Shear magic as Hans fleeces the opposition at world champs
Zweliwile Hans, the South African blade sheep-shearing champion, sat next to me on the red benches at the Bloemfontein showgrounds. In the background his teammates and some of Lesotho’s national team members were busy preparing their shears on the bench grinder. Sparks flew, cascading across the room as they sharpened their blades.
It was the first week of February and by the end of the month, 50-year-old Hans would be competing in the Golden Shears, the world sheep-shearing championships, held in Masterton, New Zealand, between February 29 and March 3.
Hans is a three-time champion, winning the title in Ireland in 1998, in South Africa in 2000 and in Norway in 2008.
“I am very excited to go to New Zealand; maybe I can go and beat the old man again,” Hans told me, poking fun at his Lesotho competitor, 55-year-old Elliot Ntsombo, the current title-holder and four-time champion.
The South African national team manager, Izak Klopper, who is employed by the National Woolgrowers’ Association, was listening in and began to laugh.
Klopper yelled over to Ntsombo in Xhosa, taunting him and telling him that Hans said he was going to kick his arse at the championship.
Ntsombo, who has been shearing sheep for 38 years, smiled from across the room.
Despite the snide remarks from colleagues and friends when they found out I was writing a story about sheep shearing, I can confirm that this is a serious sport—and an endurance one at that.
The South African Sheep Shearing Federation, which oversees the sport, is affiliated to the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee and the Golden Shears World Council.
This year at the Golden Shears championship, New Zealand rugby legend Sir Brian Lochore called for sheep shearing to be recognised as an Olympic sport.
“I absolutely support that shearing is no longer just a job,” Lochore said at the official Golden Shears dinner. “I do think that one day you will get it in the Olympics.”
The sport has such a high profile in that country that Prime Minister John Key attended the tournament.
Klopper compares the shearers with endurance athletes - easy to understand when you watch them at their game, which has them standing for hours, backs bent, working a pair of shears in intense concentration while being careful not to slice open their host and still get the best cut of wool.
A recent study in Australia showed that sheep-shearers were fitter and got through a greater workload during competition time than the players on the Australian rugby team.
“You can’t explain it to somebody who hasn’t watched it,” says Klopper. “I could sit for days and watch these chaps at the skills level they are at.”
Countries that compete in the world championships include South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Lesotho, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Canada, Spain, Hungary, the Falkland Islands and the Czech Republic.
But the most serious competitors—hands down—come from Southern Africa.
Fleecing the competition
Between 1996 and 2010 the only countries that took the world blade-shearing title were Lesotho and South Africa. This had a lot to do with the global move away from blade shearing to machine shearing, but in South Africa a cheap migrant labour force from Lesotho makes machine shearing costly in comparison.
In South Africa a blade sheep shearer earns R3 a sheep and can shear between 100 and 120 sheep a day. At best, that’s R360 for a whole day of back-breaking manual labour by a highly skilled shearer. Board, lodging and transport are all paid for, but this seems scant consolation.
Meanwhile, shearing machines can cost as much as R15 000, but in South Africa you can kit out a blade shearer for an outlay of about R2 000.
“All you need is a bench grinder, an oilstone and a few odds and ends,” said Klopper.
In South Africa 60% to 65% of all sheep are shorn by blade shearers, which amounts to about nine million sheep a year. In comparison, just 400 000 New Zealand sheep are shorn with blades and the country has only 53 active blade shearers.
When local shearers go overseas to compete in the world championships they often set up a fortnight’s worth of work in the country to earn some foreign currency.
A day’s work clipping 100 to 120 sheep at AUS$2.66 a sheep can equate to R2 000—six times more than they can make at home.
We had gone to Bloemfontein to see how the Lesotho and South African teams were preparing for the championships.
Klopper told me then that they had gathered the teams to make sure they had the right gear for their trip, like South African blazers and sheep-shearing uniforms, which consist of black pants and green-and-gold vests.
The shearers were busy preparing several sets of shears that they would roadtest in the following two weeks.
“You can be the best shearer in the world, but if your equipment doesn’t cut it, then you’re in trouble,” said Klopper.
Twenty sheep were brought in on the back of a trailer and loaded into the pens. They were urinating all over the place. I asked Klopper if they were afraid.
