JOHANNESBURG — A poised young black woman balances atop a white horse cantering around the ring, standing tall as she moves through several gymnastic poses.
When she dismounts, trainer Enos Mafokate says she will do well in an upcoming competition in horse vaulting, the sport in which riders perform gymnastics on horseback.
The respect displayed at Mafokate’s equestrian center in Soweto is a far cry from the tensions under South Africa’s previous apartheid system of racial discrimination that erupted into violence more than 40 years ago Friday, when dozens of protesting black students were killed by security forces in the 1976 Soweto uprising.
Mafokate was raised under apartheid but became South Africa’s first black show jumper and one of the world’s top competitors in equestrian events.
Now he teaches a new generation of black students to ride.
“What I am doing here, I am giving back to these children because I want to see a black child competing the same as a white child,” said Mafokate, 73, a legend for breaking racial barriers in South Africa’s equestrian sports and winning several international competitions in the 1980s.
“What we have made is magnificent. With these children with no shoes, struggling to get food, struggling for everything, and myself, I am struggling. But we are the South African champions in (horse) vaulting four times.”
Mafokate’s center is a hive of activity as children balance on metal barrels and feed and groom the horses, all part of their rigorous training.
Imogen Boemo Makgalemele, 18, said her lessons with Mafokate transformed her.
“I was a nervous person before,” she said. “I had no confidence. But when I took up vaulting with Mr. Mafokate, I learned balance. I developed confidence. It changed me. It made me a stronger person.”
Mafokate won his first riding competition in 1963, but apartheid’s segregation laws prevented him from taking part in further competitions until 1975. Then he broke one racial barrier after another. He became the first black member of the Transvaal Horse Society in Johannesburg and the first black rider in 127 years to compete in the Pietermaritzburg Royal Agricultural Horse Show in 1978.
A British rider spotted Mafokate competing in Cape Town. In 1980, Mafokate became the first South African black man to compete internationally as a show jumper, placing fifth out of 31 riders at the Royal International Horse Show at Wembley. He won several international tournaments.
Mafokate remembers meeting Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana, with a baby Prince William in her arms, at a polo tournament in 1982. Years later he met South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, whose philosophy of forgiveness and reconciliation Mafokate still reveres.
In the 1990s, after seeing how poorly animals were being treated in Soweto, he decided to give horse riding lessons. His mission was to teach people that animals deserve to be loved. In 2006, the Johannesburg municipality donated 28 acres of land. He turned it into a training center with stables for 20 horses.
Mafokate has had an enormous impact on the sport in South Africa, said Michelle Blaauw, president of the regional horse vaulting association. His pupils frequently win gold medals at the national championships and, more important, he helps children.
“Horses can be very therapeutic, especially for disabled children,” Blaauw said. “Enos has used his knowledge of horses to help so many. He teaches his pupils to work hard and to respect the animals. … The joy on these kids’ faces is actually what (enriches) our lives so much . it puts so much into our sport.”
Mafokate has trained hundreds of children in horse riding, and he said it’s a job he wouldn’t swap for anything in the world.
“When you are coming here to the Soweto Equestrian Centre there is no child who is stupid … Everyone has got his own talent. When you come here there is no drinking, no smoking, there is no shouting at another child,” he said.
“I have seen it many times in my life, a boy or a girl will have behavior problems. Their teachers and their families will have told them that they have no hope. But once they come here and discover the horses, it changes them. Horses give them confidence and teach them humility.”