Pietermaritzburg in 1978 after [then-prime minister] PW Botha instructed them to grant me a temporary licence.”

For the UK event, Mafokate’s application to compete was initially declined because of apartheid. But his employer, Anneli Drummond-Hay Wucherpfennig, asked Queen Elizabeth to intervene and he received permission.

The memory of that trip still delights him. “I was the first Black person to perform at the Royal [International] Horse Show at Wembley in London. But before the performance in London, we went to Wales, where I won in one class and finished second in the championship. 

“I remember that when we arrived early on, the entire street leading up to the venue was filled with people. They all wanted to see this Black man who could ride horses. It was something unheard of. It was a great feeling. I did my part to show that Black South Africans were capable even though the apartheid government was trying to reduce us to nothings.”

Mafokate went on to compete in the UK for the next three years. 

An uphill battle 

His successes abroad in the 1980s did not mean Mafokate had it easier in his homeland during that time, and he remembers how white judges would deny him victory for ridiculous reasons.

“At one event, a judge said I didn’t win because my horse was old. But we discovered that mine was younger than the one that had won. But when asked by others, the same judge said I was not sitting properly on the horse, that is why I did not win. It was crazy.”

Sometimes, he also felt that the life of his horse could be threatened. “I was competing in Lebowakgomo [in the former Lebowa Bantustan] … and the whites were clearly not pleased with my presence and they made it clear,” he says of an experience he had in 1986. 

10 April 2021: Enos Mafokate brushes one of his horses at his centre. He says the relationship that a rider develops with a horse is fundamental to good riding.

“Firstly, they told me I could not park where I had parked near all the other competitors, and I had to move my car. They were so against me that I just didn’t trust them. So, I got my son Arthur to guard my horse through the night because I couldn’t trust those white guys not to poison my horse.”

At an event that he won, Mafokate remembers a young white boy coming to speak to him after the event. “I really thought he was coming to congratulate me, but he asked me where I’d got the red jacket I was wearing. I said to him I stole it and he cried and went back to his father, who was very furious with me for making his son cry. I just laughed them off.”

He also remembers beating a white woman participant at an event in Klerksdorp in 1977 and her not taking it well. “She was watching me doing my final ride and when she became aware that I was going to beat her, she went to her car and stormed off, creating a lot of dust as she did. She didn’t even stay on for the prize-giving and sent her groom to get her prize for her.”

Tough as those times were, Mafokate could not be dissuaded from his favourite sport and went on to become a legend in it. And since retiring from riding and jumping, he has given back to the sport he loves. Over the years, he has helped a lot of youngsters, including three of his grandchildren, get into showjumping through the Enos Mafokate Equestrian Club of Soweto. 

“I took my kids to the 2010 World Equestrian Games in America and they really did well there,” he says. 

About his most recent award, he says: “This award really means a lot to me because of what I’ve gone through. I helped [showjumpers] Tony Lewis and Anneli [Drummond-Hay Wucherpfennig] to become Springboks in the eighties. But when I asked that I be given the colours too, [the administrators] refused because I was Black. So, for me to get this Andrew Mlangeni jacket is really an honour.”

10 April 2021: From left, Enos Mafokate with some of the young trainees at his equestrian school. He has taken some riders to compete in international events such as the World Equestrian Games.

Mafokate says the emblem on the breast pocket of the green jacket initially confused him and he thought it meant he would never qualify for the award.

“In 2018 I was at the awards, and when I saw the jackets I thought the awards were for golfers. I was surprised when I saw the names of [cricketer] Makhaya Ntini and [footballer Nelson] Teenage Dladla among those who were honoured before. Only then did I realise what these Andrew Mlangeni awards are really about. And to now also be honoured this way, man, it means everything for me. It is the biggest honour.”

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