UFH - Karate - Thobela_&_Anele_03 (FSC)

In karate, much like at university, your excellence is often determined by your grades.

That is why University of Fort Hare Goju Kai-Do coach Thobela Ntsonkota, who has graduated with another “degree” in martial arts, is held in such high esteem.

He recently returned from the Chiisai seminar and dan grading event in Cape Town as a qualified Sandan after earning his third black belt.

At the same event in Mowbray his protégé, Anele Gqumayo, graduated to the level of Shodan to become the first of his charges to receive a black-belt grading.

Having mentored Fort Hare to a second consecutive University Sports South Africa (USSA) title, it will be hard not to consider 2023 Ntsonkota’s golden year.

Ironically, it could have turned out very different had circumstances allowed him to play rugby – the sport he was “mad about” – while growing up in East London.

“There was no rugby in the township,” he explained. “But I really wanted to participate in a contact sport so karate was an option.”

Ntsonkota took to the Goju Kai-Do style – which blend the “soft” (circular movements) and the “hard” (strength) into one flowing style – like a sensei does to a dojo.

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University of Fort Hare Goju Kai-Do coach Thobela Ntsonkota, left, and student Anele Gqumayo returned from Cape Town as proud holders of their third and first black belts, respectively. Photo: Full Stop Communications

He represented South Africa at the world championships in Cape Town in 2009, placing fifth in the junior category. Four years later, in Indonesia, he finished among the top 10 seniors.

Upon his arrival at Fort Hare to pursue a BSc in agriculture and economics, only full-contact karate was offered. It was a far cry from the semi-contact style he was familiar with and in which he enjoyed black-belt status.

He opened a dojo in Alice in 2017 where he taught his style for free. With his students performing well, UFH mandated him to take a team to the USSAs.

Every single member returned home with a gold medal draped around the neck.

He was subsequently offered the position of Goju Kai-Do head coach and, with the sport’s popularity on the rise among the students, the discipline soon found an additional home at the East London campus.

Prepping for his assault on his latest black belt had been tough, Ntsonkota admitted.

“I was training seven days a week for two months. There were a lot of technical things that I had to learn.”

Despite the effort involved, the coach believes in being a role model to his students and is willing to empty the tank for the cause – just as much as he pushes them to be “the best they can be”.

Witnessing Gqumayo, 25, earn his maiden black belt will forever be etched in his memory.

“To be honest, it’s an amazing feeling.”

The back story to his student’s success almost reads like a piece of fiction – quite possibly titled Black is Beautiful.

His journey in the sport only started when he arrived at Fort Hare, where Ntsonkota was instrumental in guiding him from a novice white belt to accomplished black belt.

“He was so good that my seniors made him skip some coloured belts on several occasions.”

Gqumayo, who hails from Xhora (Elliotdale), had been enamoured with the sport from a distance but developed a close relationship with it following their introduction at varsity.

Skipping belts is reserved for the rarest of breeds and a testimony to his immense talent. It catapulted him over karateka several levels his senior – a journey he described as “amazing”.

He praised Ntsonkota as a “special coach” who lived and breathed karate.

“I want to be like him,” the BSc Honours student, who was already dreaming of a hat-trick of titles at next year’s USSAs, said.

“I’m feeling on top of the world but there is a lot of pressure now because we are the two-time defending champions.

“But everything is possible in his (Ntsonkota) presence.”