Sport

COVID BLOWS

Kung fu in a fight for survival in South Africa after the pandemic

Kung fu in a fight for survival in South Africa after the pandemic
The Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre schools in South Africa have been running for more than 30 years. (Photo: Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre)

The Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre lost 30% of its student body at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and was forced to close two of its schools in Fourways and London.

Si Fu Marco Kavalieratos has been a martial arts practitioner for nearly five decades. He’s served as a national coach, worked with the South African Special Forces and the National Firearms Training Association of South Africa, and has established kung fu schools around the globe. He knows how to win a fight.

And yet, Kavalieratos is quick to highlight how Covid-19 and the resultant restrictions have hit the martial arts community like nothing before. While restrictions are easing, the fight for survival is ongoing. 

“We’re in a big hole at the moment and I can’t say for certain where we’ll be in five years’ time,” he told Daily Maverick. “We want to keep our schools and in-house programmes. At the same time, we realise how important it will be to pursue the online method.”

Virtual instruction is here to stay

The Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre lost 30% of its student body at the height of the pandemic, and was forced to close two of its schools in Fourways and London.

While Covid-19 restrictions have eased in recent months, kung fu instructors continue to use in-house as well as online methods with the aim of preserving an ancient discipline.

“When Covid hit, we decided to be more progressive and take that step,” said Kavalieratos. “It goes against our ethos of in-class teaching, but we felt it was important to keep going by offering the training online.

“We’re nearly two years down the line, and while the Covid situation has improved, we have in-house classes as well as online classes, because you still get people who are sick or isolating who don’t want to miss out.

“While in-class training will always be ideal, we’ve realised that we must keep the online training going. We’re branching out to offer full online courses and even specific techniques for a fee or subscription. We’re also exploring virtual reality mapping and how that might assist with the learning experience.

What are you doing when you walk out of your front door, or get into the car? When should you be on your phone? Because that’s what assailants look for, people who are not paying attention

“The benefit of this online service is that people can access it when it suits them. From what we’ve seen over the past year or so, this method is working, but I’d be lying if I said it was the same as training in-house.

“In-house, you get the full benefit of the teaching. You receive the instruction from an experienced teacher, and then you get to apply what you’ve learnt by sparring against different people and the energy of training with like-minded classmates.”

Preserving a legacy

Kavalieratos was introduced to martial arts via karate when he was six years old. After befriending a schoolmate of Chinese origin, he delved into the world of kung fu and quickly immersed himself in its teachings and culture.

After training for many years and earning South African colours, Kavalieratos began to instruct his own students. He eventually spearheaded the Chinese Martial Arts Association and attended tournaments around the world.

Students practise their forms on a trip to the main school in Taiwan. (Photo: Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre)

Thirty years later, Kavalieratos and others in the community are fighting to keep kung fu alive.

“My generation came after a lot of the great masters. In the past, the master would wait until finding a loyal student to pass the knowledge on,” he said. 

“However, we’ve got to the point where a lot of the old masters with real knowledge of these systems have died. We’ve got to make a change to ensure that this knowledge survives. 

“That’s what I’m trying to do with our Chang Quan [Long Fist] system. I’m trying to document it as well as pass it on via in-house lessons. It’s a legacy for other teachers to carry on.”

Kung fu surpassed karate to become one of the most popular martial arts disciplines in the 1990s. Nowadays, both are overshadowed by mixed martial arts (MMA).

Read in Daily Maverick: “Kasi karate is ‘Like Water’

“MMA has attracted the hardcore folk. It’s interesting to watch, and it’s very violent. That’s where martial arts have moved into a competitive arena, and I suppose that’s how more people have learnt to understand it. Unfortunately, MMA is taxing on the body and practice of this art is short-lived. 

“However, I believe there will be a resurgence of traditional martial arts. While it will always serve a purpose in terms of self-defence, it is also a lifestyle with many health benefits. 

I’m really passionate about ensuring that physical practice lives on, because we as people are losing our ability to be physical.” 

Lifestyle that enhances situation awareness

Violent crime has long been an issue in South Africa. Martial arts have equipped many of its citizens with the means to protect themselves and others. 

Kavalieratos is concerned that smartphones, and their ubiquitous use in public spaces, have led to a decline in situation awareness. Citizens who aren’t paying attention are often targeted by criminals.

“What are you doing when you walk out of your front door, or get into the car? When should you be on your phone? Because that’s what assailants look for, people who are not paying attention. 

“This is why I talk about martial arts as a lifestyle. Most people only see it as a physical thing, but there’s a massive mental component that underscores everything you do.” 

Kavalieratos hopes that the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre will bounce back and eventually expand. After securing funding, Kavalieratos will proceed with a project aimed at empowering children in underprivileged areas.

“Rugby, cricket, soccer… those are the sports that receive most of the funding and sponsorship in this country. We’re probably near the bottom of the list. We’re looking at getting funding from an international NGO, though. 

“We want to empower people in this country, and particularly young kids who need guidance and a value system in their lives. We believe that we can help.” DM

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