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Traditional horse-racing in South Africa’s Eastern Cape

Lubabalo Gibson before start of race

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Shaun Swingler

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Lubabalo has been racing horses since he was just five years old, which is not uncommon for a traditional jockey. Now aged 13, he is widely considered to be one of the leading young jockeys on the traditional horse-racing circuit.

George Gibson, a traditional healer and horse owner

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Shaun Swingler

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Like many Xhosa men in the region, Lubabalo’s father, George Gibson, comes from family that has owned and raced horses for generations. Even before the introduction of horses, which were a colonial import, the amaXhosa, as the Xhosa people are collectively known, held races with cattle.

Village, Eastern Cape

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Shaun Swingler

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For more than 200 years, traditional horse-racing has been an integral part of Xhosa culture and often serves as an important rite of passage for young boys in the rural Eastern Cape, particularly across the undulating emerald hills that characterise the former apartheid “homeland” of the Transkei. The sport has undergone a considerable resurgence in recent years, against a backdrop of rampant poverty and underdevelopment.

Interior, Gibson homestead

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Shaun Swingler

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In the Gibson homestead, in the small village of Cebe, which overlooks South Africa’s Wild Coast, racing trophies won by George Gibson and his sons, Lubabalo and Siyawandisa, sit atop a freezer that doubles as a makeshift trophy cabinet, in the lounge.

Gibson with horse

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Christopher Clark

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George believes traditional horse-racing can serve as a protective measure against the social ills that consume too many boys and young men in the Transkei.

Lubabalo rides horses on the beach

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Christopher Clark

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Lubabalo warms up two of his father’s horses on a beach just below the Gibson homestead, part of the daily routine in the run-up to race days.

Lubabalo riding

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Christopher Clark

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Lubabalo hopes his ascension through the ranks of traditional horse-racing will ultimately propel him on to the professional racing circuit.

Gibson in traditional costume

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Christopher Clark

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George, dressed in traditional ceremonial garb, including a goatskin headpiece, calls on the spirits of his ancestors in his native isiXhosa. “We have come to ask for you to bless our journey. And we have come to ask for success in today’s race. May our horses race the best race of their lives,” he says.

Lubabalo fights to keep his horse under control

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Christopher Clark

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Lubabalo fights to keep his horse under control as he makes his way to the starting line for a race.

Lubalalo in a horse race

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Christopher Clark

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Lubabalo, in the yellow jersey, approaches the finish line in first place at a championship race near the market town of Butterworth as spectators look on.

Spectators at race finish line

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Christopher Clark

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Though traditional horse-racing remains little-known beyond the Transkei, attendance at races has grown within the past five years.

All photographs by Christopher Clark and Shaun Swingler

Traditional horse-racing in South Africa’s Eastern Cape

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