THE voices of ecstatic, singing fans rise into the cool Eastern Cape afternoon. Men pound the earth merrily with their feet. Some pierce the sky with knobkierries and swing them boldly. Women ululate and clap their hands. Children run around the singing band of adults, laughing and screaming with childish delight.
They are all intoxicated with joy, singing the praises of Andazi. They sing those who have not heard of Andazi, those who have never seen him, know absolutely nothing. Some are dressed in white t-shirts emblazoned with Andazi’s name and image. They sing and dance around Andazi, draped in a blue blanket with his name printed in white.
Andazi cannot return the favour of the praises being heaped on him with a smile. It is possible he can neither understand the words of the song sung in his honour. But he is the people’s hero anyway. Andazi is a horse, a champion thoroughbred from the villages of Idutywa in the Eastern Cape. He has just won yet another race in the Berlin November Traditional Horse Racing Festival.
“We are going to have a feast back home. We are going to sacrifice sheep, a pig and a cow to celebrate Andazi’s win,” says the horse’s ecstatic owner Twala.
Andazi is sponsored by a local construction company which has given its followers t-shirts emblazoned with the horse’s name and image.
While in other communities, people celebrate sports heroes and music stars, in some of the rural villages of the Eastern Cape they hero worship race horses like Andazi.
Such is the love and spirit of the sport in these parts that horses are not treated as mere animals, but as heroes that bring joy and pride to the rural communities where this sport has been played for almost 200 years.
Traditional horse racing is popular in the Eastern Cape’s rural villages where races are held regularly on weekends and culminate in the Berlin November Festival is the biggest and richest of these meetings in the province so far.
In its fourth-year last year, the event carried a total prize money of R650 000. It featured 100 horses which competed in 14 races, with the winner of the main and final race pocketing a whopping R100 000.
On a stretch of open land near the town of Berlin, some 40km from East London, an estimated 20 000 fans gathered for the meeting.
Scores of others lined up on the N6 highway adjacent the venue to catch a glimpse of proceedings down below. Large marquees were set up for VIPs and a stage was also erected for the music festival.
Hawkers cashed in selling refreshments and soft drinks. But for many others, the festival is just a day of pure fun where they come to cheer on their heroes, the horses and the young men that ride them. Even the names of the horses, such as Minister and eh, wait for it, Atul Gupta, are quite fun too.
The horses which range from thoroughbreds, traditional Xhosa breeds and cross breeds are inspected by veterinarians from the government and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to ascertain if they have a clean bill of health to take part in the day’s events.
The jockeys are as young as 13. While others are kitted out in the traditional helmets, boots, jockey pants and silks, many ride the horses barefoot dressed in ordinary clothing including football jerseys.
But once they take to the tracks, their lack of formal attire is forgotten as the horses gallop at frightening speed much to the delight of cheering fans who cannot resist wandering dangerously close to the action.
Security guards and marshals have a field day pushing away the enthusiastic fans to no avail. The fans, from little kids to grey haired old men and women, just cannot resist the lure of the thundering hooves made by their favourite horses. As the horses approach the finish line, they push in again and often run after the winning horse in celebration.
Traditional horse racing, according to a 2013 study by Rhodes University, dates back to the early 1800s. According the study titled The Status of Traditional Horse Racing in the Eastern Cape, historically Xhosa men raced on oxen as a form of entertainment at social gatherings.
However, with the introduction of horses into the country by European settlers in the early 1800s, oxen were replaced as a mode of transport. Because of their pace and agility, horses became the most sought-after animals for use in combat and in the traditional racing competitions. The study says races are organised by horse racing clubs and associations on an almost weekly basis on weekends and public holidays.
Luthando Bara, the festival’s founder says the festival is a celebration of the centuries old Xhosa tradition and a key contributor to the Eastern Cape tourism and economy.
He says the fact that the horses are not kept in formal stables but are bred and housed in villages, gives families and community a sense of ownership of the animals, hence the sport’s popularity.
“The horses stay in communities. That means on racing day the grandma, grandpa and everyone is there to cheer and give support,” says Bara.
At its inception four years ago, the festival drew a crowd of about 5 000, but it has grown in leaps and bounds attracting crowds of up to 30 000 fans.
Although horse racing is associated with gambling, this is however not allowed at the Berlin November. Odwa Mthathi from the Eastern Cape Gambling and Betting Board which is also a partner in the festival, says gambling must be regulated and conducted in a responsible manner.
Odwa says the emphasis on the event is fun and entertainment. However, if any of the gambling organisations wish to partner with Berlin November organisers they would be encouraged to do so.
Participants in the festival, such as Maker Nqetho, travel from far and wide and make great financial sacrifices to take part in the sport.
A builder by profession, he arrived from Mount Ayliff, 400km away early on the morning of the festival with his team which includes his two sons. Like many of the horse owners, he owns a bakkie and a horse carrier which he uses to transport his horse to events.
He started participating in the sport in 2011. He was previously a die-hard soccer fan and even owned a club. But he fell in love with horse racing and bought himself a horse for R6 000. Now he has taught his sons Nqinqi, 13, and Maqi, 17, to ride, train and care for the horse called Evidence.
On the morning of the Berlin November meeting, young Nqinqi takes Evidence, who is draped in a colourful traditional blanket to keep warm, through his paces. All around the neighing of horses fills the air as riders, trainers and owners prepare their charges for the long day ahead.
“I love this sport. It is an expensive hobby, but it keeps us busy and keeps the young ones away from bad things,” says Maker.
He spends almost just above R1 000 monthly on feed and spent over R5 000 to build a stable to keep Evidence warm and safe.
Siphosakhe Madikizela, 21, travelled overnight from Kokstad in KwaZulu Natal, more than 500km away, to participate in the Berlin November. He has participated in many other races and is so in love with the sport he attends meetings even when he is not competing himself. He rides Amanye Amadoda, an Eastern Cape traditional horse owned by his sister.
“We get to travel and meet different people. I have been to Dundee, Pietermaritzburg, Underberg, everywhere. People in my village respect us,” says Siphosakhe, who trains Amanye Amadoda twice a week.
Lwazi Myendeki, 33, owns one horse named Atul Gupta. Why such a name for a horse? “I just love the name,” he says with a naughty laugh.
He learnt the finer points of the sport from his dad who was a champion rider and owner in Idutywa. Lwazi also inherited his father’s riding talents.
“I have won many cups and championships,” he says. “It was a very nice experience racing a horse. It’s like riding a bicycle.”
Even though Andazi doesn’t win the grand prize, jockey Anele Jamane, 25, is nevertheless proud of his horse which won in two other races of the 1000m and 1200m. In one of the earlier races, Anele fell off his horse and suffered bruises to his face. He brushes off the incident and says it made him come back stronger.
Resplendent in jockey pants, silks and boots he is mobbed by adoring fans who congratulate him on steering Andazi, a previous winner of the Berlin November, to dizzy heights.
“I was training Andazi in the fields back home. The soil is soft and makes the horse very strong,” he says as the singing of boisterous fans reverberates around him.
Bara says through the exposure talented young jockeys like Anele get through the Berlin November, they will be afforded the opportunity to get sponsorship and training to try their hand in the professional ranks.
Also, says Bara, the prize money from the festival will also go a long way in assisting the horse owners to continue caring for their animals and producing more champions. – Mukurukuru Media