Walk along Joe Slovo Drive, which divides Yeoville and Berea in Johannesburg’s inner city, early on a weekday morning and you will hear a call-and-response ringing out of a small, L-shaped public park.
“One!” – “One!”; “Two!” – “Two!”; “Three!” – “Three!”
Yeoville Park, which lies in the shadow of flowering jacaranda trees and the city’s two iconic towers, Hillbrow and Ponte, is the home of Dojo Okinawa Karate, and the calls are coming from the dojo’s sensei, Emmanuel Mwamba, and his students, some dressed in white karategis and others in casual exercise gear, as they begin their warm-up.
The dojo is associated with the Japanese Karate Association and will celebrate its third anniversary in December. Sensei Mwamba now trains students from across Africa, including Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ghana, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The pan-African composition of Mwamba’s dojo reflects the cosmopolitan inner-city neighbourhoods his students call home. At the time of the most recent national census in 2011, for instance, 44% of young people in Berea, and 36% in Yeoville, were born elsewhere on the continent.
From Kinshasa to Yeoville
Sensei Mwamba himself was born in Kinshasa in 1975. It was there that he learnt Shotokan Karate at the age of 9, when his older brother took him under his wing. Mwamba went on to captain the DRC’s national team at the World Championships when he was 20 years old.
“Karate is like my life,” Mwamba told New Frame. “It has taught me discipline and focus.”
Mwamba said he first moved to South Africa in 2011 after his life was threatened by government officials when he exposed corruption in the national Karate structures.
Mwamba’s wife joined him in South Africa in 2012. The birth of their eldest son, who is now 6, followed shortly after.
Still keen on pursuing his passion for martial arts, Mwamba would walk the 10km from his home in Troyeville to a dojo in Bedfordview, where he says he shouldered the discomfort of being the only black student because of the excellent Shotokan training.
When Mwamba’s twin boys were born two years later, the family moved to Yeoville, where the security work he was doing was easier to find. It was here, after his sensei in Bedfordview died, that Mwamba decided to start teaching Karate himself.
Almost three years later, back in Yeoville Park, many of the struggles faced by Johannesburg’s inner-city residents are evident. Near the basketball court on the park’s northern edge, where Mwamba’s students trained on the morning of 16 October, a man lay sleeping under a yellow construction barrier, one of the many who use the park for shelter.
But according to Mwamba, for every problem still facing the impoverished people who use Yeoville Park, there is a problem that has been solved by his dojo. There is now less crime and drugs in the park, he told New Frame, and the activity means that people feel safer there.
A procession of schoolchildren, people hurrying to work and men pushing trash trolleys walked down the path that dissects the park while training continued.
Maureen Shokane, 40, dressed in a Bafana Bafana jersey, her hair collected into a headwrap, is one of Mwamba’s more junior students. Shokane’s 4-year-old daughter, Thandi, sat quietly on a towel laid out for her on the edge of the basketball court to watch her mother.
Shokane, who is originally from Limpopo and has lived in Berea for 10 years, said that she is learning Karate “for self-defence, but mostly for exercise”. She was introduced to the dojo by her friend Nancy Bikoko, 33, who, short and smiling broadly, was standing a few places away from Shokane in the line of beginners practising the basics of punching.
Shokane and Bikoko were effusive when explaining the significant difference that Dojo Okinawa Karate has made in their lives and community.
Meanwhile, Mwamba’s more experienced students began their heain godan, Shotokan’s fifth kata, a series of meticulously choreographed and arranged movements.
Mwamba interrupted his students after they started to rush the movements. “Kata is like the road,” he explained, tracing the line of traffic building up on Joe Slovo Drive with his finger. “You have robots. When it is red, you stop,” barked the sensei, demonstrating the correct and sudden halts in the kata. “It is yellow before it is red, then you prepare to stop. You cannot just drive straight from Hillbrow to Berea to Yeoville [without stopping].”
Patrick Atoki, 40, who was among those trying to perfect the delicate stops and starts of the heain godan, is currently the dojo’s champion fighter. Like his sensei, Atoki hails from the DRC. He is powerfully built. His movements are not as quick as his wiry colleagues, but he has good balance and when he lands a blow in combat, it counts.
On 13 October, Atoki did just that when he claimed a gold medal at a World Karate Federation tournament in Bloemfontein after winning all 9 of his fights, to the delight of his sensei and fellow students. “It wasn’t easy,” said Atoki, a brown belt whose opponent in the final was a black belt.
When he isn’t training, Atoki does various work in protection services – he’s a bouncer at a Kempton Park nightclub on weekends and sometimes protects leaders of the African Diaspora Forum, a non-profit organisation working against xenophobia. “It’s not really a job,” Atoki told New Frame. “We are trying to survive.”
As training drew to a close, Mwamba brought his students together for a small ceremony to present Atoki with his medal. He spoke briefly on the importance of patience, reminding his attentive audience that Atoki had won a silver medal at his previous tournament, and a bronze before that, before using the home as a metaphor to emphasise his star student’s hard work: “It’s like he has a proper house now. In a hokkie [a shack], you share one room! Mother, child, everybody. It’s not like that. It’s like Patrick can now send his children to bed in their own rooms!”
“From the dusty streets of Berea!” came the salute of one of Atoki’s fellow students.
Mwamba believes that there are fundamental lessons to be learnt from karate: “To protect yourself, and to learn to respect each other.”
Empathy is another lesson he hopes he is able to impart on his students. “I can’t see into your life,” explained Mwamba. “But after karate, it’s a different story.”
They are lessons he feels are important to people living under difficult circumstances and from diverse backgrounds in the inner city.