The sleepy town coastal of East London is one of the poorest metropoles in South Africa – and the townships around it are even poorer. Yet this tiny part of South Africa has produced some of the country’s – and the world’s – greatest boxing champions.
It was a warm December night in Perth, Australia, when Simpiwe Vetyeka defeated Indonesia’s Chris John in six rounds to claim the World Boxing Association featherweight title. Six days earlier, on 30 November, Zolani Tete knocked out Juan Carlos Sanchez Jr in the 10th round of their International Boxing Federation junior bantamweight title eliminator in the Mexican’s own backyard. It earned Tete a shot at the IBF crown.
Within seven days, two South African boxers demolished their international opponents in a sudden flurry of power and talent. In a week, South African boxing was on the world stage. But neither of those achievements were the extraordinary thing. What was extraordinary was that both fighers came from two small townships near East London, poor and ignored communities that, for years, have punched way above their weight. Vetyeka is from Duncan Village, and Tete from Mdantsane. Those two townships have, for years, produced a long line of world-class pugilists. East London is small and poor, but it’s the boxing capital of South Africa.
Just what makes boxers from the quiet coastal town special is strange to those outside the boxing fraternity. But insiders know why East London produces so many talented fighters. Vetyeka’s trainer, Vuyani Bungu, who had been in the fighter’s corner in Perth, says it: for young men, in this place, boxing is the only way out of poverty.
Bungu himself was the IBF super bantamweight champion in 1994, beating the American, Kennedy McKinney, in what The Ring magazine billed as the “upset of the year”. For him, boxing freed his family from its financial worries.
He was raised in a small house, home to eight people. Some of his family, he said, would sleep on a sponge mattress on the floor. His father was a gardener and his mother a domestic worker. There wasn’t much money. But Bungu knew professional boxing was the way to get his family out. “Once I became professional the only thing on my mind was to change the life I came from,” he said. “I became the breadwinner.”
It is for this reason that boxing became a religion in East London, explains Bungu. Indeed, young boys and girls shadow boxing in the street or students boxing in the classroom are a common sight in the townships.
Former IBF super bantamweight champion, Welcome Ncita, agrees with Bungu, saying the sport can be found at every turn in Mdantsane and Duncan Village. “In this corner of the township you will hear of boxing. You move to another zone and hear of boxing. You go to the church, you hear of boxing.”
Bungu’s claim is clear to visitors: a group of children playing on the side of the road start punching the air as soon as they spot Ncita driving past. They recognise one of their gods within the East London boxing pantheon.
Bungu, 46, grew up in Mdantsane, South Africa’s second largest township after Soweto. Home to some 150 000 people, Mdantsane was established in 1962 after the apartheid government forcefully removed black inhabitants from East London’s East Bank. Duncan Village, with about 80 000 residents living in 15 000 shacks, according to the Association of American Geographers, had been a black settlement since the mid-1850s. Both places were poor and were therefore hotbeds for crime and gang violence. But it was this volatile environment that shaped great boxers, especially the legendary Nkosana “Happy Boy” Mgxaji.
Born in Duncan Village in 1949, Mgxaji took up boxing as a way to defend himself in the mean streets of the township. Today, he is revered within the local boxing fraternity, and East London’s Daily Dispatch newspaper went on to claim the man as “the greatest boxing sensation this country has produced” in a column published in December 1999 that honoured achievers of the twentieth century. In its Heritage Project, the Sunday Times said Mgxaji was the inspiration for generations of boxers that followed after him.
Watch the Sunday Times Heritage Project video on Happy Boy Mgxaji (in white trunks).
Bungu was one of those for whom Mgxaji was a muse. As a boy, he watched his hero and other prize fighters at Sisa Dukashe Stadium in Mdantsane. It was enough to make him dream of becoming a boxer. And at the age of 12, he took his first steps towards stardom. “When I was young, I would use a pint carton of milk as gloves.”
Like many young men in his time, Bungu started boxing at school. During his adolescence, boxing was a legitimate school sport that attracted dozens of would be fighters. “Our boxing came from classrooms where there was only one [punching] bag. I would go to that particular classroom where people were training. There were a lot of boxers. The windows would be wet with [condensation]. At times, we would make a boxing ring out of school desks and fight. Sometimes, one school would challenge another school.”
Seeing the boy’s potential, his older cousin, Thanda Bantu Dollar, would bring Bungu and his younger brother, Dudu, a pair of gloves on the weekend and allow them to spar in the street.
Ncita also started boxing competitively at school level. Two years after he had moved from Duncan Village to Mdantsane, boxing was introduced into schools. “We all started there,” he said. “Sometimes I would train with my brother, Mzwandile, and his club mates at home. Because of that I ended up taking part in school.”
Hard working boxers
A trainer nowadays, Ncita was a member of the Eyethu Boxing Club in Mdantsane, which in its golden era of the 1990s was also home to Bungu and World Boxing Organisation light flyweight champion Masibulele “Hawk” Makepula. It was here that Ncita and Bungu became stable mates. “At Eyethu we were more like a family, motivating one another,” said Ncita.
