Showjumping goes to Soweto

Having carved a niche as South Africa’s first black showjumper in a sport traditionally reserved for rich whites, Enos Mafokate has now taken his love for horses to the heart of Soweto township.

Here in the sprawling city south-west of Johannesburg, Mafokate is cultivating the hope that township children will one day too fly high the colours of South Africa’s rainbow nation.

“I was born with a horse in me!” he laughs when he explains the passion that drove him to open an equestrian school in the sprawling township, with virtually no funding.

A champion showjumper and teacher, the 61-year-old Mafokate is also responsible for the township’s “horse unit” at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).

Between two classes, “free, of course, otherwise nobody would come”, he looks after the many horses that draw carriages in the chaotic traffic of Soweto, where they are used to deliver coal and other living materials.

“People trust us and come to us when a horse is hurt,” explains Mafokate as he gets ready to go into one of the township slums to look after an old workhorse suffering from tick-bite fever.

When he gets there, he has a long discussion in Zulu with the horse’s owner, who balks at sending his livelihood to the dispensary.

“He will not be able to work any more. But he realised that if the horse died, it will be worse,” says Mafokate afterwards.

The inhabitants of Soweto can bring their pets to be cured for free at the PDSA, a veterinary clinic that runs on private donations.

At the back, 15 riders between the ages of five and 19 are getting their horse-riding gear ready: on waste ground, large drums painted white and three poles are the showjumping obstacles.

The equipment available does nothing to dampen the riders’ spirits.

“I love jumping. I can jump 80cm!” says an enthusiastic nine-year-old Anele Maholwana.

Enos wants to offer these children the facilities he didn’t have, having had to wait 44 years before he could buy his own steed.

“I had to borrow R700,” he remembers.

“It was a township horse and he did not live long,” says a rueful Mafokate, who has now bought 12 horses and ponies for his students.

Mafokate’s story starts in Alexandra, Johannesburg’s slum township in the north, where he was born and then grew up on a farm where his father worked.

“There was a white boy, John. He had a pony, I had a donkey. We used to ride pony to donkey. His parents didn’t like it. But us, we never saw the colour,” he says.

To get some pocket money, he used to open the gate to visitors: “I loved holding their horses but was always asking, ‘Why do only whites ride?’”

As a teenager, he realised that the only way was to become a stable boy and participate in competitions among black grooms.

In 1975, the College of the Marist Brothers revolutionised South Africa’s racially segregated environment by opening its horse competitions for people of all colours.

“They had to struggle to get authorisation from the government,” says Mafokate.

“In 1978, I was the first black rider in 127 years to compete in the Pietermaritzburg Royal Agricultural Horse Show,” he remembers.

He went to London in 1980 with then British champion David Broom and competed at Wembley. Nine years later, he opened his school even as apartheid still prevailed in South Africa. Since then, four of his 10 grandchildren and dozens of kids in Soweto have followed his example. But he is not resting on his laurels.

“I have a dream that one day, that one of them compete for South Africa in the Olympic Games,” he says.—Sapa-AFP

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