Solly Said has walked the hard road of karate for 21 years. He has found the real power of karate not in his punch, but in his spirit.
Solly is a teacher of karate. He is called ‘Sensei’ by his students. The word ‘Sensei’ is a Japanese word. It is a respectful way of saying ‘teacher’. You are called ‘Sensei’ when you get your fourth black belt.
Karate began in Japan many hundreds of years ago. The sport was started by the poor people who worked the land. They were not allowed to have weapons in those days. Only their masters, the Samurai warriors, were allowed to carry weapons.
But the people had their hands for weapons. Their hands were enough. The word ‘karate’ means ’empty hands’.
“NO FIRST ATTACK”
True karate students believe that karate should only be used for self defence. Sensei Solly could be more dangerous than a leopard in a fight. But he does not want to fight anyone.
“There are rules in karate,” says Solly. “One of the rules is ‘no first attack’.”
This rule means that karate students must try not to get into fights. The true karate student only fights when he or she is training. Solly explains: “Karate should be used only for self defence. And to uphold truth and justice, and to help people who need it.”
“People think karate is about violence. But it is really about non-violence. The most important thing about karate is that it builds strength of spirit. It helps you to grow and become a better person.”
A PEACEFUL SPIRIT
It is the peaceful spirit of karate that makes it so different from other sports. Solly tells a story to show how a karate student should build his spirit.
“Long ago in Japan, a great karate master was riding home on a riksha (a light cart). It was at night, and a group of thugs tried to attack him. But he jumped off the riksha and ran home.
“The next day he was teaching at his dojo. (A dojo is the place where karate students train). Some people came to see him. They were the thugs who attacked him the night before. They had come to say they were sorry — and to thank him for not fighting them.
“They only found out who he was after they attacked him. And they knew that he could have hurt them very badly . But he chose not to fight. He was true to the spirit of Karate.”
But sometimes you do have to fight. Solly was once attacked by two tsotsis as he was walking with his wife. One of the thugs stabbed him with a long Okapi knife.
Solly could not use his left arm because of the knife wound. But he dropped the first thug with a kick. Then he turned, fast as a whip. Another hard kick from Solly knocked the other tsotsi down. They ran off, leaving Solly to bandage his wounds.
Solly is glad that he was able to chase his attackers off with his karate skills. “But the best fight,” he says, “is the one which is not fought at all.”
FINDING THE WAY
Solly has made karate his life. It started for him in 1967. Then he was a young boy who loved sport. He played soccer, and he played the game with all his heart. But he lived in a rough area in Johannesburg. This area was called ‘Chinatown’. The people who lived here were poor — and they were tough.
Young Solly Said played a good game of soccer. But he was small and thin. He bounced around almost as much as the soccer ball when the game got rough. And he ended up in fights too.
“I needed to do something to protect myself,” Solly remembers. “I started looking around — there were only two or three karate schools in Johannesburg then. But they were for whites only. Karate was banned for blacks at that time.”
Maybe the whites in those days thought blacks who knew karate would not only break bricks, as karate people can — they might knock down houses too!
But the young Solly Said did not give up easily. He joined a youth group. One of the sports the youth group did was karate.
LIKE A ROCKET!
“Once I started, it just took off like a rocket!” says Solly. “I couldn’t think about anything but karate. My schoolwork suffered because of it!”
When Solly’s father saw his school marks go down, he was angry. “He gave me three days to decide if I was going to do karate or play soccer,” laughs Solly. “I took karate — and I’ve never looked back.”
Solly had a dream. And that dream was karate. He trained hard with the youth club’s karate team. They had to practise in secret because of the ban on blacks doing karate.
They trained on the mine-dumps. And they trained in schools after everyone else had gone home. They had to be careful that the night- watchmen did not catch them there!
But Solly was young. He wanted more than just mine-dumps and back-yards. He wanted adventure.
THE ROAD TO JAPAN
“When I finished matric, I planned to hitch-hike to Cape Town. I was going to get work on a ship, to go to Japan.”
It is the dream of every karate student to go to Japan. It was Solly’s greatest wish to go there. But things happened differently for him.
The Japanese government would not give him a permit to enter the country. So he saved all his money and he caught an aeroplane to the other side of the world — New York, USA!
Solly heard that a great karate teacher was in New York. His name was Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. The word ‘Kaicho’ means ‘grand master’. Solly had heard strange things about this man, Nakamura. That he could fight 100 men at once. That he could catch arrows out of the air. Solly went to New York to see for himself.
A MAN OF FEW WORDS
Kaicho Nakamura is a man of few words. He says little — but Solly learned much in the time he spent as Kaicho’s student. Solly trained hard during the day. And he trained hard again at night.
Solly has painful memories of New York. “The training there is very, very tough,” he says. “Each class lasted about two hours. The last 30 minutes were left for fighting (called ‘kumite’). You had to stand up and fight anyone in the class.”
“Many times I remember walking to the dojo, and just praying I would live to the end of the class!”
But the biggest test was still to come. At last it was time for Solly to go for his black belt. It was a time that Solly will never forget.
To get a black belt, you must prove you are good enough. So you have to fight against students who are black belts themselves.
As Solly walked past the other black belts for his test, he heard one of them say, “We’re dealing death — is this punk going for black belt?” Solly was scared. But he knew he had “the best teacher in the world” — Kaicho Nakamura.
After the test, Solly was black and blue with bruises. His friends had to help him to walk out of the dojo. Solly did not know how long he had been fighting that day. The kumite had started at 3 o’clock. And it ended at 6 o’clock. Solly felt like a worn-out punching bag. But he had passed the test.
A DOJO AT HOME
Since that time, Solly has gone back many times to New York. And he has trained in Japan too. He has opened his own dojo in Johannesburg. His karate club is called Seido karate.
The head of Seido is Kaicho Nakamura.
Now Solly trains his own students in the Seido style of karate — just as Kaicho Nakamura trained him. Solly’s dojo is non-racial. His students are of all races.
This non-racialism caused some problems when the dojo opened in 1976. The police visited the dojo a number of times. At that time, South Africa was thrown out of world sport because of apartheid. So the government could not close the Seido dojo. This would have made South Africa stink even more.
LIKE A FAMILY
“We are like a family here at Seido,” says Solly proudly. “We have 19 black belts now. The black belts teach the other students. They must listen to their problems and show them the way.”
Nesan Naidoo is one of the Seido black belts. He is still young — but his body is tough and hard from the long years of karate training. He started karate when he was five years old.
“Karate is more than a sport,” he says. “It is something you do because you have a love of it.”
Another black belt, Kalil Koor, agrees with Nesan. “I find karate is good for the mind, the body and the spirit. It is for people of any age. It is not like other sports which have an age limit.”
A SPORT FOR LIFE
Jerry Mothlabane is 44 years old. He has been doing karate with Solly for 14 years. Jerry tells how he started karate. “I was working with Sensei Solly,” Jerry remembers. “He said I should train too — so I thought I would give it a try.
“I found it was not just self-defence. It has changed my life completely. Now I understand more about people, and about life too. I learned that you have to understand yourself before you can understand others.”
How long will Jerry carry on doing karate?
“As long as I live!” he replies.
Solly, Nesan and the others all nod their heads in agreement. They have found a sport for life. They have discovered the power in an empty hand!
self defence — to protect yourself
thug — tsotsi
non-racialism — when people are not judged by the colour of their skin
age limit — when only people of a certain age can do something