The first chapter of Hoosain Narker’s book “My Karate Odyssey” tells the story of training in the martial arts during Apartheid in South Africa.
South Africa was a difficult place to grow up in, during the sixties and seventies. The history of karate/budo was heavily influenced by the effects of the Apartheid System. Apartheid had brought about severe imbalances and disparities amongst the karate practitioners in South Africa. The dividing program of Apartheid was to categorize ethnic and racial divisions. It divided all of society, artificially segregating groups according to racial classification whilst referring to already existing ethnic and cultural differences. The specific hierarchy established by this ideology either created cultural entities or fostered those prevailing for the time-being and made them permanent. On top of the social pyramid were the Whites, followed by Indians/Asians and the Colored population whose status was recognized to be superior to that of Blacks.
Thousands of people were re-classified by race and others could apply to have their racial status changed. Some Whites were reclassified “Colored”, for example, if their hair was too curly or other features were thought to be too similar to Blacks. Apartheid (apart-ness) was conceptually introduced in 1948 with the victory of the National Party. Although these policies entrenched division in South Africa, they built upon the existing system of segregation that had pervaded society well before 1948. The White population (especially the Afrikaners) believed that their dominant position was scientifically, religiously and culturally justified. Martial arts were linked to politics because practically all existing organizations had to apply for a permit from the Minister of the Interior. This permit would allow people from all the race groups to join and practice the arts at so called “White” schools as they were then called. The American martial arts magazine, Black Belt, featured an article regarding this in one of their early issues (Vol. 4, No. 5, May 1966) entitled “Karate’s Introduction in South Africa Scares the Minister of The Interior.” Then Minister Jan de Klerk was petrified by the thought of karate as an offensive art falling into the hands of the disadvantaged who could use it to fight against the oppressors.
The Permit System was due to Apartheid and previously, several teams were picked for International matches, that is; a South African “White” team, a South African “Black” team and a South African “Indian” team. This led to South Africa’s expulsion from several International sporting organizations such as the International Olympic Committee, the International Amateur Athletics Federation as well as the World Union of Karate-Do Organizations (WUKO – now the WKF) – the official world governing body for karate. White owned clubs considered themselves as multiracial and were proud when they had one or more members of other races training at their dojo. In 1971, the Multi National Policy had become official Government Policy whereby South African teams could only be mixed in competitions that included foreign athletes. Many of the non-racial instructors had their origins in the larger clubs which were associated with “Establishment Sport”. Dissatisfaction in the running of these organizations and the many blatant racist practices forced those “karate ka” to breakaway and operate in isolation without being affiliated to any national or international body. Only gratitude can be expressed for this type of dedication which kept the spirit of karate alive in the “townships”. This isolation resulted in a lack of external exposure causing a negative effect on development which influenced standards and deprived them of International recognition. Many of these instructors and organizations became dormant and were only able to develop internally at a rate which can only be measured by internal standards. A small number of instructors and organizations, despite being disadvantaged, managed to gain an acceptable degree of autonomy and standard of performance.
It was during this heavily changing political climate that I was born in Cape Town in October of 1963. Many of you would have heard of, or even visited Cape Town, a metropolis situated at the base of the majestic Table Mountain. Even if you may have visited the city, or only know Cape Town from seeing it on a map, perhaps thereafter, you will know that many potent martial artists originated or came to settle in the city of Cape Town and its suburbs. At the age of 9, I lost the sight of one eye when bleach splashed onto it. Apartheid reared its head when I had to wait for hours as the doctors were busy in the “White” wards. Throughout the years that followed, the segregation at hospitals meant that my Mom and I had to wait for hours on end before being attended to. We traveled by public transport to the hospital, specifically by bus. In the buses of that time, non-whites had to sit upstairs. My Mom suffered from varicose veins, and after ringing the bell to get off, would take a while to walk down. It was rare for the driver to wait for us to come down, and often the bus would have started driving and we would have to get off at the next stop and walk all the way back.
