A picnic with good friends is a great way to enjoy a day in the African sun

2011-08-05 09:01

The smell of earth and grass is pungent. Screams and shouts rise from the sparse crowd seated on camp chairs and picnic blankets.

As the cheers get louder, so does the sound of galloping horses, ­furiously making their way towards the goal posts.

As they pass, two riders push and shove at each other, nearly stumbling on to the spectators.

When they regain their balance, the wiry rider in a yellow jersey leans down on his side and whacks a tiny, white plastic ball with a mullet, sending it straight into the posts. It’s a goal!

All this takes place in the space of a minute. The fast and furious pace, filled with violent shoves between the opponents on horses, is what the sport of polo is all about.

“Sbu!” squeal a group of young women sitting atop silver bar stools under a white marquee. They’re wearing summer dresses and fancy yellow fascinators.

“I don’t know who Sbu is, but that’s the name the commentator has been calling out since we arrived. We figured since he’s a black guy, we might as well support him,” jokes one of the ladies as she sips on a glass of Veuve Clicquot, minding her shiny red lipstick. Next to her sits Generations actress Katlego Danke, who professes that it is her first time at a polo event.

Watching them, it’s immediately obvious by the little attention they are paying to the field that they have no idea what the sport entails. But what is indisputable is that they are having fun at the yearly Inanda Africa Polo Cup.

The event took place this past weekend at the Inanda Club, the same place in Sandton where Dudu Zuma threw her R200?000 27th birthday party two years ago.

One side of the field has a row of marquees hosted by various well-known brands.

Celebrities and socialites, such as Thomas Msengana and his wife Unathi, chill on plush couches and recliners, enjoying the Sunday afternoon winter sun. Also in attendance are Basetsana Kumalo and her current BFF Josina Machel, ­Sonia Booth, Penny Lebyane, Edith Venter, Somizi Mhlongo, Tselane Tambo, Khanyi Mbau, Lucia ­Mthiyane and many others.

“Who knows what the people on the field are doing,” purrs Tambo in her nasal British accent. “All I know is that this social event is a great excuse to get out of the house. I can bet you nobody here knows what polo is about, dahling.”

It’s not often that South Africans are exposed to this equestrian sport. Besides the Inanda Cup, ­other tournaments that highlight the sport include the BMW ­International Polo Series, played yearly at Shongweni in KwaZulu-Natal, and the Kurland International, played in Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape every December.

It’s interesting that the sport of polo has only recently started being accessible, despite the fact that it had been played in the country since the late 19th century.

Lerato Motau, the 32-year-old ­Inanda Cup ambassador and ­patron, says the sport has the ­reputation of being inaccessible.

“Polo has been viewed as an ­elitist sport. Fortunately, we’re ­getting more young black people coming through to watch matches on a Sunday afternoon.

“While I find that the older generation is still a bit apprehensive about attending these types of events, it is the born-frees who are more comfortable because they have that sense of being able to do anything and go anywhere.”

Motau adds that to play the sport, you need to have limitless funds. “Players need about five highly trained ponies to play a game, which can cost anything up to R1.2?million a year. This makes polo a pretty expensive hobby.”

Motau believes that with a bit of work and exposure, the sport can become as popular as golf.

But this is not to say the ­continent has been deprived of some horse-and-ball action. Since its inception 16 years ago, the ­Inanda Polo Club has been inviting African teams from Zambia, Libya, Ghana, Egypt and Nigeria to the tournament.

Nigeria is the visiting club this year. The country’s jockeys include Mustapha Fasinro, Tunde Karim and Kehinde Soyannwo, who have been participating in the event for five years. They belong to some of the 20 polo clubs in their country, where the average number of members is 60.

“Polo is very popular in Nigeria,” says Fasinro, who is a co-founder of the Linetralle Polo Club and captain of the Lagos polo team. ­“Between my friends and I, we play the sport for fun and get together on weekends. The majority of the players are black.”

Fasinro’s club has 85 registered players. This is impressive because there are only 481 registered club players in South Africa.

While he admits that the sport is indeed elitist, there have been moves to make it more accessible.

“In my country, polo attracts a ­certain calibre of people – mostly young and upwardly mobile who are looking to network in the same space as like-minded people. You will certainly find those at polo games.”

Karim (35) agrees that the sport does tend to attract the well-heeled, but he believes more people will get into it as they become more ­exposed to it.

Karim can indulge in his expensive hobby because he owns a ­construction business. “I’m lucky that I’m able to do this with my own money, unlike many people who struggle to find backers.”

Catherine Cairns, the owner of Polo Africa, says there are few black businessmen interested in the sport. Cairns, who is involved in development programmes for underprivileged people interested in polo, says she bought her farm in the Free State in 2002. With a little help from the SA Polo Association, she turned her farm into a polo haven.

“When I bought the farm, there was not a single black polo player in the country. More saddening is the fact that we don’t have any rich black people playing polo. It’s still a predominantly rich white man’s sport. This needs to change.”

And things are changing. Meet jockey Sbu Duma (26), a ­development stage player. The ­Pietermaritzburg-born athlete’s ­father was a stable groom for the late Dave Kimber, a renowned South African polo player. Kimber introduced Duma to the Lions River Polo Club to train professionally.

“I have been fortunate to have the Maybach Foundation backing me because that’s the only way I am able to play this sport,” comments the man who is most likely to become the country’s first black professional polo player.

Most jockeys are optimistic. ­According to them, the Inanda ­Africa Cup has seen an increase in the number of black spectators.

Says Motau: “It’s a good thing ­because now polo will be given a chance to take its rightful place alongside other sporting events in the country.”

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