Interview: Bongani Chavalala (PhD) on African Fishing Clubs, Men’s Health & Environmental Conservation


Meet Bongani Chavalala PhD, the recreational fisherman based in Pretoria , South Africa, who scooped 2 wins in 4 competitions this year at the United & Fishing club. In this chat, we’ll dig into his take on how African fishing clubs jazz up life and the environment. Chavalala shares his personal journey into the sport, from his childhood love for fishing to the tight-knit camaraderie and skill boosts he’s soaking up at the United & Fishing club! Dive in to discover how this club is reeling in wins for African men’s health, environmental conservation, and what’s next for African fishing clubs.

Image courtesy of United and Fishing 2023

Can you share your personal journey as an angler and champion recreational fisherman? 

I grew up in a time when as kids we played a lot — our generation would finish school and head into the wild. We spent countless hours fishing during different seasons, using homemade reels and rods and lines. We didn’t have proper reels; instead, we fashioned them from branches, attached a line, and crafted a hook. That’s how my love for the outdoors blossomed during my childhood. However, my entry into angling began in 2015. Having just completed my master’s degree, I sought a weekend hobby to distract myself from everyday life. One day, I visited Roodeplaat Dam along Moloto Road and encountered a group of guys fishing, which fascinated me. I asked them, ‘How do you do this?’ and they replied, ‘Oh, we sleep here; we fish all weekend.’ The idea intrigued me, so the next day, I bought fishing rods from a local fishing shop, sold as a combo of a rod and a reel. I started fishing, and that’s when I got hooked, literally! During my first fishing outing, I caught four significant fish. The adrenaline rush from setting up, waiting, and witnessing the results of the process was exhilarating. For me, the deeper satisfaction came from the decision-making process and seeing the affirmative results. When a fish bit and ran, the fulfillment was more profound than merely catching a fish.

What have been your accomplishments this year

Image courtesy of United & Fishing

This year has been my most successful where I won 2 out of 4 competitions and also won the annual league. I won my first competition at Bloemhof Dam in the Bamboesspruit section where I won with 16 fish weighing 45 kgs. The second was in the Verlaatenskraal section of the same dam where I won by 13 fish weighing 23kgs. I closed the year this December by winning the league which is based on accumulation of points on all Four competitions.

What drew you to the sport, who are your role models in the sport? 

There’s no one out there, no celebrities; just guys I met at the dam who had the patience to teach me how to cast, which baits to use.These friends, whom I still fish with, are exceptional fishermen. Even though I beat them in competitions these days, they remain the guys I look up to. I started fishing with Isaac Mthombeni and Komane Thabo Masemola.

Komane Thabo Masemola holding his catch. Image/Facebook

We didn’t have much — tiny tents or sleeping in our cars along the river from Friday to Sunday (laughs). But these are the guys I found at the dam, and they’re the ones I knew will always  make a great weekend whether we catch fish or not. One guy I really enjoy fishing with is Mesemola, and after 10 years of fishing together, I discovered we’re in-laws (laughs). So, there’s this unique connection between us as friends and anglers. However, when it comes to role models, there’s no one specific I can point to, I look up to people lime Mpho Manamela, Puleng, and Tshepo and Segion Malatji. It’s just friends I’ve gotten to know over the years who I acknowledge as better fishermen, and I continue learning a lot from them. I watch programs on Showmax, like Wicked Tuna, and other local shows. My son prefers YouTube for his favorite fishing content.

Tell us more about the fishing club you’re a member of, how did you get involved many members are there and who are they? 

Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

After embarking on my fishing journey in 2015, Malatjie introduced me to United and Fishing club and eventually competitive fishing. He suggested, “You know there’s a club you can join where we compete, and we have a calendar with 4 competitions a year.” Initially reluctant, I hesitated to compete in something where luck seemed to play a significant role. I like being in control, calculating probabilities based on my efforts. For me, Fishing is 70% luck and 30 % skill and knowledge. Of course, this is a debate I am always happy to have with Tshepo who thinks it is 30 % luck and 70% skill and knowledge. Anyways, Malatjie  convinced me by emphasizing the positive atmosphere for networking. That’s when I joined United and Fishing, my current and only club. With approximately 52 members spread across Gauteng, Northwest, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo, our competitions are structured to accommodate participants from all these provinces. We organize four competitions annually, each generating anticipation and excitement leading up to the event. The competition fee is set at R400, with an additional R200 annual affiliation fee and R400 league fee which is a once off mandatory fee for all club members. The R400 participation fee excludes the dam entrance fee, which is paid on-site or through an account. In the buildup to the competition, there’s a mix of preparation and anxiety.

Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

Typically, we draw in 30–40 competitors, excluding visitors from our 52 members, a consistently high attendance rate. The competition’s financial rewards include 50% for the winner, 30% for the second position, and 20% for the third position. Trophies and medals are also distributed, although the real value lies in the bragging rights earned, at least for me (laughs) it’s not just about the money.

Is this an exclusively African Fishing Club,a Black space?

Its not intentionally or explicitly that way but what has happened over the years is there are many fishing clubs throughout the country, and in Gauteng like Centurion Fishing Club but many are dominantly White people. We do have 1 White guy, Jaco in our club but we do not even see him as a White guy, he’s just a great guy. But the dynamics are that Black people are starting to want to have their own, organize themselves to do things that would be considered hobbies, if you look around there are now cycling clubs, fishing clubs etc.

Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

We don’t close doors to anyone but the South African historic political space and dynamics plays out in such a way that people still organize themselves across racial lines. And it’s an assumption that if it’s a Black club then Whites aren’t welcome, and if it’s a White Club then Blacks aren’t welcome. In fact its actually easier for Black to try to join White clubs than the other way round. We’re not closing doors to anyone, we just happen to be 99.9% Black guys and we also want women to join us. I always tell the guys that we can always find female anglers.

 In your experience, how have African fishing clubs contributed to the camaraderie and mental well-being of Black men involved in the sport?

There aren’t too many African clubs right now; they’re coming up, and we’re finding each other. There are three that I know of in Gauteng, which are African, made up of Black guys. One is run by Silvester called Crazy Carp Anglers, which focuses on specimen fishing — Specimen fish are unusually large Carp fish, often weighing above 10kgs.

Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

Sylvester is also building a fish farming business, breeding fish for markets, and aquaculture. I’m interested in joining his club.The contribution to fishing as a sport is in its infancy at the moment. Most of the clubs are recreational; we’re not yet professionalized. There is a debate on whether we should professionalize or not. By professionalizing, that means we have to register with relevant bodies, meet specific standards, and then compete at a national level with other clubs, travel, and all that. We are not there yet; we’re still a recreational club. There are other members in our recreational club who are in professional clubs, though. The contribution of the sport to our well-being is that we’re middle-aged men with families and stress and other things, so fishing is a way to get out and enjoy the environment and loosen up.


I always say I don’t think a fisherman can ever kill himself out of stress. I know some guys who on a Tuesday pack their car, find a dam, set up a tent, sleep there for three days, and come back home happier. We live in a time where I think men are really, really stressed, and many of us are finding fishing as an escape at a personal level. To really sit and not think about anything else but be hopeful about the possibility of catching a fish. That’s the only thing on your mind, like I’m about to get it, I’m about to get it, one hour, two hours on. And there are times when you go out for fishing Friday to Sunday, and you don’t even catch one fish — not even one, and you sit there optimistically. It teaches you patience, consistency, and the value of preparation. It relieves your stress; it’s also a great networking place because the people doing it have their own businesses — professional people. We have doctors, lawyers, scientists. We’ve got professors in our clubs, so when we get drunk, the discussions take a more meaningful  and intellectual route where we talk about business and other important issues. So it’s a good networking environment; businesses have been started there, good friendships that may last a lifetime have started there, quarrels and disagreements as well.

Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

How do fishing clubs contribute to skill development, knowledge exchange, and the cultivation of the next generation of African anglers, ensuring the continuity of the sport?

I’ll speak more about my experience with my own son, Willow. In the club, some guys do bring their own children. I’ve been fishing with my son since he was 3, and now he’s 11. He has his own equipment — fishing rods, fishing stands ( Thanks to Uncle Puleng who donated beautiful fishing stand and baits to him)— and he knows how to set up and cast. There’s that father and son transfer of influence. For example, when Tiger Woods and his son are golfing, analysts actually say he just replicates his father in terms of mannerisms, posture, and there’s nothing as fulfilling as a father to see your son even resemble the things you do subconsciously. When I look at him prepare, cast and get excited, I see myself..I have three sons — the eldest, who is 17, Celeste doesn’t care about fishing at all. There’s Willow who loves fishing and can’t just get away from fish, and then the last born who wakes up in the morning to go to the fridge, and you think he’s going to get food, but he’s actually going to look at the fish that Papa caught the previous day. When you catch a fish at the dam, he does not want to let it go, he want to hold on to it and treat it as a pat. I was like that at his age, my father wrked at a water puriication planation. There were plenty of fish ponds, and he would take one out and let me hold it,and id cry myself to sleep when he has to take it back to water.

