Mandela the boxer in Joburg once more

Nelson Mandela is boxing again, if only in art. In May last year, a five-metre tall steel sculpture of him was unveiled in central Johannesburg, between Chancellor House and the Magistrate’s Courts, two buildings where Mandela spent some time in the 1950s.

The sculpture is from Bob Gosani’s famous 1953 photograph of Mandela sparring with professional boxer Jerry Moloi on the rooftop of the South African Associated Newspapers building in downtown Johannesburg. The work, Shadow Boxing, is by South African artist Marco Cianfanelli.

Cianfanelli said it was a challenge to capture a flat photograph in a piece of art, with all the nuances of the boxer’s movement. The artwork stands tall, its painted steel plates in shades of grey, black and charcoal, creating subtle shadows in the figure.

It joins another Mandela sculpture in the city – the six-metre tall jiving Madiba in the upmarket Sandton Square in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.

Mandela & Tambo Attorneys

The three-storey Chancellor House, on the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets in the CBD, was the location of the law offices of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in the 1950s. They had two small offices on the second floor, with the words “Mandela & Tambo Attorneys” sandblasted on the window.

Their office ran for eight years, from 1952 to 1960, the country’s first black legal firm. Both were arrested in 1956 and tried for treason. The Treason Trial ran for four years before the charge was dismissed against the remaining trialists in 1961.

During the trial their legal obligations were curtailed, and other partners joined the firm, taking on their cases: Duma Nokwe, Ruth Mompati, Mendi Msimang and Godfrey Pitje, among others.

The building is in Ferreirasdorp, a historically Indian area going back some 100 years, that managed to resist apartheid attempts to remove tenants and owners. Chancellor House is across the road from the Magistrate’s Court, where Mandela and Tambo and their partners represented their clients. In 1952 Mandela was brought before the same court and charged and sentenced under the Suppression of Communism Act.

Mandela the boxer

Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom that he boxed a little when he was studying at Fort Hare, but become more serious about the sport in Johannesburg.

“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,” he writes.

In Johannesburg he joined the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre in Soweto in 1950, and took his 10-year-old son Thembi along with him.

Mandela was philosophical about boxing: “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.”

He wrote that he considered boxing to be egalitarian, where rank, age, colour and wealth were irrelevant. “When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his colour or social status.” He enjoyed the exercise, finding the training to be “an excellent outlet for tension and stress”, feeling “both mentally and physically lighter” after a session.

Bob Gosani was at the time one of a bunch of successful photographers working for Drum magazine, a distinguished publication that pushed the boundaries of exposing apartheid atrocities in the 1950s but also related stories of vibrant black township life.

He started out as a messenger but soon became a darkroom assistant for photographer Jurgen Schadeberg on Drum. Gosani’s images have become iconic records of apartheid’s injustices. He died in 1972 at the age of 38, after losing a lung in a car accident.

Mandela the boxer

Saturday’s unveiling ceremony was attended by the executive mayor of Johannesburg, Parks Tau, together with Gosani’s widow, Tilly, and other city officials.

“I have never seen anything in my life that is so beautiful; it is out of this world,” said Tilly Gosani.

Artist Marco Cianfanelli recently completed another Mandela sculpture – 50 thin steel columns collectively depicting a portrait of him, at a site outside Howick in KwaZulu-Natal, where Mandela was captured by the apartheid police after 17 months on the run. Mandela had just paid a secret visit to ANC president Albert Luthuli, to talk about taking up arms in the fight against apartheid. The artwork has to be viewed from a particular angle, when it magically comes into focus.

Joburg Mayor Parks Tau sees the new artwork as providing a way of thinking about the apartheid legal system of the time. “Nelson Mandela boxing is symbolic of the fight for dignity and human rights which continues in our day,” he said at the unveiling.

“Faced by an oppressive legal system, Nelson Mandela also did battle at the courts. As both an attorney and an accused, Mandela became familiar with the law courts from both sides of the dock.”

The mayor said that Shadow Boxing would soon be joined by another new artwork nearby, this one depicting Tambo, Mandela’s lifelong friend and comrade.