After 50 years of learning and teaching martial arts, Solly Said is glad he followed his heart in his career instead of following his parents’ wishes.
After all, it also brought him love.
It was through karate that he met his wife, Shamsa.
Shamsa Said hurries to the dojo, with only five minutes to spare before her next client, wearing black sweat pants and a loose T-shirt. She joins her husband who is already deep in conversation about his life as a karate master. She insists on being interviewed alone. “It is going to take forever if I do the interview with him [Solly]”. He has a great laugh because of her comment.
Shamsa talks about how she was led to karate because of her interest in Solly. “It was the only way I was going to see him,” she says. She ended up pursuing karate and reached black belt status.
All five of their children have followed in their footsteps and have obtained their black belts. Twenty-eight-year-old Zahra Said is a 4th Dan black belt. Yu-sha is their youngest son and a 3rd Dan black belt. He has a keen interest in soccer and has a position as analyst of the U19 Orlando Pirates team. Tasneem is his oldest child and also a 4th Dan; she is a mother and has chosen to focus her time on family.
Said has been teaching karate in Fordsburg for the past 25 years. He wishes that one of his children would take over the karate business and one of his daughters was prepared to until tragedy struck. “My second-youngest daughter passed away 15 years ago, I thought she was going to be the one who takes over.”
He also speaks highly of daughter Zahra and would not mind if she was the one who took over the family business. Although Zahra says her parents have been a true inspiration, she does not feel the need to one day take over the family business. “This was my father’s path, I have to look for my own path,” she says as she explains her independence from the business.
She finds a lot of pleasure in teaching children karate in her own capacity. “I love seeing them learn, I love seeing them apply, I love seeing them getting excited and wanting to show me the new kick-back that they have learnt.”
She also has a big passion for Heal Your Life therapy just like her mother, Shamsa. This kind of therapy helps with relaxation and physiological processes such as circulation.
However, Said believes that his legacy will continue one way or another, even if it is by his students. “I think what I have started 50 years ago will go to posterity. I can see future generations, sucking it dry, drinking it, eating it and enjoying what has been developed.”
At the age of 13, Solly knew that martial arts would be the path he would take. Growing up in the violent Malay camp area, he says doing karate was the only means of self-defence and discipline. At the time, gangs were popular and there was a lot of political turmoil in the area and South Africa as a whole.
It became the community’s aim to get young children off the streets . For his early childhood, Said recalls many children from his area playing cricket or soccer every day when they got back from school. “We spent many hours on the streets playing and fooling around,” he says.
The Central Islam Youth Organisation (CIYO) started an initiative to get the youth off the streets. They wanted to introduce sports such as karate and judo that place a great emphasis on discipline and respect. At the time karate was an unconventional sport, especially for “non-whites”, Said says. “Some people only knew about karate because of James Bond movies.”
Said, or Hanshi (master) as he is called by his students, has beaten all the odds to follow his dreams. In his final year of studying BEd he decide to change and study draughting because it was a paying apprenticeship course. This is how he raised funds for his plane ticket to Japan.
Although he was financially and emotionally ready for the trip, his father refused to let him “go to Japan and get killed,” so he did not help Said with his visa. “I was the fourth of five sons in the family, and while the others had seemed to have conformed to the house rules, I was the maverick,” Said says. Said laughs when he thinks of the measures he had to take in order to get a visa. “I ended up forging my father’s signature. He was livid when he found out how I got my passport but that was my dream.”
However, it was not a smooth journey to Japan for him. He had problems with his visa and had to start his travels in Zimbabwe where he would do a short karate course. It was there where he was advised by his karate master to start his international travels in New York. “He told me that there were top karate masters from Japan and you can learn from them and pick up a bit of Japanese.” This is where he was graded and tested for his 1st Dan black belt.
Said made a promise to himself that he would be in Japan on his 21st birthday and he was. Being in Japan was the highlight of his career because he was taught by the great Japanese Hanshi Masutatsu Oyama, founder of Kyokushin Kai karate.
Said smiles when he speaks about the time he has spent in Japan. “Words can’t describe the experience, the challenges, the charm of studying in a full-time karate school. The one in Japan had the flavours of the East.”
He speaks passionately about all elements of Japanese culture, whether it be music, art, literature or food. “I feel like I must have been Japanese in another lifetime,” he says.
However, deep down in his heart he knew that he owed it to his country to come back and make a difference in the only way he knew how to, through karate. He opened his first gym and dojo at the Suliman Nana Memorial Hall in the late 1960s.
During his travels abroad he met up with his peers, who were advising him to leave South Africa for good. Especially in the 1980s when South Africa was going through political turmoil. At the time there were national school boycotts in most townships. There were also many forced removals in the Vrededorp area where Said came from.
He then founded his own karate style called Ken To Fude Ryu. This karate style is a culmination of all the different styles that he had learnt all over the world, including Kyokushin Kai karate. It is Japanese for “the way of the brush and sword”.
“The name came to me in a kind of half sleep, half awakeness, after sleepless nights of thinking, dreaming and contemplating.”
The brush refers to the continuous search for knowledge because in ancient Japanese culture, people did not use a pen but a brush to write. Said says it reflects on his keen interest for literature and writing. It could also reflect on using diplomacy and skills in creating peace through negotiation.
The sword is said to symbolise the continuous practice of perfection. Being a master in martial arts shows just how this Hanshi has worked hard to perfect his craft and this is what he tries to instil in his students. It could also mean, if necessary, people have to fight for what they believe in order to find peace.
The principles of Ken To Fude Ryu karate are meant to instil seven core values. These include ensuring that students become stronger, tougher, gain stamina, gain knowledge of the syllabus and gain skill in their performance. Maintaining a good attitude is also key because Said emphasises that skill alone is not enough for students to progress. Said also emphasises a good form of spirit- building which means producing more confident students.
One of the most important principles for Ken To Fude Ryu is, as Said explains it, converting “pain to power” which means that students will be able to defend themselves more quickly than the average person. This is because they would be able to withstand pain considering the continuous practice which would involve blows to the body.
Ken To Fude Ryu karate has similarities to the Kyokushin Kai style which Said learnt in Japan. Kyokushin is Japanese for “the ultimate truth” and is rooted in a philosophy of self-improvement, discipline and hard training. This concept has less to do with the Western meaning of truth; rather it is more in keeping with the bushido (warrior code) concept of discovering the nature of one’s true character when tried. One of the goals of Kyokushin is to strengthen and improve character by challenging oneself through rigorous training.
Using Ken To Fude Ryu karate, many of Said’s scholars have been able to flourish and, just like him, travel around the world. This makes Said very proud because he feels that he has served as a role model to many of the young children that he trains in and around Fordsburg.
Said speaks of how the dynamics in Fordsburg have changed a great deal since the time he decided to return to South Africa. Now there are people of all nationalities (Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi and Egyptian) coming in to learn karate. He speaks proudly of his gym having been used in a documentary as an example of a space where people are accepted regardless of their nationality, during the xenophobic attacks in 2011. “My gym was seen as the ideal kind of centre where people could work together without thinking of people as other.”