Love and Rebellion: How Two Karatekas Fought Apartheid

Fightland Blog

By Liam Resnekov


“You never knew what was going to happen. Anybody can give you away. In the middle of the night, a loud knock and they rush in and they catch you in bed, then you are off to being arrested or worse. You can spend a couple of years in jail or worse. But we made plans for what to do if we were arrested and we decided to just keep going. That was our resistance.” 

– Johan Roux

I’m on Skype to South Africa, struggling to stay with the conversation as my guest’s wonderful accents prove some challenge to my ear. On the other side of the line are Johan Roux, an Afrikaner police-trainee turned Karate master, and his life partner Nellie Kleinsmidt, a Colored school-teacher turned liberation heroine. Both now in their 70’s, they ran a mixed-race dojo while having a secret relationship during South Africa’s most dangerous era—Apartheid.  

My father, a Karate teacher and friend of Johan and Nellie, told me about their story and I jumped at the opportunity to tell it. I felt like not only would it inform a new generation of South Africans, but that it would also fill in the gaps in my own history. My own South African story ended in 1983 when my father saw the writing on the wall and decided it was time to leave. A grandchild of World War I and II immigrants, he saw his birth country mimic much of the behavior that his grandparents ran away from. So he left his parents, friends and Dojo behind, emigrating to Australia to give his kids a better future. 

As we begin the discussion, I realize how ignorant I am despite being born in South Africa. I am not sure if I should refer to Nellie as a Colored person—my western PC sentiments kicking in, causing me to wonder if it’s rude or racist. Johan senses it and quickly puts me at ease by kindly explaining that “it would be correct to use the word Colored, but Nellie is a Khoisan person, someone of mixed blood.”

Nellie & Johan at a function in 1978, beginning their relationship.

Johan and I begin by discussing the impact that Karate had on South Africa in the 60’s. “It was something special, it held the promise of making you a superhuman. Back then nobody really understood karate and it held a mystique about it so people were afraid of it. They didn’t want it falling into the hands of the majority, the Government thought of it as a weapon.” When the first Japanese instructors visited South Africa, the Minister of the Interior, then Jan de Klerk, warned them that they had to keep a low profile and weren’t allowed to share it with the Bantu or Native people. During the Apartheid era this meant more than a slap on the wrist. It meant you could be arrested or beaten without justification. 

In the modern days of strip-mall Karate and seven year-old black-belts, it’s hard to imagine a time where Karate was feared by governments—where Karate inspired rebellion. Try to imagine a time when Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" was banned in case it gave the native children ideas of uprising. Karate was beginning to get a foothold in South Africa in the 60’s but the Dojos were still a microcosm of the country; the colored people would have to train on different days to the white Karateka and the Bantu. 

As a young man, Johan decided to become a police officer to avoid South Africa’s compulsory military service. He began training at a naval gym and before graduation decided it was not for him. Instead he threw himself into Karate training on a full-time basis. Eventually Nellie and Johan would reach 8th and 7th dans respectively, and Nellie would be referred to by many as the Grande Dame of African Karate—the highest-ranking lady in Africa. Things, however, didn’t move fast for the first ten years she recalls. 

Nellie was working as a school teacher and teaching piano on the side when she saw a sign for Karate Do, the Way of Karate. She remembers it was love at first sight. “When I saw the sign I knew straight away I wanted to do it. My father and brother were boxers so fighting was in my family. Johan was already training there and back then (the 60’s) the white people could train Karate every day, but we were only allowed to train on Fridays.” Johan continues, “my Sensei, like most people, was afraid of the law. The Karate people back then were good, strong people, but they didn’t want any trouble so they kept their heads down and kept the training separate. They didn’t want trouble; they just wanted to share their art.” 

At the time of Apartheid, a law called the Group Areas Act designated certain suburbs to each racial subcategory. It wasn’t uncommon for two children from one family to be categorized into different “races” based on the shade of their skin, resulting in one being able to visit neighborhoods the other was prohibited from. 

When Johan opened his own dojo, Nellie came with him and worked as a secretary. “It wasn’t until 1977 that I made the decision to have everybody train together, even though it was illegal at the time.” Johan says “ I refused to be told what to do in my own dojo.”

I asked him where this decision came from as it was not one that could be made flippantly, least of all from a staunchly raised Afrikaner. “I remember the first time I realized things weren’t right in South Africa. My parents were strict Afrikaner nationalists, good people, but they weren’t highly educated. You have to understand how it was. TV only made an appearance in South Africa in 1976, so people simply didn’t know much about the outside world. My parents, like most Afrikaners, were strong Christian’s and even at a young age I began to question how people can be religious but still feel superior to other races.”

“When I turned 22, I was working with an Afrikaner man that was anti-national government, which was pretty rare back then. He started asking me questions and I realized I didn’t know anything. After that I secretly began reading English Newspapers, which were anti-Apartheid. By the time I started Karate, I was already starting to see things in a different way. The discipline and values of Karate further influenced me to ask more questions. The decision to allow mixed training was my way of resisting.”

