UFH - Chess - Ncokotwana Zandi 1 (FSC)

The presence of four national and provincial masters and a record field of 160 players at the 2024 UFH Open in East London at the weekend have cemented the tournament’s place in the pantheon of Eastern Cape chess.

For example, candidate master Khanya Mazibuko and EC master Ntando Zwakala approached the organisers as late as last Friday to enquire whether they could still be accommodated in the star-studded line-up.

It was two other giants of the South African game, International Chess Federation (FIDE) master Banele Mhango and candidate master Keith Khumalo, who dominated the tournament, which offered the biggest prize purse in its 10-year history.

They walked away with their share of R20 000 and bundles of data made available by sponsor Vodacom.

Mhango and Khumalo tied for first, but it was the former who claimed the UFH Open title by virtue of his higher FIDE ranking. Mazibuko placed third.

Fort Hare coach and Open organiser Xhanti Mafongosi said it was a “great honour” to host four of South Africa’s best players.

“Some had never even been to the Eastern Cape. It was very special,” he said.

“The tournament went perfectly, with so many participants playing across the four sections. We are so happy that people are seeing what we are trying to do.”

UFH - Chess - Ncokotwana Zandi 1 (FSC)

Fort Hare’s Zandi Ncokotwane had an outstanding UFH Open as the university’s leading female player. Photo: Full Stop Communications

Especially pleasing were the performances of former and current UFH players.

Kulasande Mafanye, who represented the university and the USSA national team in Abu Dhabi and Poland in 2014 and 2015, placed fourth in the A-section for elite players.

In another standout performance UFH’s Zandi Ncokotwane tied as best female with East London’s Megan Dove, who only won after a tie-break.

According to Mafongosi, one of the biggest moments in the A-section came in the first round when Fort Hare’s Afika Mxenge tied with provincial master Zwakala.

The university also excelled in the B-section, where Lindokuhle Gaga claimed third, Emihle Sahluko fourth and Siyamamkela Ntsunguzi fifth (also best junior).

Zinathi Mbaba, meanwhile, tied for the top female prize in the B-section but lost out in the tie-break to Fort Beaufort teenage prodigy Olwethu Ndumndum.

Mafongosi said the tournament had won high praise from participants, including Buffalo City Chess president Ashley Vermaak.

The latter had played in the A-section, ending 12th overall, and noted the high level of competition and success of the event, he said.

As delighted as Mafongosi was with the weekend, the tournament’s conclusion also brought some tragic news.

In the weeks prior to the event, he had been in contact with reigning champion Brighton Mthunzi from Johannesburg to establish whether he would be back to defend his title.

On Friday he was informed that Mthunzi had not been well and in the early hours of Sunday learnt that he had passed away.

“He was a great character, a friend and a huge loss for chess in South Africa,” Mafongosi said.

“It is because of players like him that other big names are now coming to support tournaments at Fort Hare. It was he who told them what we have to offer.

“Our greatest condolences to his brother Clive and the rest of his family.”