I have always been a great admirer of the boxing greats. Jake Ntuli, Mohammed Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Elijah Mokone, Simon Skosana… these are the names of my heroes, people I will always love and respect.
As a boy, I liked nothing better than to strip down to the waist and shadow box in front of the mirror. Left jab… Right upper cut… Pow! Left hook… Straight right… Pow! Pow! Mohammed Ali staggers in the corner. Again. Left jab… And then at last, VICTORY! Ali is lying senseless on the floor. The crowd stamps its feet and cheers. Hundreds of fans lift me up high, shouting: “The Champ! The Champ!”
Then all of a sudden, from nowhere, I feel this body blow — it’s my mother squaring up and telling me to get on with my homework. Of course, my victories were only in my head. I am not really a violent person. But growing up in the township makes it hard for a person not to see some action.
STICKS AND STONES
Once I joined a gang of street fighters. We used to look for fights. Anything to use as a punching bag. Later, I joined another gang and life became more dangerous. We called our fights “guru-gurus” because we fought in groups — and it was not always easy to tell who was the friend and who was the enemy. Our weapons were stones and not the might of punches. Stones were easy to find and did not damage our fists.
All in all, I can say that I have a fair bit of experience in the world of punches and knockouts. I have made my opponents ‘eat beetroot’ many a time and one or two of them have even seen stars.
But all my experience could not prepare me for the boxing match between me and a gang of white racists — the kind of people who belong to the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweeging (AWB). I did not think there were many of these people in a place like Hillbrow, where I now live. For me Hillbrow is a place of the future — a place where all people can live side by side in peace, without the poison of apartheid flowing through the veins of those who live there.
AN UNHOLY MEETING
It was Sunday night. My friend Rassie and I popped down to the shop to buy a loaf of bread for the next morning’s breakfast. The shop is on the ground floor of the building where Rassie and I share a room. I saw four white men coming towards us as I walked into the shop saying: “Ja Rassie, Monday is an unholy day…” Suddenly, I realised that I was talking to myself.
I looked back and saw two of the white guys blocking Rassie’s way. I went back to help my friend. As I came nearer, I heard one of them saying: “Jy moet by jou eie homeland gaan bly. Ons soek nie swart mense hier by onse dorp.” (“You must go and stay in your ‘homeland’, we don’t want blacks here in our town.”)
I asked this guy what the problem was and waited for the answer. I soon saw this was a grave mistake. The answer came within seconds. “Vat so, jou klein duiweltjie!” (“Take this, you little devil!”)
ONE… TWO… THREE
One… two… three… and many stars. These bright wonders of nature were not real. But they shone in my mind. I felt as if I was waking up on a really blue Monday morning.
After a few minutes, I got my strength back. The ‘stars’ were gone. Standing in front of me was a giant. No, a mountain! Tall, and beefy, with lots of heavy muscles.
I looked at Rassie. He looked at me. We are both short. I am a ‘not-too-fat-or-thin’ boy. And Rassie is one of those ‘gone-with-the-wind’ thin people. I always cross fingers when we pass those ‘we-go-for-the-bones’ dogs in the townships.
I looked at the mountain. My brain was asking me: “Do you want to die? To fight him is the same as killing yourself.” But my feelings were hurt and my blood was on the boil. I winked at Rassie to tell him that I was about to punch the guy’s face.
THE FIRST PUNCH
Like lightning I threw my first punch. It was a heavy one and it smashed into his hairy nose. Suddenly, he was a crab, moving in many directions. But he got his balance back — and I found myself looking straight into his eyes. I saw tears of anger flowing. Those tears worried me. I was more than a little scared.
But my whole body was filled with the spirit of victory. I was happy because my opponent was ‘eating beetroot’. A small crowd was watching the fight. They laughed happily. So I knew I had won that round.
But my victory did not last long. I heard one of the ‘crunchies’ say to another: “Werk met daai swakeling, ek sal met die een wat permantig is werk.” (Work on that weak one, I’ll work on this cheeky one.”) The speaker was the heaviest of the group, and he was coming for me!
Taken together, my opponent and I were like Mohammed Ali rolled into one. I had Ali’s sharp mind, and the other guy had Ali’s big body. My body was a bit weak, but then, so was his mind. So our chances of winning the round were equal.
I remembered Ali’s famous saying: “Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. I played hide and seek. I ran away from those heavy blows which were zooming past. And I enjoyed watching him fight with the air. The results of the round were clear: “Draw!”
Suddenly, I saw Rassie’s opponent coming towards me. Where was Rassie? I looked around. Rassie was lying on the ground, like a bundle of old jumble sale clothes. Now, Rassie’s opponent was out to get me.
My body was tired. I remembered the days of my ‘guru-guru’ fights with stones. There were no stones in sight, but there were two pints of guava juice that belonged to the enemy lying in a packet on the floor! Have you ever seen two heavies with guava juice dripping down their eyebrows? The crowd could not hold back its laughter. The only pity was that there were no bees around to enjoy the juice — and to finish the job with a sting or two!
WAR AND PEACE
But the laughter did not last long. It soon turned to anger. Voices of protest could be heard from the crowd. One still rings in my ears: “These are not just white thugs, they are right-wingers. They are pressing a wrong button by coming to fight here. They run around free in Pretoria, now they think they can do the same in Hillbrow…”
Then I heard another voice — it was the voice of peace and it came from the building’s security guard: “Please, don’t fight! Go home, all of you.” The fight was over. Rassie and I went back to our room to nurse our bruises and lick our wounds.
Afterwards, we talked about what had happened. This was not just a fight between black and white people. It was war— right-wing racists against all black people. Small-minded and tight-hearted people against all freedom loving people, no matter what their colour. We remembered that cowboy Strydom who murdered eight black people in Pretoria not so long ago and we felt truly angry.
In bed that night, I felt happy that I had spent so much time shadow boxing against the greats. But I was sad that my victory in real life left such a bitter taste in my mouth. Here, there was no love of boxing, no sport. It was a fight for survival and human rights — the right to live where you want, without fear and in peace. That is a fight that still has to be won!
NEW WORDS admirer — if you are an admirer of someone, you like and respect them very much racist — a person who judges others by the colour of their skin right-winger—In South Africa is a person would support apartheid opponent — the person you are fighting against a fight for survival — the fight to stay alive and for the basic things in life