Meet Tongaat’s karate tiger

You may have heard of him as SA’s karate tiger, and Sonny Pillay certainly has earned that nickname after 50 years in the sport and fighting his way through apartheid to get there.

An 8th dan black belt, president of Karate South Africa (KSA) and Tongaat resident, Pillay was honoured earlier this month by two of SA’s karate giants, grandmasters Norman Robinson and Malcolm Dorfman, for five decades of excellence in the field.

Robinson paid glowing tribute to the karate maestro who recently became the first and only South African to be appointed to the World Karate Federation (WKF) board.

“The karate fraternity is extremely proud of the outstanding contribution made by Sonny and salutes him for his work in taking SA karate to the Olympic stage (Tokyo 2020).”

But his story was not without hardship.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, survival took first priority and it was unusual for anyone to take up sports such as karate, which were dominated by racially exclusive bodies.

Pillay told The Courier he refused to give up his dream of becoming a karateka, defying the odds and rising from poverty to not only be awarded the coveted 8th dan black belt from no less than a Japanese karate master, but also to eventually become the president of the non-racial KSA.

Pillay, who is now 66 years old, started practicing karate in 1968 when he was just 17.

“I grew up at a fruit orchard in a farming village called Roosfontein, where the Westville Prison stands today.”

He would go on to rub shoulders with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Professor Fatima Meer, Ella Gandhi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Antonio Espinos (WKF President) and a host of other eminent personalities.

“I presented the father of our nation with the very prestigious honourary 10th degree black belt – equivalent to a doctorate in academic terms – on behalf of the Shotokan Karate-do International Federation in 2004 at the Mariammen Temple grounds in Mount Edgecombe.

“We greeted each other briefly and shook hands, Madiba expressed his appreciation and seemed pleasantly surprised by the whole thing.”

The absorbing story of Pillay’s checkered life is told in an engrossing biography, “Reaching for the Mango” written by Ronnie Govender.

“Karate is a noble sport that shapes one’s lifestyle in a very positive way with discipline at the very centre. In addition, the sport is intriguing with no end to learning and advancing everyday,” said Pillay.

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Allan Troskie

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