S’manga Khumalo, who first saw a horse when he was 14, won Africa’s biggest race last month after 116 consecutive years of white winners.

The first time S’manga Khumalo encountered a horse, he was scared. “I was really nervous,” he says. “At that time I was a small boy weighing about 30kg and here’s this big animal, 500kg, next to me. It terrified me a little bit but it grew in me and I ended up getting better at it.” So much better that, 14 years later, Khumalo has made history by becoming the first black winner of Africa’s biggest horse race. With crystal stud earrings, peroxide hair and horseshoe tattoo on his hand, the 28-year-old — nicknamed ‘Bling’ — is the charismatic rising star of a sport long associated with South African white privilege.

It all began when Khumalo, one of the five children of a domestic worker in KwaMashu township near Durban, was switching from school to school to escape the violence that scarred South Africa in the early 1990s. As the smallest boy in his class, he wasn’t likely to win many fights. “It was a hard time,” Khumalo said during a rare break at Turffontein race course in Johannesburg. “I just tried my best to not go the wrong way. Since I was a small guy I didn’t want to be caught in places where there was violence because I couldn’t defend myself. I couldn’t play soccer; I was too small. I couldn’t play any other sport because of my height.

“Other kids called me names like ‘small one’ and ‘shorty’ I always prayed and said please God, let me be taller, at least people won’t tease me.” But small was beautiful in the eyes of a talent scout who came to black schools looking for potential jockeys. “When the guy asked me if I was interested, I said yes and I haven’t looked back since. I had all the features: the body build the shoe size and the height.” In 2000, Khumalo joined the Durban jockey academy, a five-year apprenticeship of early starts, mucking out stables and cleaning horses after riding them. He was not alone in challenging the status quo. “There were a couple of black guys that made it through and even now there are some good apprentices up and coming. They’re black and doing well.

“We proved it and opened doors for all the other youngsters so trainers and all the other people are willing to use us. It’s growing slowly but I think we’ll get there.” A Johannesburg-based riding master took Khumalo on. He turned professional in 2006 and became a fixture in the country’s top 20 jockeys, riding 80 to 90 horses a month, often seven days a week, enabling him to buy a car, flat and house and move his mother out of the township.

Asked if he had experienced racism during his career, Khumalo replied: “People are not the same. There are some people who will take you in and there are some people who will always have negativity. But I’m not the type of guy who looks back; I just keep my cool and just do my work.” This month came his crowning glory, victory at the first attempt in the 3.5m rand Vodacom Durban July, South Africa’s richest race.

“It was a feeling that I will never trade for anything for as long as I live. Being my first time in it, as I crossed the finish I had electricity and a crowd of 50,000 people screaming and shouting. I was electrified. I promise you, if I had wings I would fly. It’s every jockey’s dream and every jockey’s goal to win that race.

“As I came to the number one box down at the grandstand, my mum was there in front. She was screaming and thanking all the people that made it possible and also looking back to her family and to our ancestors.” After 116 years of Durban July winners with names like Coetzee, Macaskill and Strydom, the 117th winner was a Zulu. Khumalo has noticed the impact on young black people. “They see, oh wow, dreams can come true. It’s never been done. I don’t think there were any black jockeys 117 years ago.”

— © Guardian News & Media 2013