It seems you only have to gaze across a green field in South Africa, and there’ll be some sort of “society” polo match on the go. An event with lots of branding, plenty of air-kissing, much Insta-shooting, and very little pony watching.
Not so with the forthcoming Africa Polo Open. At pains to distance the match from the “celebrity circus”, Masedi and Kgomotso Molosiwa are moulding what they term “the thinking man’s polo”.
What started out as the Prince of Wales Polo Cup three years ago evolved into the Africa Polo Open last year. Bringing together African countries for the first time, the open has seen South Africa play Kenya and Nigeria, and later this month, Zambia will take to the field.
“We have a great passion for the continent and were shocked to learn that there had never been a continental polo match,” says Kgomotso. “There are about 12 countries that play polo actively in Africa, and our ultimate aim is to start a cross-continental league.”
For now, teams are invited according to blocks — East, West, and Southern Africa this year, and North next. For each block the founders mine the regions’ heritage — in 2018 invitations were fashioned as gold lapel pins in the style of the Benin bronzes, and the trophy is named after Queen Amina, the 16th-century Nigerian warrior queen.
This year, guests will receive mini mokorotlo, traditional Basotho hats, as the focus swings around to honour the sturdy little ponies found in the mountainous principality. It’s not clear what came first — the idea to pay homage to the breed or the idea to involve a monarch who already has a connection with the game — but whatever it was, Masedi had a stroke of genius: he’s managed to persuade the mostly-under-the-radar Prince Seeiso of Lesotho to participate in the forthcoming open. He won’t be on a pony; rather, the much-loved monarch will present a specially commissioned Basotho blanket, made by designer Thabo Makhetha, to the best-performing pony.
“You only have to mention horses and I get a twinkle in my eye,” says the prince. “I love polo, cross country, flat racing, anything equestrian. I’ve grown up on and around horses. They are such majestic animals.”
“We really wanted to honour African horsemanship,” explains Masedi. “The foundation of polo is a passion for horsemanship – and in Africa there’s no sturdier horse than the Basotho pony.”
The game is hard, fast, and perceived as elite. It’s not called “the sport of kings” for nothing
“Indeed,” says the prince. “The Basotho pony is incredibly versatile, it’s very hardy and sure footed. It has a small body, and great tenacity — an animal that will literally walk from morning to sunset without tiring and can go through the mountains when the snow is easily knee-high.
“Ultimately, it’s a very majestic, dainty animal with a funny trot that can carry you from Maseru to Bloemfontein.”
Tenacity and agility are qualities greatly favoured in polo ponies. The game is hard, fast, and perceived as elite. It’s not called “the sport of kings” for nothing — generally each player needs up to four ponies to swap out after chukkas, and horses are expensive to keep.
“We believe anyone can play the game,” says Kgomotso. “We hope that when diverse players from around the continent are seen, they’ll encourage those who previously thought they would never be able to play to reconsider.”
At the Africa Polo Open, one can picnic on the grass or fork out R60,000 for a table at the lavish lunch. Cooked by Belgian-Burundian chef Coco Reinarhz, the three-course meal presents a major networking opportunity, particularly for those looking to do business across the continent. This year, for instance, tables have been booked by two major continental banks, various dignitaries, and leaders in other sports arenas. According to Kgomotso, Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane was so taken with the skill and power of the players last year that he hinted at a cross-team, Sundowns polo workshop.
But wherever you sit, it will always come back to the game. Masedi says that when play is on, the chatter must stop, the bar must close, and everyone is to be encouraged to go down to the field. “We want all guests to watch the game and get involved. Quite simply, we’re polo crazy, and want everyone else to be too.”
• The Africa Polo Open takes place October 20 2019.To book tickets, visit the Africa Polo website.
• From the October edition of Wanted 2019.