Celebrating skill and dedication at the AFCKO Tournament.

Author: Toka Hlongwane
Photos: Tumi the Photographer

Vosloorus Civic Centre is abuzz with the electrifying energy of fighters of various ages from all over the land. As you walk through the gates all you see is individuals dressed in white garbs, chanting “Onegai shimasu” (Please help me for my training). When you trod inside the Centre, you are met by more individuals in white garbs; the atmosphere is ablaze with a roaring crowd adlibbed by a drum cheering fighters on as they go at each other with kicks and punches.

A 14-year-old green belt girl named Hellen Mokgathe from Mamelodi Ikaheng Dojo has just lost her tooth from a ferocious kick handed to her by her opponent; at this point, I’m feeling sorry for her thinking the fight is over as first aiders gather around her to contain her bleeding. Little do I know that she was built for this day; as she gets up to her feet and the fight commences, she delivers a deadly combination of mae-geri (Front snap kick) and mawashi-geri (Roundhouse kick) kicks that knock her opp off the mat and into the crowd gathered around them. 

Hellen went on to win the fight, becoming the second runner-up in the women’s open division. After her victory, she shared her strategy: wearing down her opponents by enduring pain and striking back decisively when they least expect it. Tenacity, heart, endurance, and bravery are the ingredients the African Full Contact Karate Organization Senior Tournament is brewed with.

Established in 2016 by Shihan Thulani Sibisi, a 56-year-old Karateka who has been involved in the sport since he was 8, this full-contact tournament attracts fighters and dojos from across South Africa and beyond, including participants from Nquthu in KwaZulu Natal and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Despite the dreams fostered by tournaments like this, a racial divide and minimal support from local karate bodies and the government persist.

Shihan Thulani highlights the lack of recognition from Karate South Africa and SASCOC for full-contact karate, which predominantly involves the black community. In contrast, semi-contact karate, practiced mainly by affluent and white participants, receives most of the funding. “When semi-contact karate fighters are invited to fight abroad, they get full sponsorship and South African colors. But when we receive international invitations, we have to fund the trips ourselves. Additionally, community centres charge us to use their facilities, limiting our resources and training spaces,” says Shihan Thulani.

This echoes the plight of Uyama Dojo in Katlehong, which operates out of Khotsong Women’s Hostel. The Dojo was established in the early 90s by Peter Thage, until 1998, the dojo was housed at the DH Williams Community Hall but was later displaced as community halls and centres became inaccessible to communities without fee, the fighters became scattered across various Dojos trying to find a home. In 2009, the Dojo found a home in the Khutsong women’s hostel in Katlehong, which is still their home. 

This is a common narrative across Dojos in townships and rural areas alike. Mzinyathi Dojo from Nquthu trains at a soccer field because of the scarcity of resources and facilities. Although the Mzinyathi Municipality tries to help the dojo with travel costs when they have to travel for tournaments, most of the financial burdens to run the dojo rely on its members. This is in contrast to the surge of martial arts introduction to townships post-1994, where boxing and karate dojos blossomed at community centers and local stadiums across the country. Yet, fast forward to 2024, the remnants of these establishments exist skeletally in most communities.   

Despite all these setbacks, Karate enthusiasts in black communities continue to grow one kick and punch at a time, with sponsors like ikeja stepping up to fund this year’s  African Full Contact Karate Organization Senior Tournament along with the Department of Sports and Recreation. Shihan Thulani hopes that more people from the business sector and government can come forward and aid the sport and that Karate South Africa can fully recognize full-contact karate so they can blur the racial and socio-economic divides they currently face.  

The persistence of these athletes and their communities in the face of adversity is a testament to their dedication and passion for karate. Their stories of struggle and triumph inspire others and highlight the importance of support and recognition for all forms of the sport. With continued efforts and increased backing, there is hope that the divide will be narrowed and full-contact karate will receive the recognition and resources it deserves.

In the meantime, the fighters remain undeterred, training in whatever spaces they can find and competing with unmatched zeal. The sight of young athletes like Hellen Mokgathe, who continue to rise after every fall, embodies the indomitable spirit that drives this community forward. The African Full Contact Karate Organization Senior Tournament is a beacon of hope and opportunity, showcasing these dojos’ immense talent and resilience.

As the cheers and drumbeats echo through the Vosloorus Civic Centre, it is clear that full-contact karate is more than just a sport for these participants—it is a way of life, a source of strength, and a symbol of their relentless pursuit of excellence. The journey ahead may be fraught with challenges, but with each tournament, the community grows stronger, united by their love for karate and unwavering determination to succeed.