Freedom of Joburg for Mandela

26 July 2004

Five days after Nelson Mandela’s 86th birthday, Johannesburg gave its most famous resident the Freedom of the City at a ceremony at the Orlando East community hall in Soweto – used by Mandela for political meetings and for boxing training half a century ago.

Friday’s event – which also celebrated a decade of democracy in South Africa – was to have taken place on 14 May, but was postponed to allow Mandela to fly to Zurich to be part of the SA 2010 bid team’s final presentation to Fifa ahead of the announcement of South Africa as the host country for the 2010 Football World Cup.

Nelson Mandela was the third person to receive the city’s highest award. The first two recipients were also stalwarts of South Africa’s liberation struggle: Walter Sisulu, who received the award in 1997, and Beyers Naude, who received it in 2001.

Mandela’s famous words, “The struggle is my life”, should not be taken lightly, the City Council said in a statement. “He has sacrificed his private life and his youth for his people, and remains South Africa’s best-loved personality.”

Mandela, who turned 86 on 18 July, announced in June that he would be retiring from an active public life which continued unabated after he handed the country’s presidential reins over to Thabo Mbeki in 1999.

Mandela’s spokesperson, Zelda le Grange, said Mandela was “very honoured by the award, as this has been his home since the 1940s.”

Mandela the boxer
The Orlando East community hall was chosen for Friday’s award ceremony because of its historical ties to Mandela, who used to live in the area, and used the hall both for political meetings and for boxing training.

Mandela was a keen boxer in his youth, and although he never took part in organised tournaments, he used to train at the hall, then known as the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre (DOCC). He joined the DOCC’s boxing club in the early 1950s, training there almost every weekday evening with his son, Thembekile.

(The photo on the right shows Mandela sparring with the club’s star boxer of the time, Jerry Moloi. Drum photographer Bob Gosani took the photo on the rooftop of South African Associated Newspapers’ office in Johannesburg.)

World heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, in Johannesburg to fight Hasim Rahman in 2001, gets some pointers from Mandela. Lewis lost the Rahman bout, but won the return match the following year. (Photo: Irish-Boxing.com)

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes: “I would go home directly after work, pick up Thembi, then drive to the community centre … We each took turns leading the training sessions in order to develop leadership, initiative and self-confidence.

“Things would get a bit rough for me on the nights that my son was in charge, for he would single me out for criticism … When he saw me loafing, he would say in a stern voice, ‘Mister Mandela, you are wasting our time this evening. If you cannot keep up, why not go home and sit with the old women.’ Everyone enjoyed these jibes immensely, and it gave me pleasure to see my son so happy and confident.”

Mandela writes that he 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 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. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his colour or social status.

“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.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter