The rise of the Motherwell Fencing Club

After starting out in a garage, the first township-based fencing team in the Eastern Cape is having a go at the national championships.

They started out just a few months ago practising with borrowed equipment in a small garage. Now, a Motherwell fencing club is set to compete at the national championships.

Fencing is a sport in which two opponents use weapons to try to make contact with each other. It is part of the modern pentathlon, an Olympic sport which comprises show jumping, pistol shooting, cross-country running and swimming. The “weapon of choice” for the Motherwell club is the épée – a traditional duelling sword with a blunt end.

Fencer Ambesa Mgijima, 28, founded the Motherwell Fencing Club in his garage in Nelson Mandela Bay in November 2019. Since then, the team of 10 boys, aged between 10 and 13 years old, have won two medals in the most recent interdistrict competition and are training hard for the championships in Bloemfontein this July. They could not ask for a better coach. Mgijima is one of the top four fencers in the province and is currently ranked 31 in senior men’s fencing in South Africa. 

Mgijima took up the sport in 2014 when he was studying tourism management at university. Zola Hlazi, the first black fencer in the Eastern Cape, was a close friend and took Mgijima to a practice. From there, Mgijima joined the university team. But in 2015, Mgijima moved to Jeffreys Bay for work. As there was no fencing team in town, he started the club there and ran it for three years before being promoted again, which meant moving back to Motherwell in Nelson Mandela Bay. 

“My dream is of investing back because now I am in my own community. To come back home and do what you love for children in your own community, that’s something else,” he says.

9 February 2020: From left, founder Ambesa Mgijima and Jessica Raper from the Excelsior Fencing Club at the back of the group of young Motherwell club fencers.  (Photograph by Anna Majavu)
9 February 2020: At the back from the left, founder Ambesa Mgijima and Jessica Raper from the Excelsior Fencing Club at the back of the group of young Motherwell club fencers.

Finding a place to train 

Motherwell Fencing Club began training in Mgijima’s parents’ garage but quickly won the support of the principal of the Vezubuhle Primary School, who offered them a classroom to train in for two hours every Sunday. Mgijima has now added another two-hour training session on Saturdays to the schedule. 

The team is so keen on the sport that when they cannot use the classroom, they just practise outside on the road.

“Is there something I can give [the kids] that they didn’t even dream of? The parents are so proud of their children, and the kids get a sense of joy because of this,” Mgijima says. “I am … focused on training the team at the moment. I want them to travel and to say that because of this sport, we were able to travel and do things we were never able to do.”

The coach aims to make the top 15 in South Africa himself but is juggling full-time work in retail and his responsibilities at the Motherwell club.

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Musa Banca, 12, is one of the two Motherwell Fencing Club team members to have won a medal in the interdistrict competition last year. “I want to have many opportunities in this sport. I want to play in as many tournaments as I can and win them. I want to play fairly and have fun and remember that no one is perfect,” he says.

The other medal winner was 10-year-old Athandile Nthuthela. “This is cool and fun. My first year, I was nervous. There was a boy named Owen at the tournament, and I was afraid of him but I beat him,” he says proudly.

Mgijima says at first he was not sure if fencing would take off in Motherwell. “Last year, it was a case of me introducing the sport and seeing how they react. When I saw they were doing so well, I said to myself I actually have a team here, and this is a club that can go far. This year I’m going to push, knock on doors and see how far I can take this team.”

Some of the members are so interested in the sport, they are already talking about forming their own clubs when they get older.

A bigger stage 

In July, the whole team will be competing in their first national competition. “Every off day I get I want to make sure I am able to train the kids for this competition. Sometimes our happiness comes from seeing other people happy, and this is an added motivation for me,” says Mgijima.

At the Sunday afternoon practice at the school, former South African three-time pentathlon champion Jessica Raper has joined the session, bringing extra fencing masks and padded clothing. Raper runs the Excelsior Fencing Club in central Nelson Mandela Bay.

Much of the kit is too big for the young team. “We really need sponsors for the Motherwell Fencing Club. It costs R3 200 for a full suit for a beginner but the advantage is the kit lasts a very long time and can be handed down over the years to other fencers,” Raper says.

The Motherwell club also does not have the electrical equipment that connects to each épée, which is used in competitions to register touches and award points. They have borrowed some for the day from the Excelsior club, so they can get used to it ahead of the nationals. 

Before the sparring begins, the teams practise advancing, retiring and the thrust and lunge. Within 15 minutes, all 10 boys are performing the movements in perfect unison.

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The sport is also attracting children too young to compete. Sean Kilbride, 5, has been invited to attend the training as a special treat. Usually his mother, Noma Nomkhala, 34, drives Sean more than 100km every Sunday so he can have private lessons with Mgijima in his garage as he is too young to join the team. The épée is too heavy for a five-year-old to hold for more than a few seconds. Sean practises with a custom sword made of foam. Other small children have also been showing an interest in joining the club.

“Sean was only three when he started showing a keen interest in fencing. He kept practising at home and was watching the Olympics on YouTube all the time. I decided to look for fencing classes. I was thrilled when I found Mgijima,” Nomkhala said.

Team member Avene Sam, 13, says he has experienced a lot in the short time he has been fencing. “This club can take me to far places. Fencing is also very good for those who think they don’t have a talent for sport.”

9 February 2020: The team members are training hard for the championships in Bloemfontein in July. (Photograph by Anna Majavu)
9 February 2020: The team members are training hard for the championships in Bloemfontein in July.
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