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‘Protect your Queen at all costs’ – Women’s Day lessons from the chessboard in New Brighton

‘Protect your Queen at all costs’ – Women’s Day lessons from the chessboard in New Brighton
Children play a game of chess on the open-air chessboard at Embizweni Circle, New Brighton, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

On Women’s Day, an early-morning rain shower and an icy wind have left the streets of New Brighton empty for a little longer than usual. But community leader Mike Pantsi is on duty at the open-air chess board at Embizweni Circle. The board is his classroom; here he helps children learn about life, coding, maths and chess.

Early on Wednesday morning, only a few kilometres from New Brighton, Nelson Mandela Bay, police cars lined up outside the Richmond Hill house of Ironman athlete Marolien Schmidt. She had been stabbed to death at home in the early hours of the morning.

At the same time Mike Pantsi gets into his car, still a bit shaky from having survived a hijacking and robbery in Makhanda a few days earlier – but today he has a mission. 

women's day chess

Community leader Mike Pantsi at the open-air chess board at Embizweni Circle in New Brighton, Nelson Mandela Bay. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Pantsi is chairperson of the Traditional Leaders in Nelson Mandela Bay, the recent recipient of the Eastern Cape Premier’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the arts, a former promoter of gospel singer Rebecca Molope, a former chairperson of Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism and, among many other achievements, the organiser of the first and only beauty pageant held for nurses at Livingstone Hospital.

Born and bred in New Brighton in Nelson Mandela Bay, Pantsi (68) grew up with theatre legend John Kani and artist George Pemba as his role models and neighbours.

“I always promised myself that I would fly with the eagles.”

women's day chess

Volunteers set up the open-air chessboard at Embizweni Circle, New Brighton in Nelson Mandela Bay, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

The open-air chess board at Embizweni Circle in New Brighton is Pantsi’s classroom where he teaches children about life and also throws in classes on chess, coding and maths. His next mission is to start teaching reading and help kids to improve their literacy.

As volunteers set out the chess pieces, he points to a cloth and asks them to wipe them down.

women's day chess

Children watch a game played by their friends on the open-chair chess board in New Brighton, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

“I use the chess board to tell the children about life. I first always tell them, you have to know who you are because this way they will know what the right thing is to do. Then I also tell them that practising sports and chess will give them confidence so they can stand up for what is right. But today I will talk about what the chess board tells us about Women’s Day.

“The queen is a crucial piece on the board. She is the most efficient at attacking and can move around the most. So she must be protected at all costs. Every queen and king on the board has a house and this house is protected by a bishop and a rook, but all of them in the end must protect the queen. Also, I explain that even if you are a pawn and you can just move a little bit, you can be that pawn that makes a difference to the game.”

women's day chess

Children play a game of chess on the open-air chessboard at Embizweni Circle, New Brighton, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Pantsi himself doesn’t play chess, but has recruited volunteers who do, and the determination and competitiveness of his little charges delights him no end.

Nthabi Rasana, one of his volunteers, brings scores of young children with her to the chess board. Pantsi rubs his hands together: “Let them play.”

Rasana, also a member of the New Brighton Neighbourhood Watch, says she loves teaching the children how to play and seeing them becoming really good at it.

The NPO created by Pantsi to promote chess education in New Brighton is called Fezayona Imizamo and the organisation has been gifted many chess sets through Pantsi’s interventions.

women's day chess

Anti-apartheid activist and former Robben Island prisoner Mike Xego joins the children for a game of chess. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Halfway through the morning, former Struggle activist and Robben Island prisoner Mike Xego arrives. On his way somewhere else, and wearing his sunglasses on his head, he stops to say hello and find out what is going on.

He challenges one of the young ones to a game. Soon a large crowd gathers to see the colourful Xego take on the youngsters.

“I learnt to play chess on Robben Island – a long time ago – but let me see what I can do,” he laughs. Eventually, Xego says he has to declare a draw “before Robben Island got beaten by young New Brighton”.

Pantsi marvels at the confidence of his young charge who kept his cool.

“This is working,” he says. “Look at the confidence of that boy.”

He talks about hope. “You know government can’t fix this country. I have hope because I preach do-it-yourself. We can create our own hope,” he says. “That is where hope will come from.” DM

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