To become the IBF super bantamweight champion, Bungu would wake up at 3.45am every morning and run 21 kilometres. At 10am he did strength training and at 4pm he would be in the boxing gym. This routine was followed seven days a week. He admitted that he was not the best nor the most stylish fighter while growing up in the sport, but his hard work made him beat the best boxers. “I would not wait for my trainer to push me. I pushed myself all the time. Because we knew this was the way that would change our situation at home.”
Bungu was the first person from a democratic South Africa to become a world champion when he beat McKinney on 20 August 1994, for the IBF world title. His victory was such a feat for the country that even the late Nelson Mandela, who was president at the time but had been an amateur boxer in his youth, called him up for a visit. “I went to see him,” said Bungu. “He came with a biscuit tray and some drinks. He said he was happy I put South Africa on the map and told me to keep it up and that all the people, even him, were behind me.”
Bungu went on to defend his IBF crown 13 times, an all-time South African record. Mandela phoned him for each of those title defences and wished him luck.
Watch the final round of the Bungu-McKinney fight. Bungu is in the blue trunks.
The East London ‘shuffle’
Passing through Duncan Village and Mdantsane, one cannot help but notice the lines of shacks just inches from the road. Liquor stores and taverns are on almost every street corner, often arenas for drunken brawls. And as Bungu says, these are places where knife fights between rival gang members and illegal roadside gambling are common.
But it is in these dangerous and dusty streets that the East London “shuffle” was created. Bungu explains that the style is an expression of township life. One would have to be cunning like a tsotsi to succeed, he adds. A tsotsi is a criminal, a township gangster – he steals, lies and is not to be trusted. “Coaches in East London train your mind. They will say if you are in front of your opponent you have to be like a tsotsi. When you steal the sugar from the cupboard, your one eye must be on the sugar and the other on the door in case someone comes in. So in boxing, it is the same. You do not take your eyes off your opponent.”
When an East London boxer is in trouble in the ring, they are helped out not by the training they have received in the gym, but the harsh experiences of living in the township.
According to Ncita, East London boxers have a unique style compared to those from other parts of the country. He describes East Londoners as having an entertaining style with an emphasis on breaking down the opponent mentally rather than physically. “In Johannesburg it is more about ‘I can take a punch, can you take mine? I want to make you bleed, I want to knock you.’ But for us, it is more of an art. It is about entertainment and about enjoying the game. Our boxers want to make a joke out of you and show they are more skilful and cleverer than you are. Maybe later on they will finish you off because they can.”
Trying to outwit an opponent instead of out-punch him can increase a fighter’s chances of surviving in the ring as well as prolong his career, says Ncita. Hard-hitters, he adds, are left vulnerable most of the time. “A boxer who is able to use his brain is able to pinpoint the weaknesses and strengths of the opponent so he can execute moves that will make him shine in front of the crowd.”
The “shuffle” may have made its way into professional boxing but it was refined at amateur level. Bungu and Ncita honed their skills at this level, which forms the bedrock for professional boxing. But open boxing has been neglected for too long and is in danger of running out of funds to stay alive.
Open boxing needs funding
A light drizzle falls on Vido Mtekwana’s shoulders as he unlocks the padlocks on the door of his gym, Sisonke Boxing Club. Situated in Mdantsane’s Zone 8, the building sits amidst tall grass with only a dirt path leading to it. As soon as he opens the door, he enters, he says: “This is my state-of-the-art gym.”
The air is musky and only a skylight illuminates the dark hall. The face brick walls are adorned with newspaper clippings of fights involving Sisonke’s boxers. A poster of Happy Boy Mgxaji hangs askew. Dangling from a steel bar at the front of the gym are five punching bags of various sizes; they look like they have lost their firmness over years of being pounded. And in the centre of the gym stands a large boxing ring with tattered ropes and a stained canvas floor.
It is this gym that has been the heart of amateur boxing in East London since 1995, or open boxing as it is now known. Mtekwana explains that the name change came about as an attempt to rid amateur boxing of its inferior image and as a way of attracting more sponsors. With a background in education, Mtekwana, who is Sisonke’s trainer and manager, has made sure he produces fighters who are disciplined and schooled in “the sweet science”. This is the reason why four of the 10 boxers who will be representing South Africa at this year’s Commonwealth Games come from his gym.
Manager of the Sisonke Boxing Club, Vido Mtekwana, says being an open boxing trainer is a calling. He focuses on young boxers as a way of keeping them off the streets.
Under Mtekwana’s guidance, the club has produced boxers such as welterweight southpaw Siphiwe Lusizi, who participated in the London Olympics in 2012, as well as South Africa’s very own female world champion, Noni Tenge. At one point, she held both the World Boxing Federation and IBF welterweight crowns.
But despite these successes, Sisonke has experienced financial hardship in recent years. Mtekwana, who is also president of the Eastern Cape Boxing Organisation, adds that most open boxing clubs throughout the country are struggling financially. Even though it produced a significant amount of South African fighters during apartheid, today’s government only supports these clubs when their fighters enter into national championships. “At grassroots, where things start, there is no support. This just shows you that we at open boxing level are doing a lot with very little.”