Chavalala with his championship-winning catch at Bloemhof Dam. Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

 It’s  about teaching the children how to fish and the transfer of skills or bringing them in, but it is also more of teaching them some values of life that you yourself have learned from fishing. Also, to have the family time with your children and watch them lose a fish and cry when they lose a fish, and you’re like, it’s ok, it’s life; you lose a lot of stuff as you grow older. You reel in a fish, and it runs away and breaks your line, and you think your life is over. No. Get used to it. Life is painful; things will slip away more than this fish.

Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

Prepare — don’t change your spot because you’re not catching. Life rewards consistency, persistence, and endurance, and those are the lessons that we have learned as fishermen. A fisherman who moves from one spot to another because he didn’t catch is a very weak fisherman. A fisherman chooses a spot and sticks to it, even if he doesn’t catch; he must fish where he started. It’s a life lesson that even as an adult, you’re not going to start changing your position prematurely because you are not seeing results when you expect them or because your friends are succeeding elsewhere .Those are some of the major lessons I’ve learned and transfer to my children.

How is your fishing club contributing to environmental protection and conservation efforts in the country? 

At United and Fishing, we have principles around how we protect the environment. We don’t litter, and even with 50 people, you’ll never find a piece of paper left  around the dam. That’s one of the first things we have control over, and we adhere to . Another principle is ‘catch and release, although this is highly contested, however the principle is If you catch a specific number of fish, it makes sense to return some back to the water. We’re also aware of invasive species of fish vs indigenous ones.

Chavalala. Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

We encourage returning the indigenous and endangered  ones. We can take out as many invasive species as we can; for example, the China Carp is not indigenous to the South African  waters, and it breeds and eats too much. Catfish, as well, eat other fish, and if you don’t control their numbers, they over consume other fish. In some dams, you have largemouth bass; we try to return those. We don’t overfish or do netting. Some of us go around the dam to check for nets because some people come at night into the water and put nets. If we find them, we cut and burn them. If we find someone with a net, we take all their fish back to the water, cut and burn your net. It’s the only way to sustain the sport into the future for our children.


What have been your efforts in preserving aquatic ecosystems and fish populations within the country’s rich biodiversity?

We also try to protect the waters, as you see what’s happening in Gauteng dams right now, which have been contaminated by hyacinth. You can’t fish anymore at Hartbeespoort Dam. In fact, the hyacinth problem started at Hartbeespoort about 5  years ago, and now there’s no dam in Gauteng that doesn’t have hyacinth. Whether it is Bronkhorstspruit, which was clean for the longest, or Roodeplaat, they’ve done their best, but now we have to go out and fish in Northwest or Limpopo because that’s where it’s not. Hyacinth is an invasive species of water plant, which is normally transported from one dam to another by boats. Boat that has propellers normally has stuff stuck around it.

Hartbeespoort Dam hyacinth and suffocating fish. Image from X/@NorthWesTimes

You were boating in Harties, and you’re now going to boat in another dam. If your boat is not clean, it will have seeds of that thing, and you’ll drop it in another dam. Within 6 months, that dam is unfishable anymore. That kind of hyacinth also kills fish; you’ll see fish floating dead because they don’t get oxygen anymore since that plant cuts out sunlight and contaminates the water. These are the things fishermen need to be aware of for the sustainability of the sport and for our children to keep enjoying it. We have to do our best with what we can do.

Don’t throw plastics in the water; don’t litter; return some fish back in the water. We understand that where we come from, people want fish for food. I know if it’s not for me, friends where I live also want fish to eat. But I must measure that balance. Fishermen also have to learn which ones are invasive fish and which ones are indigenous species. We have something called ‘fishcare principle,’ which is how we handle the fish. Even if you’re going to eat it, respect it. When you reel out your fish, don’t hold it with your fingers in the gills, making it bleed.

Bongani Chavalala handles a carp. Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

There’s a way we hold a fish: use your two hands, don’t hang it upside down, or with your hands in the mouth or the gills. Even if it’s a fish you’re going to take home, carry it with respect. It protects the aesthetics of what we do; otherwise, we’d be seen as savages who just handle life carelessly. Life is life, even if you’re going to end it, end it respectfully.

What initiatives have you witnessed or participated in that promote responsible angling, aiming to educate and raise awareness about sustainable fishing practices?

