Fields of excellence

2011-02-16 00:00

IN his popular book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell comments that: “... success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky”.

Gladwell defines outliers as people who do not fit into our normal understanding of achievement. They are exceptional people who operate at the extreme outer edge of what is statistically possible. Just such a potential outlier and success story in the making is developing quietly and without great fanfare in Lions River.

One of the three elements Gladwell identifies as essential for exceptional success is natural ability combined with great personal effort — what he calls “The 10 000-hour rule”. Exceptionally successful people like The Beatles and Bill Gates developed their natural talent through thousands of hours of practice. The Beatles achieved their 10 000 hours performing in Germany more than 1 200 times from 1960 to 1964. Gates started to amass his hours by programming a high school computer in 1968 when only 13. Local polo-playing prodigy Sbu Duma (25) first got on a horse at five, and onto a wooden horse to start learning how to play polo at 12.

Duma grew up on the farm Maritzdal in the Dargle owned by the late Dave Kimber. Sbu’s father was employed by the Kimber family and Kimber noticed the young boy’s affinity for horses and his talent for riding, so he started to mentor him. “Every day after school I helped my father with the horses and spent an hour on the wooden horse learning polo. Dave Kimber told me that I had to stick with it if I wanted to be good at it,” Duma said. By the time he got to play his first game at age 13 in 1998, he had spent hundreds of hours practising. Duma played with local farmers at the Lions River Polo Club. He was one of only three black players at the time, the other two were playing grooms. He remains the only black member of the Lions River Polo Club.

“Usually players go easy on a new player to give him a chance: for example, they don’t tackle him too hard. The white farmers didn’t do that — they gave me a hard time. Now, I thank them for that, because it forced me to toughen up and be sharper than them, to be better than them.” Duma’s manager and mentor, Dieter Rowe-Setz, current captain of the polo club, laughs: “Some farmers were still a bit racist then, but they realise now that Sbu is a better player than them and they could learn something from him.”

Kimber got bursary support for Duma from the South African Polo Association (Sapa) to help with his education, supply polo equipment and contribute towards the upkeep of the ponies he was using. This was awarded when Sbu was 12 and continued until he was 19.

The second of Gladwell’s essential elements of outstanding success is opportunity. Starting with his childhood in a polo-playing community, Duma’s story is marked by many opportunities that have contributed to his journey so far. During the years of Sapa’s support for him, the association also helped him to play in tournaments, attend coaching clinics and tour the United Kingdom with the SA Schools team. For several years he played in the BMW development team that participated in the annual curtain-raiser to the BMW International Series. He was also part of the first all-black polo team to win the Africa Cup at Inanda, Gauteng, in 2010.

In 2008 came a key opportunity that saw Duma spending two years in Argentina and Great Britain as a protégé of the Wilhelm and Karl Maybach Foundation’s Excellence in Mentoring Leadership Programme. In addition to being coached by some of the best polo players in the world, he was trained in leadership skills, public speaking and presentation.

According to Rowe-Setz, many members of the Lions River Polo Club have also helped Duma by lending him ponies, providing kit and generally making it possible for him to improve. In 2007, the Macsteel Maestro Foundation helped him to work with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa on a nutrition and exercise programmme to strengthen his body for the demands of the game. He also gained a diploma in equine and stud management at the Equestrian Training Institute in Eikenhof, southern Johannesburg in 2008, sponsored by the Rowe-Setz Family Trust.

Polo is not only demanding of its players, but also of their horses. “To play polo, you need to have a fresh horse for every chukka, at the very least, because it is so physically arduous,” Row-Setz explained. “That means to play at top level, Sbu needs access to between eight and 10 horses. Sometimes you even have to change horses in the middle of a chukka.” Added to the cost of maintaining horses, is the equipment involved, combining to make polo a very expensive sport to play — perhaps that is why it is called the sport of kings.

Although softly spoken off the field, the self-confessed “shy” Duma displays another persona on the field. One of the Argentinian internationals who coached him described him as a “dangerous, attacking player”. When watching video clips of him in action, I found it hard to believe it was the same person. “I am often aggressive on the field. You cannot play softly; polo is not a gentle sport, you have to play hard to get ahead,” he explained.

His father, Thembinkosi, has always been a firm supporter, but his mother, Mavis, was not happy with her young son going near horses and then taking up this tough sport. “When I first started she was worried because it is dangerous, but now she supports me too. I am passionate about the game and have enjoyed it since I first started learning on the wooden horse,” he said.

Wherever he plays, locally or elsewhere in Africa, he enjoys celebrity status not only because of the rarity of black polo players, but also because of his ability. He was the top goal scorer in a match between South Africa and Australia in Plettenberg Bay last year. He lifted the trophy to a standing ovation and rapturous applause from thousands of locals who had turned out to watch him. “Wherever I go the grooms love me. They want to be like me one day,” Duma smiles.

He is currently playing off a handicap of three. His dream is to become a high-goal-scoring player (seven or more) and to be the first black player to represent South Africa outside the country. He has played for the national team in two internationals at home. He is going to need the third of Gladwell’s elements of success to realise his dreams and his potential: the “hand of fate” or a convergence of circumstances that make exceptional things possible.

“What Sbu needs now is a chance to play overseas to improve his handicap, gain experience, make some money and build a name for himself. Sponsorship would be the first prize, so we are also looking for a sponsor for Sbu,” Rowe-Setz said. He is currently also investigating several options that could make it possible for Duma to go overseas.

It could be argued that his journey thus far has been marked by fate’s smile, so there is reason to hope that this will continue.



THE earliest record of polo being played in the Dargle valley is 1887 when several eminent players including Sir Duncan McKenzie and Sir Henry Kimber MP, set up the Dargle Polo Club. It is believed to be the first civilian polo club in South Africa.

The same families were the founding members of the current-day Lions River Polo Club established in 1921. The current polo ground was created in 1964 on a 26-hectare site near the Hebron Haven Hotel.

The club boasts one of the best fields in South Africa, known for its soft surface. Many third and fourth-generation members of the original families involved — e.g. Kimbers, McKenzies, Fowlers, and Griffins — until recently were or still are active players today. The club will host several prestigious polo events this year, including the President’s Cup and the selection trials for the SA Schools’ team.

Polo is just one of many activities hosted at the Lions River Club, which is an active community centre that offers many pursiuts, including polocrosse, pilates, dog agility classes, ultimate frisbee, and touch rugby, as well as social events. —

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