In my never-ending attempt at seeking to make sense of events in the world today, I, as a reflex, regularly look back at the first fourteen-and-half years of my life in South Africa, 1960 June – 1975 January. Growing up in the then racist apartheid state has profoundly impacted my life. Day-to-day living was ever so dramatically charged. Such that, on the one hand, one could but choose to numb oneself to the volatility of emotions, if not traumas arising, and live on disenchanted and detached from the gruesome, disenfranchised reality.
On the other hand, one could look at, hop onto the intricate traumatic feelings and thoughts bandwagon, learn survival ropes, and hope for the best; longevity being a remote idea. Wishful thinking. Although the OPEC oil crunch of the early 1970s had already begun to make its mark globally, this period could easily be seen as the golden years of the apartheid regime’s economic might. The oppressed Black population segment was subjected to extremes of state security agencies’ violence.
Oppression is some costly business. It curtails human resources productive potential growth and manifestation. Atrocious. Oppression will last to the extent that the oppressors’ financial base remains sufficiently robust to sustain the oiling of the oppressive state machinery at all levels. Money talks. Money rules. As it is with South Africa, a country’s endowment with a variety of natural resources that the world is willing to pay generously for is of crucial importance. Oppressors maximize their hold by capturing the wealth of their nations, therefore. They personalize the wealth, becoming super-rich individually and along with their family members, as well as their power clique hounds. At the same time, their nations get caught in quagmires of long-term poverty and international indebtedness.
The Soweto Students’ Uprising of June 16, 1976, would not only change the liberation struggle course. It changed the political landscape of South Africa as well; further weakening the oppressive state’s capital base. Apartheid had to ultimately collapse. Not because somebody woke up one morning and suddenly discovered that the system was in fact diabolic. The fact is that it simply was no longer economically viable. And prospects of any meaningful bounce back were bleak. Added pressure from the international trade sanctions had brought the country down on its knees.
The effective brutality of the apartheid regime reproduced itself across the entire Black populace by default – in the home; at absolutely all levels of social interaction. That to the extent that the nature of fundamental survival power relations dynamics cultivated then amongst Black people themselves have endured. Albeit manifest at even more sophisticated, grander scale, and more destructive levels in keeping with societal management complexities and technological advancements of the times in the 21st Century.
During the apartheid domination years, many a Black South African exile carried along with them these survival power relations dynamics into the Diaspora. Not that it helped the concerned exiles much from the point of view of applying the same survival strategies as generally functional in the township, or kassie culture in Black South Africa. Kassie is a corruption of the Afrikaans language word, lokasie; which means location. Observing, establishing, and maintaining links with fellow South African exiles has kept my fascination with the Black people’s fundamental survival power relations dynamics alive during all these years.
Post-1994 South Africa has also been accessible to me. It’s the land of my birth, the land of my family’s maternal-side ancestry, after all. Thirty-eight-and-half years since living abroad, I returned to stay in the country for five years, 2013-18. As such, I have been in touch with the trends in the land all along. Much had changed drastically at about all levels. However, characteristic personal survival attitudinal attributes have remained constant. I shall dwell on these later on in this essay as I unravel prerequisites for the workings of the ruthlessness of kassie jungle law rule.
Kassie is a funky catchphrase these days. But originally, it essentially implied a slum; not much unlike Brazilian favelas, for example. In practice, the meaning hasn’t changed in any big way. From the colonial era, peaking during the apartheid years, and stretching into contemporary times, tens of thousands-upon-thousands-to-millions of Black South Africans were dumped here. It initially was predominantly male labourers working in the mines and the agro-industrial complex.
There would be a few state functionaries and even fewer professionals in various vocational categories here and there. Much as there would be numerous fortune hunters engaged in all kinds of illicit endeavours; from petty crimes to large-scale organized crime activities involving alcohol, drugs, precious stones and metals smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution, and more. Family units would eventually emerge as a natural human development process, of course. Children would be born, raised, become adults, lead miserable lives, and subsequently die; the indignity of poverty accompanying them to the grave. Causes of death variable, from murder to illness, if not natural causes.