It is up to Mtekwana to find the R4 000 Sisonke needs every month to stay open. He charges a monthly fee of just R20 for club membership, which does not go far in paying the running costs. In 2012, there was another sign that Sisonke was struggling: Tenge was stripped of her IBF title because her team could not secure television coverage or a sponsor. “She lost it without throwing a punch,” says Mtekwana.
But despite these hardships, he believes being a trainer and administrator at amateur level is a national calling. “There are very few people who want to stay in this boxing. But you must remember, I am a teacher. Teachers do not get a lot from [the] government but they stay on because they have a calling to deliver for the nation, to change the lives of ordinary people.”
Keeping children off the street
If Sisonke had not opened, many of Mtekwana’s 70 boxers may have been caught up in the seedy side of township life. This is why he takes in children as young as 10 years old – to keep them off the street. “I specialise in young amateurs, many of whom are still school-going kids.”
He even allows young boxers to live at his house in Mdantsane. It is a place where they can sleep, study and be protected from violence, drugs and alcohol. He gives them groceries and other necessities as well.
Though he encourages young men and women to make a career out of boxing, Mtekwana says life in the sport is too short to sustain any boxer financially after retirement, which is why he insists his fighters attend school as well. “What I emphasise to them is they should get educated because boxing is not a lifelong thing,” he said. “Look at [Jacob “Baby Jake”] Matlala, a four-time world champion; died a pauper. Money is a slippery thing.”
Too many boxers die bankrupt
Welcome Ncita, the former IBF super bantamweight champion, is looking to open East London’s first boxing academy that will combine education with the sport.
According to Ncita, young boys who take up boxing are attracted to the riches that come with a career in the sport. They see fighters driving expensive cars, wearing fancy clothes and living in big houses with electricity. “You will start thinking, ‘In order for me and my family to be loved by everybody in the neighbourhood, I must be like that guy.'”
But such material gains are temporary, he says. Lust for the high life has sent many boxers back to their impoverished roots. The reason for this, says Ncita, is because boxing is run by individuals “in a mafia way”. Unlike other sporting codes that have umbrella bodies overseeing operations, boxing organisations are run by a single person who may be a club manager, a promoter and a trainer all in one. Ncita explains that many fighters end up not knowing much about life, because the person who is supposed to be guiding them as a boxer and as a human being is leading them astray. “As a boxer, you think that if you mess up with this man, your doors will be closed. You are depending on this man for everything. But for [promoters], it is about how powerful they are and how deep their pockets are.”
He suggests that boxers should be responsible and prepare for life after the sport. “When boxers’ careers are over, then what? That is why you see them become paupers – because they know of no other way of making a living.”
It is for this reason that Ncita advises his boxers to find means of earning an income outside the sport. Ncita himself lives by his words. In 1990, his championship winning year, he bought a Steers outlet in what was then known as a “white area” in East London. People said he would fail within three months. He ran the business for eight years, raising it from a crummy joint that was about to close down to a successful fast food outlet. “I had to think about life after boxing. Fortunately I spent a lot of time with people who were in business.”
Now, he hopes to give back to the sport that lifted him out of poverty. He is looking to open a boxing academy, an idea he has been thinking about for the last 10 years. Through help from government departments such as Education and Public Works, he has already secured property – an abandoned school in Mdantsane – which would be the location of the academy. He says it will create role models and future leaders, not just boxers. “I had to do something that would bring change in the minds of boxers and make them reach the level I have reached or even above. Your career as a boxer and your academic path has to go hand in glove.”
Status of boxing
According to Bungu, professional boxing in East London has been on the up in recent years. This is because boxers who had left Mdantsane and Duncan Village for better resources and big sponsorships in Johannesburg are now returning to the coastal town.
One of those is Vetyeka, who, just before his title fight against John, severed ties with Johannesburg trainer and manager Nick Durandt to join Bungu’s team. “The beauty about this side is that Buffalo City Municipality is doing something about boxing,” says Bungu. “They are helping promoters to promote it. Even the [city’s] department of sport, recreation, arts and culture is supporting the sport financially.”
However, Bungu points out that the one problem the sport faces is television rights. It is hardly recognised by state television, adding that the SABC killed boxing. Only SuperSport supports boxing, particularly three promoters. Even then, television coverage is disorganised. Before Bungu flew out to Australia for Vetyeka’s fight, his team were under the impression that it would not be televised. Only once they landed in Perth were they told the fight would be shown on SuperSport.
As for open boxing, Mtekwana believes it is in a good place despite the lack of funds. A change in leadership within the South African National Boxing Organisation, the body that oversees open boxing in the country, offers the sport a chance to revive itself. In November 2013, officials elected a new executive committee headed by Andile Mpofu, who is originally from King William’s Town, another Buffalo City town.
According to Mtekwana, the committee is vastly different from the military leaders who were not in touch with the sport at grassroots level. “Open boxing is in good hands especially since it is led by a person from the Eastern Cape. Now, we have a very good plan to improve open boxing not just in the province but nationally too.”
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