Looking for karate kids

2011-02-21 00:00

HAVING fought his way through life and his craft, Shihan Cassim Cele faces an even bigger battle now — to rescue his beloved karate. The much-travelled Cele wants to keep the noble art of karate alive in Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas, despite the many distractions competing for the attention of today’s youth.

Shihan is a Japanese martial arts term used as an honorific for senior karate instructors. The 39-year-old Cele was born in Hammarsdale in 1972, but has spent most of his karate years in the city.

He is adamant that the sport is dying in Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas. His Kyokushin kaikan martial arts style (see box) has suffered repeated blows over the years and is in desperate need of defibrillation. Cele believes achieving this is not an impossible mission.

The sport was crippled by the deaths of four local Kyokushin kaikan instructors recently, who, Cele says, were highly knowledgeable about the philosophy of the style and had produced a number of black-belt holders.

One of the solutions that Cele and his fellow karatekas are pushing is the involvement of the Department of Sports and Recreation to support instructors who are reviving the sport, especially at primary and high-school level.

Parents and school principals should come on board as well, Cele says, as the sport will benefit children by instilling discipline and steering them away from “chaotic behaviour”, such as alcohol and drug abuse, encouraging them to refrain from willy-nilly fighting and creating a willingness to help fellow community members.

While Cele feels that Kyokushin kaikan is weak in South Africa compared with countries like Brazil, Japan and Britain, he cheerfully points out that the country has beaten Canada, Poland and Holland. “We want karate training to be a lifestyle among the young people of Pietermaritzburg,”

This man who holds five Kyokushin kaikan dans (see box) vividly remembers the day he fell in love with karate.

“It was February 23, 1981. We were watching a bioscope at Zwartkops Primary School in Sweetwaters titled Iqhawe, starring an actor from Inanda by the name of Themba Hlongwane. He is now in kick boxing. I saw [Hlongwane’s] moves on the bioscope and decided right then and there that I wanted to be able to fight like him. Luckily at the same school there was a teacher who was also an instructor in Kyokushin. I approached him to teach me and he said I must gather a group of boys and he would train us, which he did.”

Fuelled by the passion, Cele never looked back. “In 1988, I founded my own dojo [karate school] when I had a brown belt in my community of Ntshongweni. The dojo was and is still known as Gurango Dojo. The dojo has trained generations of families,” said Cele.

Cele has two wives and four children, three of whom are involved in karate. His teenage son also runs his own dojo in Ntshanga area near Hillcrest.

Cele, who became a Muslim in 1996, believes his religion and karate coincide. “As the Prophet Mohammed says, a strong Muslim is better than a weak Muslim and karate keeps me strong.”

Through the sport, Cele has travelled to various countries around the world. When he achieved his fourth and fifth dans he fought in London and Amsterdam, respectively.

To get to where he is was not easy, says Cele, for each dan he was promoted to he had to fight equally talented and strong opponents.

Cele’s fighting skills haven’t only been tested on a professional basis. In 1996, he rescued a teenage girl who was about to be raped by a hoodlum in Ntshongweni. The hoodlum was known for carrying a large butcher’s knife and a gun. “My instructors have always told me that when fighting a non-karateka it shouldn’t take you more than a minute to put that opponent on the ground.”

The hoodlum had forced the young girl into a toilet in broad daylight and women who witnessed the incident were screaming for help. “I went to assist,” he recalls. “The teenager’s skirt was already ripped and she was still putting up a fight when I got there. I intervened, he threw the first punch and I grabbed it, twisted it, punched him in the face and kneed him in the stomach, and left him kneeling on the floor of the toilet. The community members started liking what karatekas can do from that day on.”

Cele’s battles for the love of karate are not only physical. While he was teaching the sport in Chatsworth in Durban in early 2000 he had to motivate his students to keep training when they were harassed by police who accused them of teaching jihad because most of his students were Muslims. The dojo eventually closed down.

Shihan Cele currently runs a dojo at 100 Langalibalele Street, known as Al Cassim Dojo. Most black-belt holders in Pietermaritzburg were trained in this dojo, says Cele with pride; however, now it is struggling. The joining fee is per student is R50 and monthly fees are R40.

Having spent most of his life dedicating himself to karate, Cele says he will keep at it until he reaches the 10th dan when he will be certified as a karate master. To him this is achievable as he has age on his side — most masters are well into their 70s and early 80s. “I will never stop karate. If I don’t train for a few days I don’t feel like myself.”


ACCORDING to Wikipedia, Kyokushin kaikan is a full-contact karate style, founded in 1964 by Korean-Japanese master Masutatsu Oyama. Kyokushin is rooted in a philosophy of self-improvement, discipline and hard training. Its full-contact style has had international appeal — practitioners have over the past 40 years numbered more than 12 million.

Unlike some forms of karate, Kyokushin places high emphasis on full-contact fighting which is sometimes done without any gloves or protective equipment.

THE dan ranking system is a Japanese system of levels which is used in traditional martial arts. In modern Japanese martial arts, holders of dan rankings often wear a black belt. Shihan Cele has five black belts, hence he is known as Shihan.

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