Prevalent land conditions are far from prime in the townships. This makes the construction of decent domiciles a daunting challenge for impoverished people. Sustainable subsistence food production from the land is near impossible. Minimal to total lack of functional social amenities comes with the package here. If there was anything prime about the original townships, it was the potential to induce and generationally perpetuate poverty with all its attendant maladies: disease, moral decay, ignorance. All that to facilitate self-annihilation amongst Black people: kill them; let them kill themselves; create space for more European trash to come to work, settle, and add to the growth of the white population in the country.
Conditions are even worse these days, taking into consideration, since 1994, the influx of millions of refugees and fortune hunters from war-torn, dysfunctional African states to the north. Others come from other parts of the world, especially Asia. Competition for limited resources and livable spaces in the townships has spiked exponentially, apparently in favour of the new immigrants. Many of the latter come into South Africa with more by far international hustling experience: higher academic qualifications and vocational experience in both the social and natural sciences, military or guerilla warfare experience, and all that it entails – daring nature, PTSD, and other related outcomes. Also, investment capital for entrepreneurial ventures in various fields, often starting with small-scale grocery stores called spaza shops.
The latter attributes above are often accompanied by extreme manifestations of arrogance of power towards the locals, who are considered to be intellectually lacking, lazy, and fearful of White people, who still own the land, anyway. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that strong anti-immigrant sentiments have mushroomed across the country, culminating in several outbursts of brutal xenophobia-inspired violence in recent years. Afro-xenophobia expression is ascribed to South African Black-on-African Black violence. In keeping with characteristic basal kassie culture, violence is the first instinctual option to eradicating conflict. Tragedy is ever the outcome that never brings forth solutions for a peaceful co-existence for all in the country.
The reality of the matter is that, much like the Ununited States of America, South Africa owes much of its economic might to the historical inflow of migrants from all corners of the world. As I’ve already implied above, these people bring into the country a wide diversity of creative/ intellectual/ academic, productive, and entrepreneurial skills that contribute to the robustness of the country’s vibrant economic and social advancement in the long run.
There’ll always be a few bad apples here and there. But assuming a functional justice system prevailing in the land, relevant policing and legal institutions are there to deal with lawbreakers. South Africa is truly a multi-cultural melting pot. Bishop Desmond Tutu’s broadly embraced Rainbow Nation nickname for the country supersedes discrimination neither based on race nor origin of the people that call South Africa their home, either by birth or immigration.
From an epistemological perspective, it is clear that the concept of township/ location/ kassie in South Africa was never meant to create ideal, conducive conditions for Black people to thrive and propagate themselves; neither to attain ever higher standards of living in time, in pace with national economic growth prospects.
The rise of apartheid economic might was at the expense of the lives of Black people, both at the hands of the apartheid state security machinery, and intra-Black violence across mainly urban South Africa. Many other Black lives were also lost through fatal accidents and occupational diseases in the agro-industrial-mining complex. Functionally concerning apartheid intentions, townships were supposed to provide temporary shelter for lives destined to be “… solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
But then again, survival instincts abode in all humanity. People can remain wretched only for so long. If they are not wiped off from the face of the earth, they shall engage in all sorts of means to prolong their existence. Perhaps fate can change for someone, someday: break the bonds of subjugation, rise and liberate the people, and, ideally, live happily ever after in boundless abundance.
In the meantime, at the individual level in the South African kassie context, survival was and still is about ruthless “semphete ke o fete” (Sesotho: don’t overtake me, I overtake you) tendencies. Here, the strong survive. The ruthless rule; applying cruelty as their claim to prosperity and longevity.