He laughed at the city boy. “A sheep doesn’t care where it pees,” he said.
The shearers took them to the platform and were off.
“It’s all about keeping the animal calm,” said Klopper. “The shearers will use their legs to shift the weight of the sheep so the sheep doesn’t get tired of sitting in the same position. Eighty percent is technique. The other 20% is guts.”
The speed with which the shearers moved was astounding.
Klopper told me how Hans, who is originally from Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape and has been shearing sheep since 1982, performed in the finals in Norway in 2008.
“He was so quick; I remember the commentator saying, ‘He’s doing it like the machines.’ In Norway Hans managed to shear a sheep in one minute and 49 seconds.
“He has done 180 sheep in a day, which equates to opening and closing the shears 36 000 times a day,” said Klopper.
My mouth is wide open: 180 sheep in one day?
But the South African record is 245 sheep in a day, with the second best being 215.
“Mostly it’s mental form: you can be the best shearer in the world, but if you are not mentally prepared you just don’t have the grunt to go and win,” said Klopper.
Three-and-a-half weeks later, I sat at my desk at 8am on a Saturday, ready to watch the Golden Shears world blade sheep-shearing championships, which were being streamed live on the Golden Shears website.
The scoring works like this. Judges assess the shearer’s technique and allocate penalty points for faults; points are added on a screen displayed next to the shearer. When the shearer finishes his last sheep, he reaches for a button and his time is recorded. Points are then allocated for every minute the shearer takes to shear the sheep and are added to his score. The shearer with the lowest score is the winner.
Early in the day both South African competitors had progressed to the finals, with sterling performances in the semifinals. South African Mayenzeke Shweni had come from behind to beat New Zealander Mike McConnell with a score of 78.885 to McConnell’s 79.163. The commentators raved about Shweni’s performance.
“This man Shweni is so good; is he going to be the next world champion?” they asked. Hans, described by the commentators as “the great South African shearer with the broad shoulders” was in the second semifinal and pipped New Zealander Brian Thompson to first place with a score of 80.442 to Thompson’s 83.809. It was a real tussle, with the lead changing hands numerous times, but by the fourth of five sheep Hans had reclaimed the lead.
Then I noticed that none of the Lesotho shearers was in the semifinals; I started googling to find out what had happened.
According to news reports from New Zealand the members of the Lesotho team had not been allowed to leave South Africa because their visas were not in order. I wondered what other sport would hold its world championships while its defending champion was not allowed to compete due to visa issues.
The final rounds began with six shearers who had to shear seven sheep. Hans grabbed an early lead, shearing his first sheep in two minutes and 49 seconds, which had the commentators singing his praises.
With terms like “racing down the flank” and “first to the turn”, the commentary was sounding rather bizarre. By the fourth sheep Shweni had grabbed the lead from Hans, although only narrowly. However, the race changed dramatically when Shweni got to his fifth sheep - and it began to kick. Hans powered into the lead.
By the time Shweni had started on his last sheep, Hans was already about 17 seconds ahead of him. He managed to make up a few seconds on the last sheep, but Hans finished first, with a score of 67.282, Shweni came in right behind him in second place, with a score of 67.689.
Hans’s victory earned him the trophy and a prize of NZ$1600, which is just short of R10 000—or 33 days’ work shearing.
South Africa had a new world champion.
I arrive at the airport the following Monday afternoon and notice that besides a few colleagues from the National Woolgrowers’ Association who have arrived to drive the team back to Bloemfontein, there is no one there to meet the victorious South Africans. There is no cheering crowd, no ticker-tape parade and no ANC officials waiting to congratulate the team. The team members’ main concern is converting their foreign prize money and earnings into rands, a task that becomes a lot more difficult if they don’t do it at the airport.
A South African in blue shorts and a white shirt sidles up to Shweni in his South African blazer and asks him what sport the team competes in. “Sheep shearing,” he tells the man, who looks confused and asks the question again. When he gets the same response, he stumbles off towards his friend. I see him mouth: “What the fuck?”
Meanwhile, Hans pulls out his trophy to show me. I ask him what he’s going to do with his prize money and he tells me he is going to buy sheep that he can shear himself and then sell the wool. With that, the team is hustled off, eager to get back home.
To see a slideshow go to mg.co.za/shearing