Some of our members run what they call ‘fishing clinics’. Gabriel Ramotlo invites first-timers and teaches them how to cast, set up, how to look after the environment, how to handle fish, as well as identifying indigenous species.

Image courtesy of United & Fishing 2023

He  does that out of his goodwill. It would be good if we get sponsorships to really have more of these things where they can sponsor a fishing awareness program or fishing clinic. Our club doesn’t have a bank balance; we put our money together, and that money goes into the competitions. We always have visitors on our fishing trips; we take that opportunity to teach them not only how to fish but what fishing means to us.

In what ways do you envision your fishing club taking a leading role in initiatives focused on environmental stewardship, the protection of water resources, and the promotion of traditional fishing practices, all while adapting to modern challenges and concerns?

If we professionalize our club to enter the same rank as Centurion Fishing Club, as a professionally registered club, firstly we’ll be more visible, participate more, and our footprint will be larger in the country and the region. We will have much more responsibility towards the sport because we’ll be more visible and may attract sponsorship that may hold us accountable. Right now we do everything out of goodwill, so I think that the club can contribute greatly if it’s much more formal or much more professional. I know there’s reluctance to do it, for whatever reasons.

Image from United & Fishing 2023

If I personally decide to go professional, as Bongani, I’ll use every chance I get as I’m an environmentalist by qualification, and I did most of my studies around climate change. When it comes to protecting the environment, every fisherman should be an ambassador for that irrespective of them being a professional or recreational. But the higher you go in the levels of professionalism, the more responsibility and influence you have.

Bongani Chavalala holding up his trophies. Image courtesy go United & Fishing 2023

I’m still considering whether I should go professional or not. Now that I’m winning more competitions, most people ask me, “are you going professional, are you gonna fish in international waters,” so I’m thinking I don’t know. We’re running away from the seriousness of life by fishing; being a professional fisherman may  take me back to what I am  running from because in itself you now have stresses and responsibilities. I’m downplaying the possibility of me ever becoming a professional. But if I ever do, I may restrict some associations with specific responsibilities and will only volunteer what I feel like I can personally manage. So I may use my environmental awareness passion and just make sure every time I arrive at a dam I take a short video on protecting the environment.

What trends or developments do you anticipate might impact the operations of African fishing clubs, especially with the emergence of more clubs, and where do you see the trajectory of this trend heading?

I see more fishing clubs popping up, and I see brands sponsoring these clubs. Some of my friends have been approached by companies to be ambassadors for their fishing brands. Sylvester Mamathuntsha is an ambassador for Pro-Logic fishing. I see that as interest grows, more clubs will emerge, and existing ones will get bigger. To a marketer, the numbers mean association, and that will push a lot of professionalization of these clubs as sponsors demand standards. Sponsors want to be associated with reputable organizations. You can’t be associated with a club where people mishandle the fish, take pictures, or litter the dam if you’re the sponsor there. More sponsors will come up, but they’ll say, “We want to associate with these people,” and standardization will have to take place. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, we’ll see.

Image from United & Fishing 2023

What advice or words of encouragement do you have for aspiring professional fishermen interested in joining your club, as well as for those who aspire to establish their own fishing clubs?

Our club is called United and Fishing, and currently, it operates in four provinces. We host competitions in each of those provinces every year. We have a constitution with rules, and we receive very good feedback from our visitors about how organized and professional we keep our affairs. If you want to join our club, you can go online and search for United and Fishing or give me a call, and we will link you up with our Secretary General Mpho Manamela. It’s very simple; there’s no prescreening, and you just need to pay your annual joining fee of R200. We’ll add you to our WhatsApp group, and from there, you’ll receive information about the next events. Besides competitions, most of us go fishing every weekend, so you can link up with your next friend and go fishing. If you want to start a fishing club, go ahead; there are no restrictions or rules at the moment.

Image from United & Fishing 2023

Just have a constitution because that solves issues. Have rules and start fishing. It’s not expensive to start fishing; it gets expensive as you become more professional, but for starters, R600 will get you a good rod, reel, and a complete set of baits to go to the nearest dam and start fishing. The most important thing is to learn to respect the dam, the fish, and the environment around it. That’s the most important thing. Also, respect people because I’ve seen fights, I’ve been in fights. There is racism on the dam, there are quarrels, but you just need to be an adult about it. Avoid anything that would distract you from enjoying the dam. Our club needs to grow, so before you start one, I encourage you to consider joining us first. Should you feel like you don’t want to join us, just find a name for yourselves, establish a constitution, and start fishing!

Image/Facebook @Komane Thabo Masemola

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