My love for the martial arts was influenced by Bruce Lee and the early flood of Kung-fu movies. This was the major reason for starting out the “Budo Way”. What probably pushed me even more was that I was very short and plump; and because of one bad eye, used to be ridiculed and bullied. I went to the movies three times a week to watch the same film. After leaving the cinema, I tried to imitate Bruce Lee with all the flying and jumping kicks featured predominantly in movies of that era. Bruce Lee’s outstanding physique made me envious and I spent hours in training trying to gain a similar-looking body. (Today I am still looking for that elusive “body”). In 1974, at the age of 10, I joined the Shotokan Karate dojo (its instructor – Ismail Behardien, was one of the first “Non-Whites” to get a black belt) in Retreat as the dojo opened down the road from where I lived. It could have been any other style – but it was convenient – little knowing that years later I would open my own dojo in that same hall. After three or four months the club relocated to Grassy Park and I ran 3 ½ miles (5.6 km) there and back to train. When that club eventually closed down, I “hijacked” a friends’ karate book (Karate by Bruce Tegner – now a prized part of my book collection) and learnt all that I could from it. (I have to laugh now when I recollect how I interpreted Heian Nidan from the book due to inexperience).
In 1976, during the turbulent times of the Soweto uprising, I joined Shukokai Karate (Eric Smith and Jonathan Tommy) and when that club closed, I continued at another branch (Neville Williams). When that club closed down too, I moved to a Kyokushin dojo (Neville Paulsen) in Retreat. His training was harsh and coming from a non-contact background toughened me up. Whilst at Shukokai, there was one student who often bullied me. By chance, he came to Paulsen’s dojo after I was training there for a few months – I could then easily handle him and it was he who then cringed and soon quit because the going was too tough. It was whilst training with Sensei Paulsen that I bought a karate book which was marketed as a home study course. The book was written by Stuart Booth – then the Chief Instructor for Goju Ryu Seiwakai and later Goju Ryu Kenwakai. For years, I would follow the exercises in the book and one page that was indelibly marked in my memory was the page where a wooden batten was broken over Shihan Booth’s stomach. Later I would do the same, but it was only because of seeing Shihan Booth’s well defined abdomen that would inspire me to do likewise.
Cape Town, more than any other city in the country, was less rigid with its adherence of the application of Apartheid Policies and it was relatively easier to train during those initial years. Fortunately for me, I trained mostly with “Non-White” (as people were classified then) instructors; thus I was not directly exposed to Apartheid. Previously, my instructor and other “Non Whites” could only train at “White-owned” dojo on Fridays and Sundays as the laws did not allow mixing of races. Sensei Paulsen at that time, was not a member of the Kyokushin Association (he would rejoin them after I left them). The Soweto uprising was a turning point in South African history as students rose in anger against having to learn Afrikaans and the pitiful conditions at schools – mainly in The Transvaal (now Gauteng). This quickly spread across the country. Two students were shot dead right in front of our house. On many occasions during that time and later at University, we had to face the gauntlet of the riot police who readily shot teargas and baton-charged student meetings. More than 30 years later, one can still see the disparity when one visits a school in the former “white” areas to schools in the “non-white” areas.
In 1978, at a national tournament, I met and befriended a person who played a very important role in the future of my karate career, William Quantoi. Meeting William made me realize that my training lacked the finer aspects of technical karate. Most non-white instructors were not taught much and as I wanted to further my skills, I opted to join Establishment Sport which was multi-racial. This was done after more than a year and a half of contemplation of the existing situation; it was tough for a 15 year old to make such a decision. I knew that I wanted to learn and improve, and my only consolation was that at that time, most experts were on the “other side.” Up until then, I was at a High School which supported SACOS (South African Council of Sport) – the leading sporting structure opposing Apartheid. Their slogan was “No Normal Sport in an Abnormal Society.” The move to “multi-racial” sport created lots of hassles at school and it was not only heavily frowned-upon, but created lots of problems for me as I was into running at the time. I was branded a “collaborator” by a few radicals.
Around 1979, I started writing to as many International martial artists whose contact details I could find. This definitely motivated me because I could not wait to get home from school and later university to see if I had received any letters that day. During vacations I would wait for the postman to come around. In that way, I got hundreds of pictures of Martial Artists from all over. Many of them I still communicate with – many of them provided unimaginable support, inspiration and learning material – some of them include, Allen Wheeler (sadly passed away in 2007), Gary Alexander, Larry Giordano and others too many to mention. It was around this time that I met Erik Petermann, a person who would become my friend, student and instructor. I met Erik at a bookstore searching for Martial Arts books and we started chatting and soon thereafter we started training together and we still do that today. Erik teaches the internal arts and modern combat methods and is the author of two books – one on Jiu Jitsu and the other on Thai Massage. I’ve learnt lots from my friendship with him. Another person whom I met thereafter was Francis Balie, known as Billy Balie. Billy, now a Shihan in Kenwakai Goju Ryu, is a serious practitioner and avid researcher and one of the more senior karate ka in this country. From that moment onwards, I would often run into him and we would later start training and interacting, and he would become someone whom I, to this day, regard as my Senpai (senior).