Set in alphabetical order below are personal dispositions I’ve arbitrarily identified as being cardinal for relative individual survival and ruling potential in the South African kassie culture of violence. That as a tool for understanding the nature of human relations power dynamics, and consequences thereof, at all levels of contemporary society, both locally and globally. The respective attributes may be understood regarding the identification of the individual as to who they are, and what their social standing is concerning behavioural phenomena observed of them:
Bodomo (street parlance – Setsotsi) is derived from the Afrikaans word dom. Alternatively bokwala (Sesotho), it means stupidity; downright idiocy. Amidst events, act like you don’t know what’s going on. Go about your daily business indifferent as to whether or not you cause others harm in your endeavours; you lack empathy. You are not interested in reason. You are a denialist. You are a revisionist.
Bokhopo (Sesotho) is cruelty. When it is deep-seated, merciless, non-benevolent, and non-repentant it is called khohlahalo in the same language. Rule by absolute iron-fisted fearsomeness. Without exception, anybody transgressing you in any way shall suffer the full ruthlessness of your wrath in line with the nature of the offence and the choice of punishment you dim fit. The line between life and death is often very thin here. This tends to elicit baffling loyalty from your cohorts. Much to the bewilderment of your detractors.
Ho tella (Sesotho)/ ukudelela (isiZulu) is an uninhibited show of lack of respect. Total disdain. You are brazen. You bulldoze your way through towards the attainment of your power or material acquisitions, and other egocentric ambitions. In your interpersonal and other relations in the community, it’s your rules or no rules at all.
Lenyatso (Sesotho) is the root of ho tella and leqhoko, immediately above and below respectively. It means to undermine, to belittle other people. Tools applied include patronization, ridicule, insults, unjust criticism, passive aggression, isolation or exclusion, subjugation; all propelled by jealousy and/ or feelings of threat irrationally perceived or real because the victim may, indeed, be the better person in many respects. The idea is to crush the victim, cut them to size, and put them in their place of insignificance. This is pure mental and emotional abuse that often easily degenerates to physical abuse.
Leqhoko(Sesotho) is provocativeness. Be agitative even out of nothingness just so your presence is noticed, is not forgotten. Be relentlessly disruptive. Cause havoc; be an ass. Instigate and sustain fear. Use all means at your disposal: bully, defame, riot, vandalize, pillage, depose, fight, maim, kill. Ultimately, emerge as the leader of the pack; level-headed and solution-oriented, if only to cow and manipulate the terrorized towards aiding to secure attained dominant safe position.
Mamello(Sesotho)/ Qinisela (isiXhosa/ isiZulu) refers to tolerance capacity; endurance in both hard and good times, depending. Good times are generally no big deal. But in hard times, practice self-preservation by keeping to yourself and your own. Hang in there. Stay away from trouble. Be invisible. Make no noise. Cultivate hope. Keep the faith because everything is going to be alright someday. Persevere.
For the mighty, though, mamello/ ukuqinisela means staying the course no matter what: keep on pushing; stand tall, don’t fall. Never, never, never give up! Never change the course of action once commitment to act in a certain manner is made. Here, mamello/ ukuqinisela becomes an interplay of bodomo, bokhopo, ho tella, leqhoko, and manganga in variable doses and combinations according to the circumstances prevailing at any one time and space.
Manganga(Sesotho)/ Inkani (isiZulu) is absolute stubbornness. Take a stand, be resolute to the very end, whatever the cost. Whether or not original intended goals are attained is not the essence. You are defiant to the extreme. Stay rock-steady as a matter of principle because you cannot be wrong, or you cannot be denied your demands. You are the truth. You are the light. If you are not the son of God, then you ARE God! Your opponents shall declare you as deranged, delusional; but that doesn’t bother you at all. You are mmampodi (Sesotho)/ champion; you rule. You live above the law. You own your followers through and through. Each one of them understands that you are their life saviour. A street parlance (Setsotsi) adage goes like this, “Maziwaziwe, maz’bidlikaz’bidlike! (isiZulu)/ If they (e.g. towers) fall, they fall; if they collapse, they collapse!” It is what it is.
