On Racism: IM Watu Kobese
South Africa's IM Watu Kobese. Photo: Siegfried Louw/Facebook.

On Racism: IM Watu Kobese

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With today's interview with IM Watu Kobese, concludes our interview series on racism which shares the experiences of chess players around the world and asks what we as a community can do to address racism and inequality.

Kobese is a 46-year-old international master from South Africa. He is a three-time national champion and a two-time South African Open winner. Now more active as a trainer than as a player, he is currently the number-four rated player in his country, which he has represented in Olympiads 12 times from 1992 to 2018.

Kobese grew up during the apartheid, the system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa until the early 1990s. The country was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation's minority white population.

Things changed when Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), was released from prison in 1990. Apartheid legislation was repealed a year later, and Mandela served as president of the country from 1994 and 1999. Two decades later, the legacy of apartheid can still be found everywhere in South Africa's society.

Encounters with white people

Kobese was born in 1973 in Soweto, a black township that is now part of the city of Johannesburg. He learned to play chess when he was four, and he started playing tournaments when he was five. Later he played in town, where the white people played.

"I don't remember much about my childhood, I don't remember my toys or birthdays, but I do remember almost all the encounters I had with white people," said Kobese before giving a striking example from his childhood.

I don't remember much about my childhood, I don't remember my toys or my birthdays, but I do remember almost all the encounters I had with white people.

At the age of eight, he qualified for the Southern Transvaal primary school team. (Between 1910 and 1995, Transvaal was a province of South Africa.) He was going to participate in the 1981 national school team championship and had obtained the necessary permit to travel, with an otherwise white team, to Port Elizabeth.

Kobese tells the story, 39 years later:

"I remember like it was yesterday. We were in the white part of the train, me and my father. A white man, who was with his family including two kids of my age, confronted us. He said: 'You're in the wrong place, you should not be here.'

"When the other kids of my team came in, he saw that we were wearing the same uniform. He got a bit confused, but when everyone was sitting down he chose to sit next to us. I remember that every time I was trying to talk with my father, he was hitting the compartment wall with his elbow, trying to make our journey as uncomfortable as possible."

Watu Kobese teaching chess
Kobese in 2010, teaching youngsters from Nkandla. Photo: Moves For Live.

Kobese tells another anecdote from the same tournament, where one day, the team went for a swim. In those days, the beaches were also divided, and black and white people could not swim at the same beaches.

"When I went into the water with my teammates, this one guy, the lifesaver, he came and took me out of the water. I remember like it was yesterday, again, because he said: 'If we allow one kaffer to swim here, all the kaffers from the township are going to come here.'"

As Kobese explained, kaffer is a word coming from Arabic meaning non-believer, but in South Africa, it was used, and is still being used, as a racist term similar to negro.

"I had terrible experiences. Sometimes I cry for the eight-year-old boy that was me."

Sometimes I cry for the eight-year-old boy that was me.


In 1990, GM Ludek Pachmann visited South Africa and provided Kobese with a chess scholarship to play and learn in Germany. Kobese lived in Altensteig in southwest Germany for three and a half years, attending the chess school there.

This happened in a period when South Africa had seen very violent years in the late 1980s. Kobese remembers classmates getting detained, raped, and even killed by gangs; he remembers police chasing them every day and using tear gas. Kobese called it a war zone.

"When I got this scholarship, I was very happy because, first of all, I was escaping this warzone. I thought I was escaping the violent existence in Soweto; I thought I was escaping the racism. But in Germany, I realized racism is global," he says. "In South Africa, it was a physical form of aggression, with rubber bullets and tear gas, but in Europe, it was mental aggression that you felt as a black person in that space."

Seeing the history books used in Germany, Kobese noticed snippets that the Germans took as facts, but which appeared aggressive to him from an African perspective. Like Carlsson, who had a similar experience with school books, Kobese came across the n-word in official textbooks. He had many discussions with teachers, which usually ended in them telling him: "If you are so unhappy about Europe, why are you still here?"

Watu Kobese Cape Town Chess Club Blitz
Kobese with friends at the Cape Town Chess Club. Photo: Sheldon Moultrie.

