‘The best race of their lives’: A day with the Wild Coast’s traditional jockeys

Christopher Clark
George Gibson readies one of his horses for a race, at his homestead in the rural village of Cebe, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Horse racing has been an integral part of Xhosa culture in this region for more than 200 years.
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As the clock counts down to race time, 14-year-old Lubabalo Gibson looks calm – not so surprising, perhaps, since he’s been racing horses since he was 5.

This is traditional horse racing, Xhosa-style. It’s a 200-year tradition, with roots in South Africa’s tangled colonial history, and a common rite of passage among rural Xhosa men here on the country’s Wild Coast region, a hilly stretch along the Indian Ocean.

Why We Wrote This

In the instant that a racehorse thunders by, what do you see? Beauty, talent, cruelty? To many Xhosa men, racing is about both tradition and opportunity: a way to follow their fathers’ footsteps, while building a better future.

Traditional racing has done more than survive; in terms of audience, it’s thriving, and may even be the country’s fastest-growing sport. Some fear its newfound popularity – and money – will change the spirit of racing itself. But in a country where youth unemployment sits at more than 55%, young jockeys have a palpable sense of what success could mean for them and their families – and how they could challenge stereotypes, too.

Back on his father’s homestead, packing a tattered leather bag with gear for the day’s races, Lubabalo points to a noisy diesel generator that keeps the lights on.

“That came from my winnings,” he says. “As the eldest son, when my father is gone, I will be the one to take care of the whole family.”

As a strong southeasterly wind whips through the small village of Cebe, George Gibson takes one of his prize racehorses by the reins and walks it across the soft, gray sand toward the Indian Ocean. 

With the incoming tide washing around their ankles, Mr. Gibson pauses, lifts his head skyward, and calls on the spirits of his ancestors in his native isiXhosa, punching the air with a clenched fist and raising his voice above the roar of the waves. 

“The final judgement will be made! The final judgement will be made!” he shouts. 

Why We Wrote This

In the instant that a racehorse thunders by, what do you see? Beauty, talent, cruelty? To many Xhosa men, racing is about both tradition and opportunity: a way to follow their fathers’ footsteps, while building a better future.

“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.”

For almost 200 years, traditional horse racing has been part of the fabric of Xhosa culture in this hilly region along South Africa’s Wild Coast. Its origins are interwoven with the colonial conflicts of the early 19th century, when the amaXhosa, as the Xhosa people are collectively known, acquired horses and rifles from roaming Dutch traders in a bid to repel the advancing British cavalry.

The amaXhosa had long held races with cattle, but primarily ranked cows by their appearance in full flight, rather than which bumptious bovine was first to cross the finish line. When drought and disease decimated cattle populations at the turn of the 20th century, horses’ roles expanded beyond war.

But today, it’s not just locals who are watching: Traditional racing may even be South Africa’s fastest-growing sport. With new popularity come new opportunities for making money – and, some traditionalists fear, changes to the spirit of racing itself.

And all those pressures will be riding today’s race alongside Lubabalo, Mr. Gibson’s son: 14 years old and already a prodigy.

Christopher Clark
Two young jockeys cross the finish line in a recent traditional horse race near the market town of Butterworth, South Africa.

Four generations

Mr. Gibson, a quietly intense man, shares his passion for traditional racing with at least three generations of Gibson patriarchs before him – a common family thread among rural Xhosa men, for whom horse racing often serves as a rite of passage.

“My father’s father raced horses, then my father took over from him. When I was a young boy, I was a jockey. Then I taught my sons how to jockey,” he recalls. “This sport is very important to all of us as Xhosa people.”

But today, its visibility is spreading far beyond. Attendance at races has tripled in the past five years, soaring as high as 30,000 people, according to Craig Paterson, a researcher at Rhodes University who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on traditional racing.

That boom is particularly noteworthy given its near total collapse during the blood-soaked final throes of apartheid in the early 1990s, when the threat of civil war loomed large across much of rural South Africa.

Horse breeder Mahlubi Puzi remembers that dark period well. He also recalls days when he would go hungry to make sure that his horses could be fed. But however dire things seemed, Mr. Puzi says he remained steadfast in his belief that his beloved sport would recover. 

“Traditional horse racing has had many highs and lows,” he says, “but it has always carried on.” 

Today’s revival is fueled in part by sponsorship from the Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts, and Culture, and the South African Racing Association, Mr. Puzi says. 

But there’s another explanation, Dr. Paterson says, born of disenchantment with South Africa’s persisting inequalities.

“When I look at traditional horse racing today, I get this feeling that it’s almost like a commemorative ritual ... like a constant performance of a way of life and of a kind of harking back to an idealized time,” he says. “There is this growing idea that there was something better or something different that people are almost trying to re-perform as a reclamation of their heritage.”

The reinvigoration has piqued the interest of the burgeoning black business elite, as well, with cultural tourism companies, gambling outfits, and corporate event-organizers eager to cash in. Many of racing’s older custodians fear that such attention could threaten the soul of the sport.

“It becomes about the extremes of winning at all costs,” Mr. Puzi says. “The love of the horse, which has been the entire essence of the sport, is fading. Now it’s becoming more about what the horse can do to get money for their owner.” 

Put to the test 

But younger participants see potential, in a country where youth unemployment sits at more than 55%

Back in Cebe, Lubabalo already has a palpable sense of what success could mean for his family. As he packs a tattered leather bag with his jockey gear for the afternoon’s races, he points to a noisy diesel generator that keeps the lights on. 

“That came from my winnings,” he says. “As the eldest son, when my father is gone, I will be the one to take care of the whole family.”

It’s an hour and a half’s drive along rutted dirt roads from the Gibson homestead to the race venue, just outside the small market town of Butterworth. Mr. Gibson parks among scores of horse trailers on the edge of a curved hillside, a natural amphitheater for the races. An expectant crowd has already gathered close to the finish line of the 1,400-meter track, flanking two parallel rows of painted car tires that mark out its course. 

Lubabalo changes into his jodhpurs and signature baggy bright-yellow racing jersey, then sits in the back of the car to wait. He looks calm, perhaps unsurprising considering he’s been racing since he was just 5 years old – not uncommon for a traditional jockey. 

But the stakes are likely higher than Lubabalo realizes. For Mr. Gibson, his eldest son’s continuing success is protection against the social ills that consume many young men here.

“My biggest concern was the crime I saw around me and all the young people who get hooked on drugs and alcohol,” he says. “And so I decided that my son must have something to help him put food on the table one day, while also occupying his time outside of school. Many boys like him can be kept busy by this sport. It can save them.”

There’s also a burden of hope that young stars can challenge views in the predominantly white professional horse-racing community.

“Those people, they see horses that are sold to black people as horses that are going to die. They perceive our sport in a very negative way,” Mr. Puzi says. “They don’t understand that when these horses arrive in our hands, they become family members. We look after them better than they were ever looked after in the stables of the formal racing sector.”

As the midday heat begins to subside and dark, ominous clouds gradually roll in from the coast, Lubabalo hoists himself onto his father’s horse. Mr. Gibson tightens the saddle and checks the stirrups as a crowd of men forms and begins to sing isiXhosa praise songs, harmonizing in a low baritone.

The competitors trot across the open field, taking their place at the starting line. 

After a couple of false starts, the race gets underway, and Lubabalo quickly pulls out in front of the pack. As the sound of galloping hooves approaches the finish line, the spectators whip themselves into a growing state of frenzy.

As he often does, Lubabalo crosses the finish line first. 

Mr. Gibson runs through the cloud of dust that trails behind his son, shouting at the top of his lungs: “The judgement has been made!”

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