Sebeteis a Sesotho word for liver.The liver is considered to be an organ of courage in my part of Black South African culture. A courageous person is said to “have a liver”/ O sebete. Courage is a common thread linking all survival, or power attributes in kassie.
Ho sa (Sesotho, noun), lumps together the attributes above into one virulent trait: petulance as gross as only an extremely spoiled brat can display. The descriptive form of ho sa is “O sele!”, meaning “He/ she is petulant!” People of all ages manifesting ho sa as a characteristic social interaction trait are some of the most dangerous a community can have. Makings of despots emerge here.
Underpinning the relative kassie individual survival and ruling potential laid out above is the question: O tshepile mang(Sesotho)? Which directly translates as, “Who is it you trust?” Who’s covering your back?
Simple as the question might seem, it is not necessarily a daily conversation question posed in my original part of Black South Africa. The question is profound to the extent that it is asked a person directly, or others are asked about a particular individual when the latter’s negative behaviour defies not only mainstream social protocols across the board, but sheer common sense as well. It is believed that there must be some extra-ordinary qualities, some mystic about these kinds of people. For example:
What gives them the guts? What makes them tick?
Whose progeny are they? What are their lineages?
Do they have some guardian angels, perhaps? In that case, who are the latter? Where are they?
What do they have that ordinary people do not have?
Are they working for somebody even more powerful than themselves? Who are these people?
Or are they just raving mad, sick in their heads? Are they bewitched?
Do they have magical powers themselves? If so, from where do the powers derive?
Are they members of some organized crime gangs? Or some secret societies? The Illuminati?
Is it just because they are too rich? But where does their wealth come from?
It’s only if and when sufficient knowledge about these treacherous people is gathered that concerned individuals or the community can effectively react to get rid of them in one way or another. It’s not unusual that the former fall from glory in the most dramatic and humiliating fashions; those who lived by the sword dying exactly as they lived. Such is kassie life. The ruthless rule but momentarily.
The strong are often the smart with senses of moral and ethical awareness. They tend to survive, break out of the mould of kassie misery and ignorance, and live longer. Some in this category will in time even travel wide and see the world, permanently breaking the spell of kassie anti-life attributes. Expressing themselves through diverse media and creative and performance forms, they may also become proponents of liberty, justice, and equality as fundamental Human Rights tenets all of humanity on earth is entitled to.
Meanwhile, South Africa has yet to cleanse itself of the kassie anti-life attributes spell, to the extent that it’s possible. However, given the current display of elite kassie mentality antics in various judicial and organizational platforms in the country, it is clear that much more work remains to be done at this rate. Well, cumulatively from the onset of contemporary European colonialism in the 17th Century up to the apartheid era in the 20th Century, the mechanizations that facilitated their imposition had at least four hundred years to dehumanize my people and screw up our psyche. The Rainbow Nation is only twenty-seven years old.
Khotsois a common Sesotho name for South African males. It means peace. The female version is Mma-Khotso both as a formal name and may denote that the woman is a mother of a boychild called Khotso. The name has significant connotations. In practice and conceptually, peace is a universal prerequisite for progressive human co-existence. That making for harnessing humanity’s creative potential towards a sustainable, infinitely fulfilling life for all. The South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika! (Nkosi Sikelela) is essentially a cry for peace, captured in the Sesotho text:
Morena boloka sechaba sa heso/ Lord Almighty, save my nation O fedisa dintwa le matshwenyeho/ Bring an end to strife and suffering
Were the ruthless and the smart kassie people of South Africa and beyond to realign their attitudes and heed the message of Nkosi Sikelela, the future would be bright for all. I want to be here in four hundred years to gloss in the glory of the heaven on earth that South Africa and the rest of the world will have become. I sit here in a space of relative peace. I breathe. I dream. I write. Ever conscious of the lasting impact that my kassie life background has had on me, I have every reason to want to choose to be hopeful.
