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Once upon a time, the Sports and Recreation Commission (“SRC”) convinced the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe that it is right to register one national association for each sport.[1] It convincingly (and expensively!) defended this as legally permissible and practically expedient for the orderly administration of sport in Zimbabwe. But then it still registered two different federations for karate. And the second of them does not even profess to be promoting the entire sport. This is a puzzling departure from a principle for which the SRC itself sought the highest endorsement. It is sure to cause growing confusion among supporters, athletes and sponsors. As great as the mystery over how it ever came to be is the question of how to correct it.

One of the SRC’s key functions is to register associations to promote various sports on a national basis.[2] A schedule to the SRC Act lists the recognised sports for which the SRC may register national associations. Among the listed sports is karate-do.

Karate-do is, literally, “the way of the empty hand”. It is a discipline that develops technique in unarmed defence. Typically shortened to just “karate”, the training and competition comprises the three principal elements of basic technique (kihon), pre-arranged forms (kata) and physical engagement (kumite). Rather as hockey is played on either fields or courts and rugby is played by teams of either seven or fifteen, karate is trained under various “styles” such as goju-ryu, kyokushin and shotokan.

The original national association for karate is the Zimbabwe Karate Union (“ZKU”). The SRC registered the ZKU over 30 years ago. Its mandate is to promote karate in all its forms in all parts of Zimbabwe. The law in fact requires that a national association must be open to all clubs practising the sport in question.[3]

ZKU affiliates from across the spectrum of the discipline have achieved some of Zimbabwe’s greatest sporting accolades. The most conspicuous triumphs historically have been in the full contact competitions. However,

Karatekas from ZKU affiliated Zim Ninja Academy are credited with some of Zimbabwe’s greatest sporting triumphs in recent times.

Covid-19 restrictions have lately seen the semi-contact affiliates rising to new prominence. For instance, athletes from the ZKU-affiliated ZimNinja Academy have registered a string of conquests since the start of the pandemic. Most recently, they won thirteen medals in the Online Martial Arts World Championships in June 2021. The ZKU thus remains active as a national association that is open to representatives of all karatekas throughout Zimbabwe.

The ZKU’s compliance with the laws of Zimbabwe recently came into conflict with the rules of an international club. The World Karate Federation (“WKF”) recently changed its rules to provide that it would accredit associations that promote only specific styles and not the whole discipline of karate-do. The inclusivity that is required by the laws of Zimbabwe thus clashed with the exclusivity demanded by the WFK.

The situation resembled the challenge that arose for wrestling once upon a time. That led to the court case mentioned at the start. The solution that the SRC urged on the Supreme Court was for the association wishing to affiliate to the exclusive club on the international level to affiliate to the inclusive national association on the local level. This commends itself to both logic and law. Since the Act names “wrestling” in blanket terms as a recognised sport, a genuine national association would need to promote the whole sport on the same inclusive basis. By law it must also be open to “all clubs and schools engaging in the activity for which the association is responsible.”[4] The natural course for an association representing narrower sectarian interests would be to affiliate to the inclusive body and derive its standing in Zimbabwean law from that affiliation. The Supreme Court agreed with the SRC and endorsed this solution.

The Zimbabwe National Karate Federation (“ZNKF”) was recently formed to promote only some styles of karate. This should really have led to the same outcome as before. The ZNKF does not profess to represent “karate-do” as set out in the Act, but only certain subsets of it. It would therefore not be open to all clubs and schools practising karate. It can only accommodate some clubs and schools that practice the ZNKF’s chosen styles. This, together with the “one association per sport code principle” that the SRC persuaded the Supreme Court to accept, supports the conclusion that the proper course would have been for the ZNKF to affiliate itself to the ZKU.

To look at it another way, the rules of a club cannot prevail over the laws of a country. Zimbabwean law provides for there to be a national association in respect of karate-do. That association already exists. There is no provision for a national association only for some specified style or styles of karate. The standing of that association under local law would still have to be consistent with that law. The SRC has already indicated, to the satisfaction of the Supreme Court, how to achieve that consistency.

It is thus a source of tremendous legal confusion that there exists alongside the ZKU another body professing to be a national association in respect of karate. That other body accepts that it represents just some subset and not the whole discipline karate. That amounts to an admission of why it cannot qualify to be a national association. Despite some incorrect reports to the contrary, the inclusive mandate of the ZKU remains exactly the same.

Despite flowing from the rules of an international club, the exclusionary mandate of the ZNKF conflicts with the laws of Zimbabwe. Despite the supposed sanction of the SRC, the ZNKF’s claimed status as a national association is thus difficult to accept as legally sound. If there is reluctance to revisit that purported registration, it would appear to require nothing less than a retrospective amendment to the Act to validate it. Won’t it be easier to just comply with the SRC’s own understanding of the Act by affiliating the ZNKF to the ZKU, which is the existing, inclusive national association?

[1] Sports and Recreation Commission v Sagittarius Wrestling Club & Anor 2001 (2) ZLR 501 (S).

[2] This appears from the Sports and Recreation Commission Act [Chapter 25:15], s 29(1) as read with s 2 sv “national association.”

[3] Sports and Recreation Commission Act, s 20(a).

[4] Ibid.

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