is Joseph’s abracadabra!

“Careful. I’ll take this one and I’ll hit you, and then you wouldn’t be able to fly anywhere with those cows! Think carefully about your next move.”

Joseph Mathlong, sport officer at the campus in Vanderbijlpark, recently taught communication specialist Annette Willemse the art of playing morabaraba.




Joseph Mathlong, sport officer at the campus in Vanderbijlpark and mind sports enthusiast, is trying his utmost best to teach me the art of playing morabaraba, but I am lost. In fact, I feel the need, at this early stage, to confess that I am not very good at board games – let alone games with flying cows!


Luckily Joseph is an exceptional teacher and he reckons that in time I will be able to fully grasp the centuries-old battle of morabaraba, Africa’s oldest board game. And he should know, because his morabaraba skills saw him clinching top honours at Mind Sports South Africa’s (MSSA) Gauteng Championships recently.


Joseph says his late grandfather, Lefa Mathlong, first introduced him to the game when he was 10 years old. “My grandfather worked in a gold mine and he and his friends would play the game during their break,” says Joseph. “My grandfather was a brilliant player. You don’t need money to play the game and back then he played it with pebbles.”


During high school, Joseph was re-introduced to the game as it was offered as a cultural activity, and as the saying goes: the rest is history. He registered as an MSSA player in 2017 and is currently serving as the national team manager for two mind sport disciplines.


Morabaraba – a game of skill and strategy


Joseph says the game is shrouded in legend and myths. A popular legend is that African chiefs would select their advisers based on their morabaraba skills. “At its most basic the game teaches players – also called ‘warriors’ – how to plan and execute cattle raids,” explains Joseph.


According to the rules of the game, two players have 12 cows (tokens) each and play on a wooden board ringed with 24 circles. The aim is to take as many of your opponent’s cows as possible while moving your cows forward and towards your opponent’s back row.


Asked whether the outcome of the game is based on luck, Joseph quickly answers that practice makes perfect and that a lot of time goes into perfecting one’s strategy. A game can be won in a matter of hours or minutes, depending on the skills of the players. The quickest game Joseph ever played – and won – took one minute.


“Some people say it’s nothing more than noughts and crosses or checkers, and you can learn the rules in five minutes, but to be great at it, it can take you a lifetime. There’s always a new twist,” Joseph adds.


“The game teaches you to think and consider your options before you make a move, it keeps you focused.” He adds that because it’s not a physical game, men and women can sit down together and play it on an equal footing.


Mind sports as a competitive sporting code


The campus in Vanderbijlpark joined MSSA in 2017 and since then the sport has grown in leaps and bounds. In fact, it took the campus less than 24 months to enjoy national acclaim. At present the club boasts more than 100 members who take part in two main disciplines: board games (such as morabaraba, card games and war games) and eSport. The latter refers to all computer or digitally based games, such as FIFA 18, Tekken 7, League of Legends, Counter Strike and robotics.


Since the inception of mind games on the campus, the popularity of the sport has increased beyond expectation. According to Joseph, who is the campus’s mind sports coordinator, more than 70 members compete in board games while 35 focus on eSports. The club’s members are made up of staff and students.

“The game teaches you to think and consider your options before you make a move, it keeps you focused,” says Joseph Mathlong.


Mind Sports South Africa recently released the official national ranking for the game of morabaraba. The rankings are dominated by the NWU Vanderbijlpark, with three members, Siyabonga Mogale, Sebolelo Motlhabi and Joseph, occupying the top three places.