South Africa, Part I. Print E-mail
Jennifer's Blog
By Jennifer Shahade   
May 6, 2007
Two months ago, I started talking to "Cuby" on ICC about visiting South Africa to promote women's chess. As excited as I was to visit South Africa, I was apprehensive about the casual, tone of the negotiations, which often seemed like text messages . My fears escalated when I read an article by an old friend, Israeli GM Artur Kogan, about his own harrowing experience in South Africa.In a very long article, Kogan writes about how he signed up to play in a tournament in South Africa with nice conditions yet accepted a promotional tour when the tournament was canceled. However, the sponsorship fell through and Artur was never paid for his time, and not even reimbursed for his travel expenses. He also claims that he felt scared for his safety during the trip.

Just as I was writing off the opportunity to visit Africa for the first time, I received a professional invitation and more details Lynne van Rensburg, the secretary of the Gauteng (a region in South Africa centered at Johannesburg) Junior Chess committee. She also sent me impressive looking posters and flyers for the SA Ladies Open at Cresta shopping center, a huge mall in Johannesburg. The thought of seeing elephants and lions, while promoting women's chess and my book, Chess Bitch, to a totally new audience was enough to cast away my worries about the safety of Johannesburg and Artur's terrible experience.

About one hour after landing in "Joburg", I found myself surrounded by enthusiastic girl chessplayers, reporters and promoters!

The 32-hour journey was broken up with a lovely day long layover in Paris during which I spent most of my time photographing flowers and drinking six dollar cappuccinos (The dollar doesn't work well these days in Europe.) After a 12-hour flight from Paris, I landed in "Joburg" and met with my hosts, Lynne and Pierre Van Rinsberg, who drove me back to their place and handed me an exciting but exhausting schedule. Day 1 was packed with a photo shoot, a radio interview, a visit to the shopping center where the South African Ladies Open was scheduled, and a braai, a traditional South African barbecue. I was impressed with the publicity campaigns run by both the Gateung Chess Association and the Cresta Shopping Center that maximized the exposure of the event, as can be seen by the photo below:

A billboard promoting the South African Ladies Open in front of the Cresta shopping center.

If only more U.S. malls would organize such events! Or maybe it's organizers who need to step up to the malls?

I will tell you more about the event at the mall later. For now, I want to talk about a particularly memorable day from my trip, a visit to Soweto, the famous conglomeration of townships. Soweto is an acronym, for South West Townships, and is where the 1976 student uprisings against apartheid took place. Nelson Mandela's first home was in Soweto and IM Watu Kobese, the strongest chessplayer in South Africa, was born there.

Me with Jackie Ngubeni in Soweto, on the stop that Nelson Mandela took back from work in Johannesburg each day, when he worked as a lawyer.

It was not clear that I would visit Soweto for two reasons. First of all, it is supposedly dangerous for white people. Secondly, the most logical person to show me around there was Jackie Ngubeni, because he has been promoting chess in South Africa for many years and has a lot of connections in local schools. Jackie Ngubeni is the same man who made GM Artur Kogan's trip so miserable... but I decided that there are always at least one and a half sides to every story, and unlike Artur, I was not depending on Jackie to pay my expenses. So we made the date, and I Jackie really came through by organizing a rewarding trip to an all girls' school in Soweto, Letsibogo, and a sightseeing tour of Soweto, all at the last minute.

Jackie Ngubeni with the principal of Letsibogo School, and the area super-intendent.
Most of the girls I spoke to did not play chess, but they were fascinated by the story of my career in chess and the writing of Chess Bitch. I also told them about the importance of having a passion, working hard, and planning ahead.

They asked some great questions, including:
"Do Americans really think that Africa is just a jungle where they'll see lions on the street?"
"Do you intend to have children and if so, will you encourage them to take up passions like chess?"

After I gave my talk and answered questions for about a half hour, I realized I must have really made a great impression on them, because they started to hug me and sing the South African National anthem to me. Most importantly, the majority of the class raised their hands when asked if they wanted to learn chess after my talk. You can read another article about my visit to Soweto here. The article appears on, a site founded by the cricket commentator Kass Naido. Kass was also the emcee and a celebrity guest at the SA Ladies Open.


We also got a chance to visit the Soweto Chess Club, the Hector Pieterson Apartheid Museum, and Nelson Mandela's old house.

The Soweto Chess Club

A young girl outside the apartheid museum

Carving and reading on the same block as Nelson Mandela's old house, which is now a museum. Taking photographs is prohibited inside the house.

Another highlight of my trip was a safari. I was accompanied by one of South Africa's talented master level players and coach, Corno Klaver (Cuby on ICC, my initial South African contact). The safari made me feel like a child, marveling at all the things I'd never seen before.

The safari by the gorgeous 6 am morning light, the best time to see the animals.

We saw lots of elephants.

In Part II, I will discuss South Africa's top women players and my simultaneous exhibition at the Cresta Shopping Center.