Early in 1980 I started training in Sea Point at the headquarters of Kyokushin Karate, under the late Hanshi Len Barnes (8th Dan), Bas van Stenis, Trevor Tockar and others. The training was hard and intense; with lots of push-ups, sit-ups, body conditioning, etc. Prior to starting at the Kyokushin Honbu, I had visited three other dojo which was on the way – Nigel Jackson’s JKA, Max Grunau’s Ishinryu and Harry Pieterkosky’s SA Gorei Karate (Goju Ryu). Shihan Pieterkosky, his wife Clare and I would become good friends in the years to come and we would regularly interact. I also met Peter Klipfel, then training at SA Gorei, now a Seiwakai Goju Ryu shihan, but it would only be twenty years later that we started having a closer relationship. I trained with all and particularly liked the training at Max Grunau’s dojo, but after having started with Kyokushin, I didn’t want to do anything else. The rugged training really appealed to me. The standard was very high, more so with the caliber of the few remaining instructors of today who were senior then. Mark Liebenberg, who was the dojo Senpai, was a perfect gentleman. I was regularly beaten up for venturing into the seniors class, but am thankful for that hard training – that is what developed my “spirit of perseverance – “Osu no Seishin.” “Nigel Jackson, a leading Shotokan instructor had told me at that time that Kyokushin wasn’t for me. “It is for the mean and big blokes,” he said. I was very small at the time. A few years later when I ran into him at a National All Styles Championship, he was both amazed and impressed that I was still in the game and for the position that I occupied on the Governing structures.
It was during that time that I started hitch-hiking to Durban and other Cities. Durban was then my most favorite place to visit as it was also the home of Shihan A.K. Ismail – the first person from South Africa to actually train under Mas Oyama. A.K. had built up a huge dojo and had the biggest following due to being the Publisher of the longest running Martial Arts magazines in the seventies. I regularly visited A.K.’s dojo which had of the toughest fighters in the country. Training with fighters like Raymond Mkhize, Boy Ntshangase, Selby Mkhwanazi, Alpheous Sabela and others toughened me further. A.K. had a separate organization to that of Len Barnes and the local group actually did not like him at all. I had no idea then of the enmity and when A.K. gave me of his badges, I proudly wore them on my dogi. One day, whilst class was taken by Mercure “Lucky” Paizee, he asked me where I was from. When he heard that I was from Cape Town and training at the Sea Point Honbu, he told me to take them off. I could not fathom why he wanted that as it was Kyokushin badges, although it had Shihon (which was the name of A.K’s dojo) under the kanji. At the next session that he gave, he called me one side and with no warning, knocked me out with a mawashi geri. When I woke, he said: “I had told you to take those badges off!” – I was too stubborn and just kept on wearing them. I vowed that he was one person I would love to meet when I was bigger, but alas, that has not happened. I was about 16 years old then.
During one of those trips to Durban, I came to the Shihon Dojo and it was closed. I could not get hold of Shihan A.K. nor any of the instructors and as I always slept at the dojo, I was in trouble. Fortunately I had the number of Sonny Pillay, the SKI representative, whom I had met at a tournament, and I gave him a call. Not only did he pick me up, but I stayed with him and trained at his various branch dojo for the duration of that stay. We’ve remained close friends ever since and as a mentor, I have learnt a lot from him. Due to the racist policies of the SA JKA, Sonny had emigrated for England in 1973 as he too could not get a black belt. He earned his shodan in London from the late Enoeda Sensei in the JKA, came back to get married and left again in 1977. However, due to the request of many of the disadvantaged who faced similar problems in South Africa, he came back to share his skills and just stayed, developing a strong organization of thousands of members.
