The world breathes a sigh of relief as news that Nelson Mandela’s condition continues to improve. Again he has confounded logic and displayed that he is, in every way a natural fighter. Boxing was always Mandela’s favourite sport, and it’s not hard to see why.
Nelson Mandela: The heavyweight boxer
Nelson Mandela’s first involvement with the sport of boxing was in 1936 at the Fort Hare University. When, as a young Xhosa, he joined the elite black institution in Alice, Eastern Cape studying for Bachelor of Arts, reading English, anthropology, politics, native administration and Roman Dutch law. Although surrounded by activists and with many friends involved in the ANC, Mandela maintained a distance, still formulating his own ideology. The defining activities of this period were his Christian beliefs and Bible studies along with his devotion to boxing.
As an athlete, he was an all rounder, spending his free time in the gym lifting weights, long distance running and also with a keen interest in ballroom dancing. But when the more mature Mandela moved to Johannesburg to study law at the Whitwatersrand in 1943, he was the only native African student. It was period of high racial tension, the years directly preceding apartheid as a national institution and Mandela was in a cauldron of both political activism and blatant racism and this was the time he became politicised.
Unable to use the University gym, Mandela was forced to use the community centre in Johannesburg’s largest township Soweto, the ‘DO’, or the Soweto YMCA, as it is called today. The centre was a hive of anti-apartheid activism, Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie first performed there. But for Mandela, the fighting was not about fighting, but a form of escapism, a way to beat the stress of liberation politics. He later wrote in is autobiography ‘The Long Walk to Freedaom’, ‘I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.
‘Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant . . . I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again.’
The famous photograph of Mandela sparring with professional boxer Jerry Moloi was taken in 1953, on the rooftop in Soweto. It was the same year Mandela opened a law firm with Oliver Tambo, the only native African law firm in the country. The next year, Mandela would be serving the first year of a five-year sentence of hard labour for inciting African workers to strike and for leaving the country without permission. Two years later he was put on trial for conspiracy to overthrow the government and four counts of sabotage. After an eight-month trial he was found guilty and Mandela was to spend the next 25 years of his life behind bars
At his trial Mandela uttered his now famous speech; ‘“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Once Mandela was released and he was elected South Africa’s first black president, Mandela was acutely aware of the power of sport to unite divided communities. And in 1995 South Africa was hosting the Rugby World Cup, the country was far from united, Mandela used the theatre of the sport of rugby to unite the disaffected Afrikaners and the native Africans and start the long road to nation building. It was one of sports finest moments in modern history, told expertly in John Carlin’s book ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation’.
The Soweto YMCA is still open today and hasn’t changed all that much from when Mandela used it. Madiba’s love of the noble sport has inspired a generation of South Africa’s poorest men to take up the gloves and in the DO, they still use the same weights that Mandela used to lift. Street artist Phil Akashi recently unveiled his work, a portrait of Madiba entitled ‘A Tribute to Mandela’, that was made by throwing over 27, 000 punches at a wall imprinting the Chinese characters for freedom: “??.”
What could be more inspiring for South Africa’s youth? To train in the same hallowed hall as the father of their nation. For, while the first battle has been won, the fight continues, and South Africa needs more Mandela’s, more pugilists, to fight for the future of their country and for Mandela’s dream of a fair and egalitarian South Africa.
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