Like many teenagers in his hometown in South Africa, Johannes, 19, is from a humble background. His mother died of AIDS a long time ago. He does not know who his father is. Once he was a hot-headed boy with no respect for others but his life has changed since he started learning taekwondo. Korean TV channel KTV recently aired a documentary on changes brought by the spread of the martial art in the South African small town.
“Before, I was impatient and hot-tempered,” said Johannes. “I was always in fights with other young boys. I was angry with them and sometimes I hit them. But taekwondo taught me that we should respect each other, even those younger than I am.”
Johannes, who won a medal in a local taekwondo competition, said other teenagers should study the Korean martial art “for their own benefit.”
“Even those who are poor can wake up and become proud of themselves,” he said.
According to the TV documentary titled “Taekwondo Dream in South Africa,” which aired on February 5, there are winds of change blowing in the remote rural town of Ramokokastad, North West Province, where some people still rely on donkeys for farming and transportation.
Many teenagers were left without proper care and wandered around their village after school. However, small changes started to take place after Won-Buddhism began teaching classes in taekwondo and computers, among others. Most of all, they learned how to exercise self-control and discipline themselves.
In the beginning, the taekwondo lesson in Ramokokastad started with 40 students, and now the number has grown to 80 as its popularity grew.
Taekwondo took root in South Africa some time ago. The South African Taekwondo Association was formed in 1997 before joining the World Taekwondo Federation in 1998. Now there are 15,000 South Africans learning taekwondo and 60 related clubs in the country. The level of taekwondo in South Africa is one of the best in the southern part of the continent.
Taekwondo became well-known in South Africa after the military chose the martial art as one of its combat sports along with judo and karate. According to the South African military authority, the focus on taekwondo is attributed to the fact that taekwondo is an Olympic sport.
The fact that it is an Olympic event has brought the dream of becoming an Olympian to even those from poor backgrounds in South Africa. Duncan Mahlangu became the first Taekwondo Master as the native African in South Africa. Although he is from a poor rural area, he was able to make it to the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics.
It was a rare opportunity as he was one of eight black athletes in the 180-strong South African national Olympic team. “People didn’t think we could participate in the Olympics with taekwondo,” he said. “It was a surprise for many people to see me in the Olympics.”
Duncan became so popular that the Olympic taekwondo competition was aired on South African national television.
Though he did not win a medal, people in South Africa came to realize that they can participate in the Olympics in taekwondo in addition to more familiar sports like soccer.
“I would love to see other South Africans to win a medal in the Olympics,” he said. “I want to teach someone to go farther than I did. That’s my dream.”
Taekwondo has also become more popular in the last few years in other parts of Africa.
The effort to spread taekwondo in Africa started in the late 1960s as Kukkiwon, also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters, started sending taekwondo masters to the continent beginning with the Ivory Coast in 1968. However, it did not go without difficulties. Many of those who were dispatched to Africa often faced many challenges such as extreme weather and safety issues and ended up returning to Korea or moved elsewhere.
However, Korean embassies and cultural centers in those African nations continued with their endeavors to spread the martial art and bore some fruit. Chika Chukwumerije of Nigeria won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Four of his family members — including his father Senator Uche Chukwumerije— are taekwondo dan holders.
In addition, hundreds of athletes from Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Mali, Togo, and Niger have participated in the annual Korean Ambassador’s Cup West Africa International Taekwondo Championship. The most recent competition, the third of its kind, was held at the velodrome of the Abuja National Stadium in Nigeria in December 2011. It is the only international taekwondo competition held in western Africa.
Habu Gumel, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has attended the championships, each time giving words of encouragement. He was quoted by the New Nigerian newspaper describing the championship as a catalyst to the sport’s development in Nigeria and West Africa as a whole in his address at the tournament.
There were many difficulties to hosting the tournaments, as electricity supply was not sufficient enough to provide light in the stadium where the taekwondo competitions were held. In 2010, the opening ceremony was held under dim lights, and a CD player that was intended to play the national anthems did not work due to lack of electricity. The athletes did not have proper uniforms and had to wear secondhand uniforms brought in from Korea.
“Taekwondo Dream in South Africa” (video produced by KTV
Still, taekwondo is quickly picking up in places like Nigeria, and it is a regular event in national sporting competitions in the country. According to Choi Jong-hyun, Korean Ambassador to Nigeria, the country, in particular, has 400,000 people practicing the martial art.