Suicide is the easy way out. Suicide is cowardice. That was my view until I rammed onto my own wall of problems, problems, and problems of this unfair world.
I felt no pain at point of impact. I had already long been a dead man walking. I saw pieces of my soul getting strewn everywhere I looked. Bloody silhouette on the wall portrayed a spread-eagled human body shape. Unpalatable sight. The wall had sucked much of my spirit. My strength was gone.
“The bottom line is the dollar sign!” sang South Bronx in 1982. Two decades later I had leapt from the bottom line to high up in the sky.
Sky is the limit. It’s a common saying. The dollar sign knows no limits in the sky. Elon Musk will tell you that. Maybe. Try Richard Branson too. But then again, the dollar sign and its numbers are written on paper. Paper burns to ashes when fire rages. Sky holds no ash. Trash. That’s how we fall. When this happens, gravity becomes our worst enemy. We can’t beat the force. For we are not peregrine falcons we can only spread our limbs. Close our eyes. Hope for a few seconds to project our last prayers to God before we embrace the first wall to receive us, if not the ground itself. Welcome back down to earth with a plash. Instant death sealed if it’s not your lucky day.
They shall make another dollar sign note. The bottom line is that the dollar sign is forever. For now, anyway. In the digital space they call it cryptocurrency these days. I do want to live forever, but I’m only human. I survived my fall. Miraculous. Today I’m with my feet on the ground below the dollar sign bottom line. I’m in sync with the grassroots. I can hear my heart beat. I feel life everywhere. My soul is together again.
Perhaps it is because, despite its timing and speed, I had in fact had a hunch of the fall coming. I had seen some men and women fall around me before. I had rescued a few in my job. I knew, I know the signs therefore. I knew that if I did not take a time out, eternal darkness would be my destination. In the realm of eternal darkness, everything of the unthinkable, everything of the anti-life is possible. Once people have fallen into this abyss, there is no turning back. More often than not.
Fortunately I am a child of the light. I’ve never been inclined to be drawn towards the direction of eternal darkness. Temptations abound, with or without dollar sign opulent existence. These temptations come forth in variable manifestations, but eternal darkness is a constant. I understood that if ever I got to succumb to temptation, I’d ultimately find myself knocking on the door to eternal darkness. Therefore, I zeroed myself out from conventional social routines. I had acknowledged my lack of passion for the latter after my fall had sapped nearly all of my desire to live and love.
Somewhere in my growing up years, I had learned that there was no dishonour in accepting defeat and all that it entails at the personal and material levels. If I got the chance to wait for as long as it was necessary, I would regain my strength and passion for living again. I went into hibernation. For five years and three months I faced isolation, my frustrations, my bitterness, my fears, my inadequacies, my nightmares, and my hopes head-on. In time, my reflections on hope as a concept and process rekindled my life light.
Despite everything else, my hope that everything would be alright someday was steadfast. I reckon that this effectively dissuaded me from seeking to enter into the path towards the realm of eternal darkness. I felt a strange warmth and respect towards suicide. Finally, it all made sense to me. And I began to write books. The books have driven me to visit the deepest recesses of my being as a private soul, and as a social entity. I obsoleted my demons. I know myself better. I understand my world better. I have found inner peace. Life is a joy. Pure joy.
Suicide feeds on the state of emotional desperation of everyone equally. Hope is a constant human attribute that conditions behaviour towards achievement of certain values or states of being. All things remaining equal, happiness is derived from different experiences from person to person because human beings are born ever so different from one another. People also rightly define what happiness is owing to who they are vis-à-vis their respective stations in life. However, once attained, the feeling of happiness as a human emotion is a planetary constant.
In the same vein, people shall as individuals or collectives hope to attain a myriad of desirable ends in their lives. They’ll be variably motivated to actively work in as innumerable ways towards the achievement of these goals. Success is the reward for keeping the dream alive, driven by hope and faith during the process of overcoming eventual obstacles encountered along the way. Success then ignites the auto neurological response manifest through various ways of expressing the constant of happiness. Like a rose, happiness is happiness by any other name.