In September of 1980 I opened my own dojo in Retreat (which today is the Ashihara Honbu), and three months later I was joined by William Quantoi who just moved from Port Elizabeth to Retreat. William and I shared many similar traits. Both of us were avid collectors of martial arts books and magazines, and after getting together, found out that both of us had been learning the fighting techniques of people like, Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, Tayari Casel, and others. Our association, lasted many years, and played a major role in laying the foundations of not only the organization, but also in my personal development. It was probably at that time that the seeds were planted in making the martial arts my career. The decision to open the dojo had quite a few consequences as there was a great need for skilful training and I wanted to share what I was learning and had learnt. Our communities had very few activities for the youth and even though I was not much older than my students, I saw the need for offering an activity which could keep people occupied and off the streets.
Whilst training at the Kyokushin headquarters, multi-racial training was allowed under a blanket permit which allowed other races to train openly at “white” owned dojos. Even though training was good, I can distinctly remember the few non whites being excused after normal class ended; the curtains being drawn and only the “whites” received extra training where they were taught kata. Because we did not know the advanced kata as it was not taught in normal classes, we could not progress. It was only because we obtained Kyokushin books by Steve Arneil, Brian Fitkin, et al that we learnt the advanced kata. Brian Fitkin’s sent me his kata book as a gift and I got it the day before Christmas of 1980. I could not have wished for a better gift and that wonderful present was much used. Magazines like Black Belt, Karate Illustrated and Official Karate, to mention a few, aided us tremendously in learning technique and other important matters regarding training and history.
My former dohai (training partner) -William Quantoi, was a brown belt for more than six years. William started training in 1969 and only obtained Shodan in 1981. In fact he was already a brown belt when Kenny Uytenbogaardt (IKO Matsui group) was still a blue belt, but because of racial differences, Kenny Uytenbogaardt received his 4th Dan in 1981. This was a blatant example of racism. As a tournament fighter with numerous titles to his credit, William had overcome fighters much larger and heavier than himself. His exceptional flexibility with years of weight training had made him so strong and powerful that he instilled fear in many a competitor’s heart. Prior to receiving his Shodan, William had won the South African Full Contact championship in the presence of Mas Oyama. In that tournament he was repeatedly fouled, but he persevered and won and was personally commended for his ability by the late Grandmaster.
In 1981 I had the honor of training with the late legend of karate, the great master Sosai Masutatsu Oyama as well as with two leading Japanese Sensei. I was also fortunate to perform the kata – Tensho and to receive critique from Sosai Oyama. Meeting Sosai Masutatsu Oyama was an awesome experience as he was such an enigma to millions, including myself. Before meeting Oyama – the great “bull killer” – I was in awe. And now not only was I going to meet the Grandmaster in person, but I would also be training under him for a solid week! I have a 1958 edition of “What is Karate” in which Oyama’s earlier exploits are reviewed including many pictures of him in his prime. When Oyama arrived at the airport, he was met by several hundred karate ka. If one did not know who he was, he would just have been some stocky Japanese, but to me he was so much more than that. His presence had an aura which was dominating. Also at seventeen, I had his books, What is Karate (1958 & 1973 editions); This is Karate, Advanced Karate and some others, so I knew that Oyama placed great emphasis on Tensho, gyakute and basics. Prior to his visit, I had learnt the kata from books and reinforced it at the dojo by peeking under the curtains when kata was being done. So when Sosai Oyama arrived, I had a fairly good understanding of the kata. On the first opportunity that I had, I cornered him and I performed Tensho. I think he was somewhat amazed and he said something like it was a “big kata with small movements or a small kata with big movements.” A small group of on-lookers had gathered to watch me enjoy the spotlight when it was noticed by the powers that be. They whisked him away, saying that I was not supposed to be doing that kata. But for that brief moment I had his undivided attention, and that was great fun!
What probably contributed to Oyama giving me his time was that soon after his arrival, I had him autographing all his books I had. He was probably impressed that a youngster like me had those books. That also gave me an edge because it made my face familiar and he always gave me a nod when he saw me. Training was nothing special – basics and more basics. I had read about this in the Kyokushin magazines so I knew what the training format would be. Kancho Oyama (as he was known then), was not impressed with many of the Dan grades. He moved them to the back and the color belts were moved forward. This meant that I was placed close to the front. That was great because I was then under the scrutiny of his two assistants. Many people have trained with him, some for long periods of time. The difference for me was that I came from a background of oppression, and here I had the opportunity to train with a legend. Years later, because of the sanctions and U.N. embargo against this country, those having a South African passport could not go to Japan for culture or sport events. (Many White South Africans had dual nationality and could therefore go freely – the sanctions certainly didn’t stop them). The dream that I had to train again with this great man never materialized. I therefore cherished the brief time that I spent with him so much more.
