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Int J Hist Sport. 2001;18(1):219-36. doi: 10.1080/714001485.

In pursuit of empowerment: Sensei Nellie Kleinsmidt, race and gender challenges in South Africa.


This chapter traces the way in which Nellie Kleinsmidt, known as the grandmother of karate in Africa, has negotiated discriminatory practices and overcome race and gender-related struggles, including the struggle to free the female body, in pursuit of empowerment. It explores her expectations and the constraints and frustrations she experienced, as well as the many contributions she has made to women's karate in South Africa. Nellie Kleinsmidt's karate career, which began in 1965, coincided with the early developments of South African karate. As a woman of colour her life and karate career were significantly shaped by apartheid legislation. It divided the country into areas of occupancy and residency according to race and was designed to prevent contact between the people of the government defined race groups. Black karate-kas were prohibited by law from practising karate in white designated areas. Lack of facilities and qualified instructors in areas allocated to Kleinsmidt's race group meant that she received very little formal karate instruction between 1966 and 1973. Soon after, she met Johan Roux, a white male. He was to become her chief karate instructor and life-long companion. They defied the apartheid legislation and in 1978 set up home together. They organized defiance campaigns, resisting the pressures from government to close their dojo because of its non-racial policies. Freeing her body at the broader political level involved the abolition of the race categories and all other apartheid legislation which impacted on her life choices and experiences. Initially this struggle and that of freeing her body occurred simultaneously. In her ongoing struggle against gender discrimination in the sport, it was in karate that Nellie Kleinsmidt could strive for the personal empowerment she sought. She could however not translate this into freedom in South African society itself. The impact of apartheid legislation together with the imposition of a sports moratorium by the South African Council on Sports (SACOS), hindered the growth of Nellie Kleinsmidt's karate career, yet she managed to obtain her sixth Dan Black Belt in 1998. This was a remarkable achievement given the constraints she had to overcome. In karate, Kleinsmidt was often viewed as a female first. The problem of female access is exacerbated by the overwhelming number of male instructors perpetuating the notion that the martial arts are inherently male sports. Accessing the various levels of karate has involved claiming physical and symbolic space on the dojo floor as well as involvement in the decision-making arenas of karate. In 1992 with the unification of karate in South Africa, Sensei Nellie began to extend her involvement with the refereeing arena and jointly established a Women's Karate Forum in her province. She has subsequently become a South African national referee and has earned the status of continental judge with the Union of African Karate Federation (UFAK). Nellie Kleinsmidt is the first and only woman of colour to have been appointed to the Referee's Board of South Africa and the only woman of colour in Africa to have obtained a sixth Dan Black belt.

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