In the extreme, regardless of the goal or the dreamer, failure to achieve can lead to one common denominator that is also a constant across the board: desperation. Desperation is a recipe for depression. Depression is a rough surface, unlit downhill express tunnel highway into the realm of eternal darkness. If the mind still works positively somehow, and if even a minute glimmer of hope still exists at this stage, the afflicted might ask just one last question: “What am I living for?” I know – I’ve been there, done that.
I do not speak for religious and other convictions. Neither do I speak for wanton social deviants, psychopaths, when I postulate that suicide is the respectable way out when people have come to the conclusion that they have nothing left to live for; when they have concluded that their lives have no worth or meaning to anybody, when they are caught up in the maze of helplessness againstdeceit and cold-heartedness of fellow humans. How many times have we in anger, or outright malice, said to one another something like, “You are useless. You are fuck all. You mean nothing to me. Get out of my life. Go hang, loser!”?
Human nature is complex. That complexity directly translates itself in the complex nature of human relations. That said, I believe that much as I am responsible for my own happiness, I am as responsible to help to make other people find and sustain their own happiness. The overriding assumption being that I am allowed the privilege to give and to assist whenever necessary. Happiness does not occur in a vacuum. It is also imperative that we allow one another to make mistakes, correct them, repent, and forgive*. Just as it is of absolute importance to show humility in the face of our sins and errors of judgement as we all go about each the routes and obligations of our respective journeys of life.
Given the adventures that the routes of my life’s journey have exposed me to so far, I have developed profound but non-attached love for the vast majority of people I have had anything to do with in all the human survival and growth endeavours that I still go through. I am a humble and grateful recipient of much love from all these people too. This grand love is the reason for my living.
All categories of love considered, my love for people is non-attached to the extent that I could never impose my love on anybody that does not want my love. Neither could I ever beg, nor long for non-forthcoming love from anybody that despises me. In my world, love is a voluntary, spontaneous two-way traffic. It’s either it works, or it doesn’t. Love is not an entitlement. Love is a desirable, not an imperative.
Love is discerning. So is its redemptive power. Unconditional love is for children; it is for the sick, the weak, and the vulnerable. Love becomes an imperative only when it comes to the self. The greatest love of all is the love of the self. Should I ever feel devoid of self-love one day, I might as well be dead.
On Wednesday, December 18, 2019, I lost my youngest cousin in South Africa to suicide. Exactly one week later, Christmas Day, Wednesday, December 25, 2019, all-Norway’s Ari Behn followed suit. Beloved South African activist friends in Johannesburg, Sipho SingwisaandGillian Schutte had already begun to grieve since their only child and son met his demise likewise on Sunday, December 01. 2019. I am Sad as Hell for sure. My deepfelt condolences to the bereaved parents, their broader families, friends, and fans in South Africa and Norway.
Who feels it knows it. I find comfort and lasting hope in that I have reason to believe that I have an idea as to the magnitude of the battles the three dearly departed had to put up against their respective demons along the way into the realm of eternal darkness. No weaknesses here. No cowardice. No stupidity. No selfishness. No eccentricity. No madness. Only insurmountable troubles of being human having crushed spirit and hope foundations of a man’s existential premises: Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows … my sorrow.
POST 5th GENERAL ELECTIONS QUESTION: Are poor people of South Africa a bunch of fools without any aspirations for upward mobility in society? Are they just sitting there all their days in their miserable (charming, exotic, to some) townships and villages waiting for, and thriving on, handouts from the government and other benefactors? If so, then, South Africa is in deep trouble … (Continued in the book: “MACHONA BLOGS – As I See It”. Order Simon Chilembo books on Amazon)
Simon Chilembo Riebeeckstad Welkom South Africa May 19, 2014
The ignorance of opulent society people regarding the real condition of poor people all over the world can be very appalling sometimes. This, in spite of the fact that “Jo, kjære/ Dear Simon, Norway was also a poor, Third World level country until as late as just under 50 years ago”
The real condition of poor people, whatever the causes of their poverty, goes beyond just the lack of life’s essential material goods such as food and clean drinking water. It isn’t just about “We Are the World”. Christmas? What is that? Christmas comes and goes in circles. Poverty is a point-to-point straight line for the poorest of the poor of the world. Born in poverty. Raised in poverty. Live poor. Die poor. Corpse rots in open space. No strength, no grave. No fire, no ash. There is a vulture waiting.