In that same year thousands of spectators, at an open-air demonstration, were stunned when I allowed a motor vehicle to drive over my stomach. I was 17-years-old at the time and later became known “as the young Rambo teaching karate in Retreat” and “that crazy guy who lets cars run him over.” I have to agree – I was crazy! Those years I was glued to the television set, watching “The Strongest Karate” and “The God Hand”, the videos of the first and second world championships. I wanted to emulate Joko Ninomiya and Howard Collins; looking back, I can say that Sosai Oyama was my most powerful inspiration. I even tried the bottle breaks which Oyama performed routinely. I saw the vehicle stunt in “The God Hand” when Ferhat Ozsert of Turkey allowed a vehicle to ride over him. As I was training very hard, it occurred to me to try that too. What I did first was to have wooden battens broken over my stomach after having seen something similar in the Strongest Karate. Just prior to my eighteenth birthday, I felt I could do it. At the time I could do one thousand sit-ups, no sweat. In fact, at High School, I did one thousand and one sit-ups for a physical education test and was awarded a Certificate of Merit. Mr. Collier, our P.E. teacher, really taught us well. (Mr Collier was a sprinter and the records he set stood for years – and that was done on a grass track as tartan tracks were reserved for the advantaged). After doing the first stunt, it was relatively easy to do the others.
In my final year at High School, during a school tour to the City of Durban, an incident occurred which made me realize once again that even though I was getting good training, albeit with restrictions, things were not “normal”. On our way home from Durban, the bus driver died of a heart attack whilst we were passing through the Free State (Province). We could not offload his body as that town, Rouxville, did not accept coloreds in their mortuary. We could not even stop over as Indians were also not allowed to stay overnight in that province. Luckily, we had a co-driver and we drove home with the body in the bus. It was a somber return journey. When I went to University, Apartheid once again reared its ugly head as I had to get a permit because I was classified as “Indian,” and the University was technically for “Coloreds” only. I could not get a bursary unless I went to the Indian University which was in Durban so I had to come by without one. Obstacles like these and many others forged my character. Today I am thankful for being exposed to some of those disadvantages, although many others just gave up.
In 1982, I started training with the Karate-Do dojo (Gert Husselman) on campus as well as training with Sensei Kenny Uytenbogaardt at his Bellville dojo. Sensei Kenny, who was employed as a security supervisor at Motorvia in Eersterivier, often gave me a lift as he would go to work after training and I would then run home from there. That few miles (kilometers) was not bad considering the times when I had to take the train home, then I got home much, much later. During this time I still managed to train and teach at my own dojo in Retreat. The number of boycotts we had at University due to the unjust system that year, made me sit back and take stock of what was happening around me. I had to think of the SACOS slogan of “No Normal Sport in an Abnormal Society.” Due to the continued adherence of the South African Kyokushinkai to the political system imposed by the then government, William Quantoi and I divorced ourselves from Kyokushin and went our own way, calling our organization Shin Kakuto Jutsu (then two dojos). Even though this move meant a lot of hardship, we continued to develop due to our challenging spirit. Towards the end of that year, I trained with Shotokan Masters Hirokazu Kanazawa and Hitoshi Kasuya and briefly met Morio Higaonna Sensei who was visiting Bakkies Laubscher Sensei. Bakkies Sensei was so kind to inform me that they were at the airport and my Dad still took me – I would meet with them again.
During the days of Apartheid there were many economic, social and political barriers, but this did not prevent us from doing karate or other sport. Non-whites (Blacks, Coloreds and Indians as we were classified then) generally took to all sport although the system made it difficult to continue. One must remember that most of the dojo and their facilities were in the historically “advantaged” areas, i.e. due to the Group Areas Act, certain areas designated for each racial group had a type of curfew where you could not be in another group area. When I started training at the Kyokushin HQ, I had to take a train at 4.00pm and then a bus to get to the dojo which started at 6.00pm. Training would finish at 8.00pm and I would get home around 10.00pm. I was still fortunate in that I lived close to the railway line. Others in the townships or certain areas where public transport was not easily accessible had greater difficulties. Other obstacles included the fee structure. In South Africa at that time, one’s salary was determined by one’s color, i.e. a White school teacher got four times as much as a Black one, maybe three times more than a Colored one, and twice as much as an Indian. Then if they were teaching in another group area, they also received a travel allowance as well as “danger pay” – for venturing into another group area. There was so much unfairness built into the system that it will take years to eradicate it. This meant that non-whites could not really afford luxuries and karate training was then a luxury. Other barriers included not being able to travel or celebrate with one’s team if they won. Although many sports people have been successful in the International arena, only a minority were allowed to officially represent this country at International events. You could not go into the same pub (bar); play or train on the same beach. When national colors were issued, the infamous Springbok emblem was reserved for Whites only and other races got the Protea. Today I am the holder of the very same Protea colors, now the official emblem of the National Sporting Fraternity – the Springbok was dropped because of its racist connotation.
