Nelson Mandela: “Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color and wealth is irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his color or social status.”
Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in Myezo, Transkei on July 18, 1918. Mandela, like all boys from the village, wore only a blanket wrapped around his shoulder and pinned to the waist. Mandela enjoyed sports from a young age. A favorite childhood team sport was thinti. Two sticks would be placed into the ground 100 feet apart. Each team would try to hurl sticks to knock down the upright target. Each team defended its target by gathering the sticks thrown by the opposing side.
For school in Quno, Mandela wore oversized trousers of his father, cut off at the knee with a string wrapped around the waist as belt support. On his first day, Miss Mdingane gave all the students a British name. Rolihlahla was re-named ‘Nelson’. Mandela was taught in school the superiority of British citizens. Mandela: “British ideas, British culture, British institutions were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture.” After Mandela’s father died, aged 9, his mother surrendered guardianship to family friend, Jongintonga, so he moved to Mqhekezweni for a better life and education. As Mqhekezweni was controlled by the Methodist church, Mandela began to wear ‘modern’ Western clothes for the first time. Mandela learned other sports such as track and field, cricket, rugby and futbol (soccer). In 1937, aged 19, Mandela began studies at Wesleyan College (“Fort Hare”) at Healdtown. Mandela, encouraged by his athlete friend Locke Ndzamela, fell in love with two sports, long distance running and boxing. At Fort Hare, the serious-minded Mandela concentrated his athletic training mostly with cross-country running and futbol. Mandela enjoyed the solitary nature of training as he realized it provided mental health relief beyond physical exercise. Mandela also believed athletic training rewarded self-discipline which assisted him to excel in academics.
The Donaldson Orlando Community Centre, in Johannesburg, was managed by Johannes (Skipper Adonis) Molotsi. Mandela, aged 32, joined the boxing/weightlifting club, which also included wrestlers, in 1950. The languages of the athletes included Xhosa/Zulu, English, Sesotho and Afrikaans. Mandela was unhappily married to Evelyn Mase so perhaps boxing training relieved home stress. From Mace’s point-of-view, she was married to a politically restless man whom she rarely saw.
Nelson Mandela: “Although I had boxed a bit at Fort Hare, it was not until I lived in Johannesburg that I took up the sport in earnest. I was never an outstanding boxer. I was in the heavyweight division, and I had neither enough power to compensate for my lack of speed nor enough speed to make up for my lack of power. I did not enjoy the violence of boxing as much as the science of it. I was intrigued how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy to both attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.”
Mandela, known as ‘Chief’ by the other athletes, trained for six hours a week, Monday-Thursday, at ninety minutes per session between 7:30-9:00. His young son, Thembi, soon joined him most evenings for what became a passionate hobby. All of the pugilists, including Mandela, worked during the day so training was restricted to evenings.
Nelson Mandela: “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 facilities lacked basic boxing equipment. There was one punching bag for all the pugilists. They sparred with few gloves and less headwear without a regulation-sized ring. Mandela: “We did an hour of exercise; some combination of roadwork, skipping rope, calisthenics and shadow boxing, followed by fifteen minutes of body work, weightlifting and then sparring.”
The official manager for the club was trainer and former boxing champion, Molotsi, but all the pugilists had to share turns as a trainer for individual sessions. The reason was to instill initiative, self-confidence and leadership skills. Mandela’s son, Thembi, had to lead sessions sometimes and could be relentless in pushing his father if exhaustion settled too easily: “Mister Mandela, please don’t waste our time. If you can’t cope, remain with the old women at home.”
1952 was a busy year for Mandela as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign against unjust laws. Hundreds of thousands protested Apartheid with passive resistance. Mandela was charged and convicted of furthering communism and sentenced to nine months of hard labor. His sentence was suspended for two years if he remained out of legal trouble and remained restricted to Johannesburg. The same year he began the first black law firm in South Africa with Oliver Tambo, Mandela and Tambo.
When Mandela sparred for a boxing tournament the training could be intense. The ninety minutes sessions often expanded to one-hundred fifty. It was difficult to recruit competent sparring partners. Mandela: “A sparring partner should offer real opposition to a boxer preparing for a fight and not be a mere punch bag. Sparring sessions are like a rehearsal of a play before the actual performance and each boxer should play his part conscientiously.” A knockdown could lead to serious injury without mouthpieces along with the cement surface.
A dispute arose between the club’s best boxer, lightweight Jerry (Uyinja) Moloi and Skip Molotsi. Moloi, with Mandela sympathetic, was representing the other boxers about Molotsi collecting fees while rarely being present. At one point Thembi sassed Skip Molotsi who might have slapped the small boy had his father not been present. Mandela protected his son from physical violence but informed both son and manager they were equals. Mandela: “I reminded (Molotsi) that in my house I was the patriarch and ruled over the household. But that I had no such powers in the gym; that Thembi paid membership fees, we were perfect equals and I could give him no instructions.”
Nelson Mandela was arrested and charged with treason in 1956. Mandela left The Donaldson Orlando Community Centre with several boxers, including Jerry Moloi the same year. They moved to the nearby police gymnasium for a few weeks before settling at St. Joseph’s Anglican Church which charged reasonable rental fees. Simon (Mshengu) Tshabala became the manager of the new club. Mandela and Chase divorced in 1958 due to allegations of adultery. The ‘other woman’ was a political activist who would become his future wife, Winnie.
Following his day job as an attorney and night hobby of pugilism, Mandela would arrive home dehydrated and exhausted. Winnie would greet him with a glass of orange juice. She would prepare a simple dinner with sour milk. Mandela: “I and my gym mates were a closely knit family and when Mum (Winnie) came into the picture that family became even more intimate.” The entire gym was present for Mandela’s and Winnie’s engagement party.
There is a natural physical evolution between father and son. The father was in his physical prime when he began training in 1950, but ten years later the son was growing to be a man. Mandela: “Thembi himself was a good boxer and on occasions I sat until very late at night waiting for him to return from a tournament in Randfontein, Vereeniging or other (centers).”
In 1961, aged 43, Mandela left the club with the conclusion of his boxing training. He had finally been acquitted of the 1956 treason charge. Within three years, he was sentenced with seven others to life imprisonment for the conviction of attempting to overthrow the government via violent revolution. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 and became the first black President of South Africa in 1994. Mandela’s boxing son, Thembi, died from an automobile accident in 1969.