Poor people are vulnerable not only to the devastating effects of natural forces … (Continued in the book: “MACHONA AWAKENING – home in grey matter”. Order book on Amazon).
Simon Chilembo Riebeeckstad Welkom South Africa
Telephone: +4792525032 March 04, 2014
On Monday morning, walking the breadth of my old Kassie, Thabong, Welkom, for the first time in 40 years, by way of pungency in the air, nothing has changed. After 2-3 weeks of torrential rains, there is stagnant water in many places.
The superlatively built storm canals are clogged; green sediment/ moss and wild vegetation growth all the way. Burst sewerage pipes here and there; long, open canals of slow-moving, if at all, shit created as a result of slow and/ or erratic maintenance.
As if ordered, there’s a carcass of a cat on the edge of a busy taxi street. Indications are at the cat hasn’t long been run over by a vehicle. No doubt, there is also a dead dog nearby, perhaps somewhere in the messy storm canals. No need to confirm. Dead dog eKassie? I know it when I smell it. Just keep on moving straight ahead. Nose getting blocked. Getting a headache. Feeling queasy.
How did I grow up in these conditions? How do people, how can people still be living in these conditions in Mzansi, the golden land of milk and honey for sho? No wonder old people seem ever so tired, and “ugly” here. Been away too long … (Continued in the book: “MACHONA BLOGS – As I See It”. Order Simon Chilembo books on Amazon)
Simon Chilembo Welkom South Africa February 13, 2014
To mark my resumption of Karate teaching after a 2 ½ years’ semi-retirement, I take the liberty of reproducing an edited version of an interview I had with what are considered to be, in Karate terms,my Karate grandchildren in Zimbabwe. It is worth noting that my comeback is done in Welkom, the city of my birth in South Africa. This is where the adventure began.
BM: We are excited to be interviewing Simon Chilembo, Sensei, as a known pioneer of Seidokan back in the day. We hope to patch in some history that has been hazy, and we are grateful to people like Simon Sensei, who in many ways were responsible for linking Zimbabweans to Stephen Chan, Sensei, and responsible for shaping Jindokai as we know it today
1.BM. Sensei, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. We hope that we can go back with you in time. Please tell us how Sammy Chilembo was drawn to Martial Arts, and when this happened?
SC: I have always fought. First, as a smaller than average, sharp-tongued child protecting myself from others making my life difficult in various ways.
Second, defending myself as a mobbing victim, given my sudden growth in body weight and size from near pubescence to early teens.
Third, protecting my two siblings and myself against xenophobic and tribal inspired verbal and physical abuse arising from our father’s non-South African origin. There were also some direct responses to racial abuse and attacks in the then Apartheid South Africa.
I first started with Boxing from about age five. Christmas holidays 1971, in a street fight, I’m warned that someone was about to throw a stone at me from behind. I turn around to find, a few meters away, the boy raising his right arm to effect the throw.
Without thinking of it, I ran perhaps five steps and then flew on to the boy, kicking him with my right leg square in the face before he could throw the stone. Years later I’d understand that I had then performed something similar to a Tobi Yoko Geri.
Afterwards, people kept asking me where I trained Judo. I didn’t know what they were talking about; so I kept saying it was secret! It was during my ensuing investigations about Judo that I, a few months later, discovered James Bond. An older guy told me that Bond was a Karate expert, and there and then I knew I wanted to train Karate so as to be cool like Agent 007.