In 1984, I moved to the Strand and started training at the local branch of Okinawan Goju Ryu (Vincent February & Bakkies Laubscher). Training with Bakkies Laubscher Sensei was extremely beneficial as he took the time to teach me the smaller movements of Goju Ryu with great patience. He showed a real interest and that meant a lot to me. Had I not been happy with full contact karate, I would certainly have made a permanent switch to Goju Ryu. Vincent lived in the same road as I and we often trained together. With Vincent as a training partner on a nearly continuous basis, my training was kept up and it certainly helped my growth for the period that I lived in the Strand. That year I had to catch a train at 5.30am in the morning as I was teaching at a primary school in Lansdowne. I would run for 30 minutes to the train station and then on arriving in Lansdowne at around 7.50am, had to run another 15 minutes to get to school. I got lots of practice with all the running. Twice a week I would rush home as I had to go to Retreat to train. I would run back, change and then leave by car with some friends who started training with me. The Strand was a holiday town, but it had clear cut demarcations in line with the Apartheid policy. The “whites only” beach had signs that said “whites only” and next to it would be another that said “no dogs allowed” – I always joked about that saying if you were “not white – you were a dog.” This was the conditions that faced everyone daily, but life went on. That year brought a switch from the Kyokushin we were doing, albeit under the disguise of Shin Kakuto Jutsu to Ashihara Karate. I had seen Kancho Ashihara’s demonstrations on the movies of the first and second world championships, and then read that he had left to form his own organization. I had mentioned earlier too that Joko Ninomiya was a boyhood hero of mine and when I saw that he was with Kancho Ashihara, my interest was raised. Through the assistance of Ferhat Ozsert Sensei of Turkey, we established contact with Ashihara Headquarters and towards the end of 1984, William and I joined the Ashihara Karate Organization.
In 1985, after careful consideration and thinking, I opted to become a full time instructor. That in itself brought its own challenges. In March I was appointed the country representative for the New International Karate Organization (NIKO Ashihara Kai Kan) by Kancho Hideyuki Ashihara. Soon thereafter, I attended a two-week Okinawan Goju Ryu International Gasshuku, training with such esteemed instructors as Sensei Morio Higaonna and Teruo Chinen. This was followed by training with Kancho Mamoru Miwa, a 10th Dan and founder of Tenshinkan Karate based in Saitama-Ken, Japan.
In 1986, I attended seminars by the noted American martial artists Bill Wallace and Billy Blanks. Training with both was memorable. Billy Blanks was an epitome of speed and power. I learnt lots from that brief encounter and more to commit me to further research. Whilst socializing after training, Billy gave me his Safe-T sparring equipment as he was impressed that I had done some reading about his background. He also liked my Ashihara track top and fitted it on even though it was way too small for his physique. (I had one made up with his name and sent to him soon thereafter). The dojo head however was not happy at the interaction and that Billy had given me the gear and not one of the hosts. In front of a few friends that were with, I was asked to leave the dojo, which I/we did. We had fun about that incident because I still have that gear and whenever we get together, the two students who actually trained at that dojo reminds us all of those times. Whilst living in the Strand, I would cycle every Sunday (when there was no commitments that kept me away) to Strandfontein where William lived, for us to train. I would leave home before 6.00am to get there just after 8.00am; have some light stretching with William and then wait for him to come back from Church when we would do another 2 hour session after which I would cycle home again.
