Despite intimidation from gangs and rising violence in Imizamo Yethu (IY), there are two havens where the fists fly, but the goal is pure: to get kids off the streets and give them hope for the future. Sisonke Boxing Club and Depot Boxing Club couldn’t be more different. One is firmly against the ropes, the other is barely out of the corner, but they are both intent on winning the battle for the kids of IY.
By Anton Crone for Sunday Times - South Africa
For a bit of context, this is the "Disa" section of Imizamo Yethu. Photographed two years ago, the land in the foreground had been cleared for new housing. It has not been developed any further since. Back then at least the kids could play on the slopes, slide down them on discarded boogie boards and sheets of cardboard. Now it is a weed strewn wasteland, broken glass and human shit is everywhere. According to Western Cape Development Agency, building will only commence in April 2023.
SISONKE BOXING CLUB
Inspired by his father who is one of the trainers, Phila Ntsangani has been coming to Sisonke Boxing Gym since the age of 3. While dad is away in the Eastern Cape for a funeral, Phila keeps at it, sparring with Bongile every evening, ducking and weaving, performing star jumps, push ups, sit ups - the lot.
Phila's skill with a glove is unmistakable, despite having strabismus, a condition whereby his eyes do not align in the same direction.
Phila tops up a water bottle at a tap outside the gym. It gets hot and sweaty in the tightly packed room with more than 20 kids giving it their all.
The 9 year-old has become the club jester, rabbel rowser, cheerleader, and the boxer to look out for in the future. Ever the showman, Phila whips off his shirt and strikes a fighter pose for the camera. People are most impressed with his six-pack
Phila leads his mother through the narrow alleys of Imizamo Yethu to their shack high up on on the slope of Bokkemanskloof. Generally, the higher up the slope you live, the worse your situation is.
Most houses in this area are informal shacks made of corrugated iron. One rickety door, the only security being a small padlock. Break-ins and theft are common in Imizamo Yethu. Phila shares this small shack wth his mother, father and three siblings.
Sandiso Centane, 23 recently turned pro. He was inspired by his uncle, Bongile, who took him to boxing matches as a youngster, and he's trained him ever since. Now fighting minimumweight, he keeps the scales at 48kg by training in a plastic top, taped shut at the wrists, neck, and over the tears in the shoulder. When I met him in January this year, his last professional fight had been in Cape Town in 2019, before Covid stopped the bouts. Did you win, I asked. "If I'd lost I wouldn't be here now," he said.
Trainer Bongile Centane makes sure to keep the boxers hydrated. Here Sandiso takes deep slugs between rounds.
Sandiso squares up to Fezeko Maginindane. "IY is tough," says Sandiso, who has won over 100 amateur bouts. "It's gangs and violence. But I I stay out of trouble. I stay at a school and then I go boxing. I don’t really have time for anything else. I don’t know any other world. My world is boxing."
35 degrees outside, 45 or more in the gym. But it’s a good way to keep the weight down - particualry if the minimumweight division (48kg) is the goal.
Sinentlahla Njokweni spars with trainer Bongile Centane. Sinentlahla has been training at Sisonke for about one year. She enjoys the exercise, and learniNg how to defend herself. The club is increasingly focussing on young female boxers, to empower them with confidence and self defence skills while also having fun.
Lina Dawanapo is new to boxing. "My sister was coming so I thought I would come too. I only stared a week ago but I really like it. I like the exercise, I like the people," she says.
Club manager, Jonny Cohen, chats to Bongile. Jonny is involved in many ways, not least with buying the club gear and driving boxers to tournaments. He also documents club events and the stories of the individuals. Bongile is a petrol pump jockey by day and trains at the gym every evening, five days a week. He lives in an humble shack in IY. He firmly believes that the leaders of tomorrow come from roots like this, and he's here to help them rise. But he needs equipment, he says. Least of all he needs "kit for the small kids like Phila. These kids shouldn't work out in their everyday clothes. Then we need head protectors, groin protectors, protectors for the women's fronts.”
DEPOT BOXING CLUB
Without a boxing ring at Depot Boxing Club, trainers Zamikhaya Maxapana, Vuyo Nelson and the trainees form a human ring around Avu Manyelo as he lines up a roundhouse punch in 2019. Not long after this photo was taken in 2019, Zamikhaya passed away leaving Vuyo to pick up the pieces.
Depot Boxing Club trains in a dilapidated building that doubles as a community meeting hall. Over numerous visits, the smell from whatever had died in the roof eventually dissipated, and a pool of blood in one corner of the room gradually dried. It wasn't from one of the boxers. These were ungloved fists used on someone with extreme prejudice, as indicated by the dark scuffle marks and splatter on either side of the wall.
Trainer Vuyo Nelson, cautions two young boxers to keep it clean before a three round bout. After lead trainer Zamikhaya passed away Vuyo took over training along with woman trainer Sinelisiwe Tuswa. As a security guard, Vuyo's erratic hours sometimes conflict with the training, but he does everything he can to get the kids together to work out and spar. "I'm doing it to get the kids off street, away from the drugs and drinking," he says. Now 35, Vuyo was injured while boxing 10 years ago and never went pro. This is his way of remaining involved in the sport he loves, and doing his best for the community.
The boxers at Depot Boxing Club follow a less formal regime than Sisonke, but they are no less determined. Like most of the kids who train at Depot or Sisonke, Jabulile Sipoke (right) sees boxing as a way to escape, a chance for a better life outside of IY.
As well as being a good outlet for kids, who thrive on the exercise and the opportunity to get off the streets, boxing at Depot is also high entertainment for local fans. Sometimes things can get scrappy, and Vuyo is ready to step in and cool things down - each competitor sent to opposite corners of the room.
Inathi Makosi slips on a well used boxing glove before going into the ring. Gloves are shared between all competitors and “ring” is a misnomer, for lack of funds and equipment.
Achumile Nogwavu has that key ingredient needed for a boxer: Attitude.
Vuyo says a few kids here have potential to move up in the field. " I keep contact with pro boxers and refer kids with potential to him,” he says.