Nellie tells me that a lot of trouble followed—letters, threats and complaints. She remembers the first time the police showed up on their doorstep. “Johan’s dojo was operating in an Afrikaner neighborhood and when word got out there was a lot of trouble. Only white people were allowed to live there unless you were a servant. I remember the first time the police came to our door. They showed up and stormed into the dojo, demanding everybody’s cards and personal information, obviously an intimidation tactic.”

She laughs in recalling how Johan reacted. “I remember they came onto the dojo floor and Johan looked at his shoes and told him to get them off the floor. I couldn’t believe it, these were officers with guns and he was telling them ‘this is my dojo, get off the mat and wait until training is over.’ I thought we were in big trouble! But the officer took one look at all the black belts and walked to the side.”

Although they continued to operate the dojo their way, things continued to get harder. Johan said, “after that raids kept coming we got a lot of objections from both the Government and the Afrikaner Broederbond, who were a white cultural group.” It turns out they were closer to a white supremacist group.

“We used to have Karate Do meetings—a lot of the instructors were people in the police, army and in the air force. When we would get together, the government thought we were plotting, thinking we were a terrorist group, so they started watching closely what we were doing. All we were having was a karate meeting!” 

“I made the decision where I wouldn’t be intimidated. That was my form of protest. Objections came. I went to see the minister and tried to get a special permit. He was adamant it was against the law. I refused to stop and be told what to do in my dojo. So I went to see the Colored government for support. The representative at the time told me: ‘Do not take it to the papers. This thing will die down if you keep it low key.’ I was stubborn at first but I decided to listen to him. See, back then, you simply didn’t criticize the government in public.”

Johan said that eventually it did start to slow down, but unfortunately the Government was about to have another issue with them, one that would last two decades and see them put on the government security list. 

Johan and a group of students on his farm in Philadelphia, Cape Town in 1982.

The Immorality Act, one of the legs of Apartheid, made it illegal for race categories to have relations with one another. Nellie recalls the beginning of their secret relationship: “We only started seeing each other in 1978 and we had to keep it secret. My parents knew about us but disapproved of Johan. They didn’t want me dating an Afrikaner man, but not because he was white, it was because they felt like my good reputation was in danger. Even though it was banned, white men use to have relationships with colored girls for one reason—to sleep with them and then discard them after. It was the feeling in the colored community at the time and they didn’t think much of white men. But afterwards, when our relationship was a few years old both of them accepted us.”

Johan on the other hand was forced to keep it secret. “My parents never found out  about us. It’s funny because they were close with Nellie and she looked after them in their old age. They were great people but they wouldn’t have accepted us. It was just the way it was, it was part and parcel of the system. If they knew I had a relationship with a Colored woman they would have died earlier!”

Johan remembers the time with a mixture of laughter and horror: “Sometimes it was rather ridiculous. There was a lot of upheaval and security police. Your father would often call us, he had students in law enforcement and would warn us that they were coming. Sometimes we didn’t know. Some nights I would go home just to let the heat go. If they tracked us, we’d be in a hotspot, particularly Nellie. In 1983 your father made a decision to leave and we considered it, but ultimately we made a decision to stay and continue regardless. We never regretted it but it wasn’t easy. Nellie became involved in organizing resistance against the government and saved a lot of people, sometimes physically dragging them out of the police firing line.”

For the next ten years, the country would be in turmoil, but they stayed put, taught Karate and managed to keep their relationship secret; at least they thought they did. “A few years ago, after Apartheid, a white gentleman approached me in the bank and asked if I remembered him and I didn’t. The dojo was in an office building and we lived there because the Immorality Act said we couldn’t live together.” Nellie tells me, “he told me that everybody in the building knew about us, but we were such nice people that they decided they wouldn’t give us away. I almost died. I didn’t realize people knew!”

They tell me that people often ask them if they harbor anger or resentment that their relationship had to be kept a secret and Johan always tells them, “it was just part of our life. You get so used to it and think it’s normal. We were actually really lucky. When you look back, you can find it bitter or amusing, don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but we had full, rich lives, so we don’t resent anyone.”

I ask them if they regret not having children and they pause before Nellie answers, “we decided not to have any children—if the father was white and the mother was colored—the offspring would be classified as a colored person and subjected to all the apartheid laws, something we were against. So we don’t regret it, we made a good decision. But we are involved with children everyday, we have so many children through karate and watch them grow, so we feel like we didn’t miss out.”

They claim with much pride that they had the longest engagement in South African history. In 2000, after the passing of both of Johan’s parents, they were finally married—their relationship outlasting Apartheid. Now both in their 70’s, they continue to teach the power of Karate to the youth of a new era, in a free South Africa.


Check out this related story:

A Mixed Martial Artist Fights for Social Justice