Between 1986 and 1987, my commitment to Ashihara Karate became too great and I had to apply myself solely to the organization which had spread to a few other Provinces. Wanting to learn more about Ashihara Karate, and as it was not possible to go to Japan for sport due to sanctions, I rather set my sights on the USA. (One could go to Japan, but only for a short visit on a business visa, and that would not have worked for me). In 1988, after years of saving and with $1000 in my pocket, I spent a few months as an “uchi-deshi” (a live-in full time student) at the U. S. Headquarters for Ashihara Karate, training with Shihan Joko Ninomiya (now the Kancho of Enshin Karate). Of particular note, whilst I opted not to follow him to Enshin, I will always be thankful to Ninomiya Shihan because if he was not around, our early years in Ashihara Karate would have been extremely difficult. There was a lack of learning material and at least once every second or third month, I would call him and he would painstakingly explain how to do the kata and or how to do certain techniques. In the other months, I would call Kancho, but if there was no one who could speak English, it was just to hear his voice and would chat about mundane things as his English was as poor as my Japanese.
Those notes (mostly of my conversations with Ninomiya) led to the creation of our kata guide and it was whilst I was him that I could finalize the grading syllabus, the first such for the NIKO organization. What was extremely difficult to learn was the Nage Kata as he explained it with various degrees to turn and over the phone that was a real chore. I will not forget the first night of training with him. I had arrived in Denver the day before after a three day flight via London as South African planes were not allowed to land in the US due to sanctions. I arrived at the dojo early that morning and had asked him to check my kata and he said there was enough time in the months to come. That evening, when it came to the practice of kata, he asked me to teach some of the students. I told him that I was not even sure if it was correct, but he insisted and I was “petrified” at being embarrassed as I was not even sure if my kata was correct. Much later, I realized that he was testing my confidence and also my ability.
During the time in the USA, I took part in the U. S. Open Championships – the Sabaki Challenge, considered as one of the toughest tournaments for full contact karate. Although I gave classes whilst in America, I spent most of my time trying to improve my knowledge and understanding of karate. I met and trained with noted teachers such as Dan Inosanto (Filipino Kali /Jeet Kune Do), Dennis Palumbo (Hakko Ryu Jujutsu), Paul de Thouars (Silat), Dan Hirsch (Okinawan Goju Ryu), etc. In Nebraska I trained daily for several hours doing Tai- Chi. I was also fortunate to conduct some seminars about my method of karate as well as doing combat shooting with members of the U. S. Army Home Guard. Before leaving for home, I had the opportunity to test for Shodan in Okinawan Goju Ryu. Whilst in America I was further exposed to various weapon arts and I’ve continued this interest by training with Dennis St. John Thompson, Eddie Jardine and other experts both locally and abroad.
In 1989, I moved my main dojo into new premises. This now serves as the headquarters for Ashihara Karate and a Gym and Fitness Centre (plans are now in progress to build the honbu at my home). In June of 1990, I promoted our first Invitational Karate Championships (others of a different nature had been held prior to this event). This tournament has now grown into one of the premier events in the country with hundreds of competitors from all over vying for positions in more than 70 divisions of kata, weapons, semi-contact and full contact sparring. Soon thereafter, I went backpacking through Europe with the main intention of further expanding my martial arts skills and knowledge. Due to a family bereavement, however, I returned after three months. During that time I visited and trained in a number of European cities. Since then, I have ventured abroad on many other occasions – each time with my dogi as the most important part of my luggage. With all my trips, I’ve been fortunate to establish a good friendship base.
Soon after the release of the great Nelson Mandela, we had our first democratic elections. Apartheid was now finally off the Statute Books. For some ten years or so prior to this historic event, sport had moved ahead of negotiations between political parties, creating unity and eliminating the vestiges of Apartheid. Despite that, it remains firmly entrenched with the power structure generated by the old South Africa. Even though there have been changes in the Management Structure as regards the individuals occupying the top sporting positions, and a new Government dominated by the former banned opposition, the discourse surrounding elite level sports remains similar to that of the segregation of the Apartheid era. This was cloaked in non-racial language and under the guise of promoting a new national unity. After political liberation and the relatively peaceful transition from Apartheid to Democracy, South Africans found them needing to deal with several challenges in the context of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious society. The new socio-political context was accompanied by a resurgence of differences within and between the various communities, even more so because alliances linked to the common struggle against the oppressive system became obsolete. Since 1990, I have served as an Executive Member on the Provincial and National Karate structures, being a founder member of the governing body for Karate in South Africa. That itself can be the story for another book. In my capacity as General Secretary, I was challenged many times to a fight by senior instructors, who got aggressive when things did not go their way in meetings.