Africa's history

According to Kobese, no discussion about racism can be successful without a profound knowledge of Africa's history—most notably the period of the slave trade and the later division of the continent into countries by Europeans—because it links very much to how people think these days.

"History will be linked to how many people think," he explains. "It will be linked to your education, to what you learned at school, and what you learned at school is linked to the period it was made."

He notes that the continent's history is one of being under attack. "Africa has been attacked for two reasons: the slave trade, and the division of the continent into countries during Otto von Bismarck's Berlin Conference."

This conference, in the years 1884–1885, regulated the European colonization and trade in Africa and was followed by a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers. 

According to Kobese, the concept of the black race being inferior stems from the colonizers who needed to explain their wrongdoings after returning to their homelands: "They did so by arguing that Africans are 'not a hundred percent human' and that 'the African is not capable of thinking for himself.'"

A rare example of a link between the slave trade and chess was given in one of the historic articles by our member @batgirl on Cuba. From the part about Paul Morphy's visit to the country in 1862:
"At the home of Blas Du Bouchet, Morphy played, blindfolded, the slave of Félix Sicre, José Maria Sicre who was the son of an African. Morphy came from a slave state. His grandfather sold slaves on the auction block and his parents owned slaves. Louisiana would soon find slavery abolished. Cuba at that time was dependent upon slaves who had originally been introduced to work the labor-intense sugar plantations and the country wouldn't emancipate all slaves for another 24 years. Under the prevailing attitude, that Morphy conceded to play a slave seems quite remarkable. It may have been the first time a recognized chess master played a slave even semi-publicly. Possibly because the game took place in a private residence, there was less stigma attached, but still the details would remain somewhat secret (the account wasn't published in Cuba at all, though it was published in the US almost immediately) until Numa Preti published the the game in "La Stratégie" in May 15, 1893."

The part of history where Africa played a significant role in the building of civilizations, in discoveries in astronomy, mathematics, or music, is discarded, argues Kobese.

"In Europe, I have met people who have doctorates, but when you tell them this history, they are astounded. The Greeks, who are forming the base of European civilization, learned from the Africans in Egypt. We have these millennia-old structures in Mali, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and even here in South Africa. And finally, many parts of western philosophy stem from the Kemet mysteries.

"The general population in Europe, even the ones who are educated, don't know this because the history they learned at school is the rubbish history that Africa is just a jungle, and it's always been like this. This is what leads to racism."

Kobese Georgiev Olympiad
Kobese playing board two for South Africa at the 2012 Istanbul Olympiad. In this game, he defeated Bulgaria's GM Kiril Georgiev. Photo: Chanda Boyd Nsakanya Snr. 

Chess travels

In the late 1990s, Kobese played a number of tournaments in the United States, for example in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Hawaii. He was financially supported by the late Jerry Bibuld, who was an international arbiter and organizer but also a strong anti-apartheid activist and a longtime advocate for the expansion of chess in the African diaspora.

Bibuld helped him in his travels in the U.S. and found African-American families with whom he could stay. Kobese says that when he played in America, he encountered racism from the general chess population: "Any racist talk or racist suggestion, I feel very quickly. I could see, I could sense the racism."

Kobese says he doesn't have good experiences with playing in eastern Europe and Russia, ironically the countries that supported the anti-apartheid movement from early on. He tells an anecdote about traveling by train to a tournament in Russia and hearing a child saying to his mother: "Смотри, обезьяна!" ("Look, a monkey!").

"And then you're going to play a game of chess, in this type of situation. You are already in a bad mood. You are already starting to ask yourself: What am I doing here?"


Asked about whether he has encountered racism coming from arbiters or officials, Kobese brings forward a situation he encountered which was related to his training activities—He is a chess trainer as well, and a member of the FIDE Trainers' Commission.

"Before the corona crisis, I was training in KwaZulu-Natal [a province in South Africa - PD], and it was quite a mission to get me, a FIDE trainer, and a member of the trainers' commission, to train in that area and not to have someone from outside."