2.BM.Your first formal Karate, was this under Seidokan? When did you meet Chan Sensei?
SC: Although I now know that that the guy hadn’t gone very far in his Karate training then, I like to acknowledge Lefty as having been the first-ever person to give me a formal Karate training session sometime in 1972. Lefty was one of the few older guys really nice to me in our township in Welkom, South Africa.
He taught me Heisoku Dachi, Oyoi, Rei, and Hachi Dachi. Other than that I do not recall what exercises we did. But there sure was a lot of pain and sweat. And Lefty said one thing I never forget, “The most important thing in Karate is respect!” When I look back I think he could have meant “humility”.
I first met Chan Sensei in early 1981.
3.BM. How did Sedokan end up being such a force in Zambia, and later on Zimbabwe? Who introduced Seidokan in Zimbabwe?
SC: Regarding Zambia, my view is that at a very critical point in time we find at UNZA a spontaneous student convergence of the best and most promising Karateka in the country in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. Then, at about the same time enters the scene an unusual Chinese Sensei Chan from New Zealand.
Sensei Chan’s style, approach, and attitude are like nothing we had ever seen before; very generous, very patient and tolerant, open, and inclusive, as well as innovative.
Sensei Chan subtly broke all rules of everything we thought we knew about fitness training, and all of the basics, kata, and kumite training. From this, we emerged with a new style of fighting, which was more mobile with more circular and spinning techniques, including takedowns.
At the same time we were all allowed to maintain and develop further our own individualities, such that it was difficult for opposing teams to find workable strategies against us who stood strong as a team, and yet performed so very differently individually. Respecting and developing further the uniqueness of the individual within the confines of certain specific techniques and methods has been a trait upheld since.
Jimmy Mavenge, second from left.
The late Jimmy Mavenge introduced Seidokan in Zimbabwe. Working then against very strong forces in Zambia, I facilitated this. When I heard that Zimbabwean Karate was represented in the World Championships 2012, I celebrated quietly, and thought, “You made it, Jimmy!” This is how it all started (excerpt from earlier correspondence to a friend):
[One Sunday morning early 1983, a BMW 5 series parks outside my home in Lusaka; and out comes the biggest and ugliest man I ever saw. Upon seeing me his face lit up brighter than the happiest baby face I ever saw… Although I had never met or heard of this man before, he spoke to me like we were like the oldest of friends (he had done some good research on me apparently). And, to be honest, Jimmy had enough charisma to kill the biggest elephant.
After introducing himself: Jimmy Mavenge, Green Belt holder, First Secretary at the Zim High Commission in Lusaka, on a 3 year tour of duty, he went on something like, “Zimbabwe Karate is polarized and racist. I want to change all that when I get back. Black people don’t go above Green Belt there; and I want to take Karate to the poorest of children in my country. You have to help me with this. I’m willing to pay you generously if you can give me a crash-training programme so I can return to Zimbabwe with a Black Belt. I am willing to work and train every day, I’ll do anything you want me to…!”
I remember my jaws sagging, my eyes bulging, with me saying a low key “Wowww…ohhhh…. ok, let’s do it!” I told him though that given the magnitude of the ambition, we had to this properly by engaging the then Zambia Seidokan…]
Unfortunately, we initially received neither understanding nor support from the others. Only because both Jimmy and I were both mad thickheads, we unilaterally went ahead with the project any way, getting a lot of battering along the way. Rest is history; speaks for itself.
SC: When it came to kumite I was my own toughest opponent because I was just too strong and temperamental. With a history of disqualifications and injuries both inflicted upon my opponents, with me getting my own share, I do not have an impressive competition kumite record. Kata was, and still is my thing. I must mention though that, in my opinion, Lemmy Ngambi (late) was the most formidable fighter we had in Zambia during my time … (Continued in the book: “MACHONA BLOGS – As I See It”. Order Simon Chilembo books on Amazon)
Simon Chilembo Welkom South Africa January 19, 2014