In October of 1996, whilst in the Seychelles, the AKI Representative there – Egbert Moustache, mentioned to the newspaper reporter, Keng Ee (who would later become one of our black belts) that I had on many occasions allowed a vehicle to drive over me. Before I knew it, I was talked into it one more time. I had not been training as hard as I used to and had subsequently grown softer- the teaching and the growth of the organization kept me away from training as much as I would have liked to. I was worried; I knew that I was not in my prime, and coupled with leading a “softer” life had me doubting my ability. A few days prior to the stunt we had a training camp and I had the opportunity of working overtime (thanks to Kyokushin for allowing me to develop the spirit of Osu!). I had the students jumping on my stomach, standing on it whilst I was relaxing and lots of sit-ups. Looking back, I was probably crazy with worry – could I still do it or not? When the day arrived we had to travel by boat to the main island which took three hours. The sea was choppy which did not help. Finally the moment arrived – TV cameras, photographers, spectators, and butterflies (in my stomach). This was the thirteenth time- I’m not a believer of the number thirteen being unlucky, but then one never knows. I was told by Egbert that the expression on my face looked quite normal – quite a plus, as I have always tried to have an inscrutable face. In retrospect it wasn’t bad as I could do it once again, but that was the last time. I will leave it to the young guys to pull off such stunts. Why did I do it again and again? To me it was a way of proving mind over matter. Even though I’m not big, I am only 5’6” (166 cm) and not a naturally gifted karateka; I could show that if you trained hard enough and believed in what you did, anything was possible. My favorite quote by Leo Buscaglia is “Anything that you dream, by the very nature that you dream, makes it possible.” What makes me feel great is that despite having a disability (loss of vision in one eye), I could adapt and work harder.
Over the past twenty years or so, I have attended several seminars and courses with South African instructors such as Bakkies Laubscher (Goju Ryu), A.K. Ismail (Kyokushin), Sonny Pillay (Shotokan), Max Grunau (Ishin Ryu/Shindokan), Nigel Jackson (Shotokan), and many others. In fact, I have attended more than one hundred such courses both locally and abroad. I’ve also trained with many top instructors like Sensei’s T. Asai, T. Hayashi, G. Yamaguchi, T. Yamashita, K. Kuniba, S. Asano and others in over thirty countries around the world. Besides my karate training, I have also found the time to train in the Korean art of Taekwondo, eventually obtaining a ranking Dan. I have been training continuously since 1974 and have been teaching professionally since 1985. I have been certified as an Exercise Teacher as well as a University accredited Sports Coach. I’ve also studied Sports Management and have a certificate in Sports Law. All this ensured that under my direction, Ashihara Karate spread across the country. With the formation of a separate international organization, branch dojo, are now established in over 20 countries. The skills I gained in running my own tournaments and for the Governing body enabled me to become the advisor and tournament director to the 8th SKIF World Championships (Hirokazu Kanazawa’s Shotokan Karate International Federation). That event created more learning and now, I regularly assist other organizations with their events.
Fifteen years after Democracy, there are still many access problems which non-whites in South Africa face if and when they are interested in learning budo. Most times, training is in places that civilized people would hesitate to train in. Dojo, like the masters of old had, are the norm here. Training in many places is conducted outdoors irrespective of the weather due to lack of facilities. When I visit a dojo in rural areas, the contrast is so stark that many a time I cannot believe that we are in the 21st Century. Today, there are more qualified instructors amongst the non-white groups and at least training now, is of a higher standard. Not only are many instructors taught proper methodology, but at least the training offered is of a safer and more scientific nature. Much of this is due to the demise of Apartheid where many of the disadvantaged traveled abroad to broaden their horizons. What is interesting is that the non-whites that had opted to fall under the White organizations were not as developed in terms of Administrative capabilities, etc. It seemed that many of them were just used as tokens. In Kyokushin, many of them that had remained were only taught fighting and still lack the technical aspects. I am pleased that I left the Kyokushinkai because I might have been in the same boat had I remained. There are virtually very few obstacles for anyone wanting to join a martial arts school today. Classes are offered in most corners of the country. Karate is a widely practiced art, and its infrastructure is well-developed in comparison to other martial arts. Sadly, some organizations still have a decided bias towards non-whites in their hierarchy or use them as tokens instead of empowering them with the necessary skills.