Watu Kobese chess training
Kobese giving training at the Crossroads Library in 2017. Photo: Crossroads Chess Club

"It seems like FIDE thinks the same way as some Africans, which is that Africans have this tendency of thinking that anything that is African is inferior, and anything that is out of Africa is superior. This is actually anti-African, but this way of thinking exists in the chess world too. So, you have this situation where FIDE delegates from Africa are not necessarily fighting for Africa, for their region, for their players, their trainers."

Africans have this tendency of thinking that anything that is African is inferior, and anything that is out of African is superior.

Another example he gives is quite similar to the income gap that was discussed by Jones in our previous story. Kobese mentions the African zonal tournaments which at some point in time had to be paid for in American dollars. 

"You have to pay in dollars the entry fee; you have to pay in dollars FIDE fees, and they force you to stay in the accommodation. I will not name the country, but once I played a zonal staying in a student accommodation, and I paid a price the equivalent of a five-star accommodation in South Africa—because they were dollar prices. The exchange rate meant that I was paying significantly more. What more proof do you want for me to tell you that the African delegates don't care about Africa?"

Kobese gets agitated while explaining further how he views the situation: 

"How to equate a person from Berlin with a person from Rwanda or a person from Soweto? How to level that for everyone? In whose head is this making sense, to make it exactly the same, knowing the conditions in the different countries—the conditions that in many cases were created by people from Europe—and then saying: 'Due to the conditions we created, and knowing that you are in trouble because of us, we will force you to pay the same amount as someone who stays in our backyard.'"

Earlier this week, FIDE posted an article on its website where it says that "FIDE condemns racism in the strongest terms, and we stand for non-discrimination as one of the founding pillars of the Olympic Movement, to which FIDE belongs. This is reflected in the Olympic Charter, Fundamental Principle 6: 'The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.'”

An African solution

According to Kobese, the racism in the African chess scene cannot be solved by the people in power in Europe. He argues the solution needs to come from Africa.

"Europe has proven itself to be incapable of living with other races in a peaceful manner. History has taught us. So, the solution cannot come from Europe or the European mind. The solution must come from the black community, in Africa and elsewhere from the diaspora.

"It is time to come together and have a serious think about these issues. When we start talking about it more and more, when we start telling our kids more and more, and when we start to come with real solutions on our own terms, only then the racism is going to end."

When we start talking about it more and more, when we start telling our kids more and more and when we start to come with real solutions on our own terms, only then the racism is going to end.

Kobese's strong belief in African-based solutions leads to an opinion that may sound counter-intuitive: He thinks more tournaments should be organized in which only black people are invited. 

He gives the example of a tournament he played in July 2001 called the Wilbert Paige Memorial tournament in New York. In this IM norm tournament, it was only black players that were invited, with e.g. GMs Amon Simutowe (then an IM) and Kenny Solomon (then an NM). 

"Such alternatives are what the black community must come with," says Kobese. "It is not to say that the white community cannot come up with solutions for us. Black players can also play in those tournaments, obviously. I am not saying we should segregate. I am saying that, on top of those, we should organize more African-based events. As African trainers, we should think about training in Africa and the diaspora. This way we can create a situation that can improve.

"I have played in strong tournaments in the U.S. and Europe, but I would feel much better if I could play in for example Zimbabwe. And there's no reason I could not because we have enough international masters."

Watu Kobese
Kobese watching players at a small local tournament. Photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni.

Kobese argues that it's important to create a situation where African chess can grow and prosper without being dependent on western countries: "It is a longterm and uncomfortable solution. I am not saying it is a perfect solution, but it is important that it is our solution, on our terms."

I am not saying it is a perfect solution, but it is important that it is our solution, on our terms.

At the end of the interview, Kobese uses a chess metaphor to describe Africa's situation. 

"It's like in chess. You have to understand that we cannot make one move to have an equal position. I don't need to be better, I just want a playable position, but I cannot move my pieces. The European pieces are all over the center, they control every square. I am reduced to playing ...Kh8, ...Kg7. If we play the same game, I cannot equalize because they have 20 tempos more."

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Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

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