In South Africa, judo, a combat sport against xenophobia

In a recently renovated white building in Alexandra, one of South Africa’s most impoverished townships, some 20 children do somersaults on the tatami, some still in school uniform, under the watchful eye of a trainer.

It is the first time this poor neighborhood in northern Johannesburg, which is regularly hit by xenophobic attacks, has seen a dojo emerge.

These children, from a neighboring primary school, are there to “learn to live together”, explains AFP Roberto Orlando, coordinator of the organization “Judo for peace”, which is present in several countries.

Roberto Orlando (c), coordinator of the organization “Judo for Peace”, trains children at a dojo in the Alexandra district, on June 6, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP – MARCO LONGARI)

Athletic, with piercing blue eyes, Roberto is originally from Italy, but he has traveled to Ethiopia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, creating dojos in underprivileged communities along the way.

“The aim of the program is to use judo as a way for refugees, migrants and South Africans to meet,” he says, wearing a blue judogi.

According to him, in a neighborhood like Alexandra, which has a lot of migrants and is densely populated, this kind of education is needed.

At the heart of his philosophy, an arm’s length list of values ​​such as self-control, discipline, respect, honor, courage. In a few words, “the moral code of judo”.

A child learns judo at a dojo in the Alexandra district on June 6, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP - MARCO LONGARI)
A child learns judo at a dojo in the Alexandra district on June 6, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP – MARCO LONGARI)

South Africa is occasionally ravaged by xenophobic outbreaks.

And during the violence that killed more than 60 people in 2008, Alexandra was a hotbed of attacks.

Another episode, featuring the 2015 murder in the middle of the street of Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambican street vendor, made an impression.

– The story repeats –

Years later, the plague of xenophobia still hasn’t left the township and attacks on “outsiders” are repeated.

Congolese refugee Rudolph Ngala (c) educates children in a dojo in the Alexandra neighborhood on June 6, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP - MARCO LONGARI)
Congolese refugee Rudolph Ngala (c) educates children in a dojo in the Alexandra neighborhood on June 6, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP – MARCO LONGARI)

Since the beginning of the year, an anti-migrant group called “Dudula”, “repressive” in Zulu, has gained momentum. Demonstrations and operations to expel illegal migrants have multiplied.

Again, Alexandra is a seat of the movement.

So having a Congolese refugee among his coaches is a “symbol”, los Roberto Orlando. One day, he also hopes to pass the baton to the latter, Rudolph Ngala.

Congolese refugee Rudolph Ngala (c) educates children in a dojo in the Alexandra neighborhood on June 6, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP - MARCO LONGARI)
Congolese refugee Rudolph Ngala (c) educates children in a dojo in the Alexandra neighborhood on June 6, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP – MARCO LONGARI)

At the age of 21, the young coach left Kinshasa in 2017. He did not speak a word of English.

With judo “we train with people from different backgrounds, we get to know other cultures,” he says.

Ahead of World Refugee Day on Monday, “Judo for Peace” gathered its student judokas at a dojo, this time set up in an emblematic building in downtown Johannesburg, notorious for its high crime rate, Ponte City.

This tower was a kind of urban slum until the early 2000s and is slowly being rehabilitated.

Zimbabwean judoka Denzel Shumba, June 18, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP - MARCO LONGARI)
Zimbabwean judoka Denzel Shumba, June 18, 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa (AFP – MARCO LONGARI)

Denzel Shumba (17) stands among other young people and jokes and says he came with his family from Zimbabwe ten years ago.

“South Africa is a difficult country because of xenophobia,” he admits, regaining his seriousness. He says he is sometimes afraid, “we don’t just play everywhere”.

Judo brought him peace, respect and also more peace.

Something Roberto Orlando considers a small win.