Boxing pictures of Nelson Mandela (and daughter) hit harder than a thousand blows.3 August 2021
Above: Zindzi Mandela tries out boxing gloves donated to her father Nelson and signed by world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.
Source: Baileys African History’s Archives
By Paul Martin
Just days after his release in 1990, Nelson Mandela was sitting alone in the Business Class section on a South African Airways flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. When I had spotted him checking in an hour earlier I had decided to upgrade myself – so I could try to get close to the ex-prisoner. The plan was working: he and I were the only passengers in Business Class.
Half an hour into the flight I plucked up the courage, or the cheek, to walk over to him. “Good morning, Mr. Mandela,” I said, “I’m the journalist who wore that ‘Free Mandela’ T-shirt at your first press conference. My white South African colleagues hated that!” He may well have felt ambushed – but he was surprisingly courteous and polite. “Sit down next to me,” he said, and warmly shook my hand. “And just call me Madiba [his clan name].”
For the next hour of the flight Madiba and I discussed only one subject – not his 27 years in jail, or his future tactics for negotiating with the white-dominated government. We talked about — boxing. I had pulled out a photograph I had in my briefcase: of Mandela as a young boxer. “Oh yes,” he enthused. “I remember that day very well. I did not win!”
He had loved boxing, he said, because it relieved the strains of work as a young black lawyer operating in a profession that, in the 1950s, was almost entirely whites-only. Boxing, he said, provided a template for the world he dreamed of creating for all South Africans: a society where everyone was equal and treated on his or her merits.
“Boxing is egalitarian,” Mandela told me, eyes transfixed by the picture. “When you’re probing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, you’re not thinking about his colour or his social status. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.”
A very similar quote now appears on a plaque alongside a huge multi-dimensional statue, unveiled this year, of the great man – his clenched fists raised inside boxing gloves. Modeled on the same photograph, it towers in the street alongside the Johannesburg magistrates’ court, where in the ‘bad old days’ the apartheid law enforcers would jail blacks for breaching ‘pass-laws’ that made them ‘temporary sojourners’ in their own land.
Mandela also saw boxing strategy as the ideal training for what was to come: four tough years of tortuous negotiation with the country’s white rulers. “It teaches you when and how to attack and to defend,” he said. “And how to pace yourself over what could be a long match.”
His interest in boxing has been a constant: Mike Tyson gave him signed boxing gloves that he promptly handed over to his daughter Zinzi – yes, she boxes too.
Since that flight from Cape Town in 1990, Mandela would enlighten me about his sporting strategy: to use sport as a political tooI, first to make white South Africans feel more willing to relinquish their monopoly of power, and then to build multi-racial national bonds instead of bitterness and resentment.
During his last weeks in prison Mandela had authorised his African National Congress to launch the mass demonstrations and disruption that cut short Mike Gatting’s England rebel cricket tour. But at the same time he approved clandestine contacts with the “racist” cricket authorities – aimed at forming multi-racial teams and rejecting government sports policies.
In the 1970s I had been a young white rebel cricket umpire who had joined the non-white cricket leagues. Liaising secretly with ANC I had also tried, even then, to help bring whites and non-whites together in one cricket body, so undermining the very basis of apartheid.
A decade later, talks held in my London home and elsewhere were moving towards a potential deal, when everything was superseded by President FW de Klerk’s dramatic announcement (on February 2 1990) that the white government was unbanning the ANC and was about to free Mandela.
The first major lifting of the blanket ban on international sporting contacts came when, late in 1991, Mandela supported sending the national cricket side, under Clive Rice, on a short visit to India. That was followed months later by an even more historic tour of the West Indies.
Another, much more important breakthrough for South African sport would be its readmission to the Olympic movement. Would Mandela agree to the still-white-ruled country sending a multi-racial team to the 1992 Olympic Games?
The idea of South Africa’s flag – which symbolised white control over the country – fluttering alongside those of its former enemies at the world’s premier sporting event had been anathema to most black political activists. And indeed for years Mandela faced strong internal dissatisfaction within his party over this bold policy of reconciliation through sport. The film Invictus accurately captures the type of dissent Mandela had to overcome.
Nevertheless, early in 1992 Mandela and a handful of his party’s leadership met a top-level delegation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) inside the terminal of a tiny airstrip in the picturesque Eastern Transvaal. (It was chosen because it was so remote and also because Mandela was enjoying a few days’ rest on a private game-ranch nearby.) I was allowed to film this otherwise secret meeting for later broadcast on BBC “Sportsnight”.
When an IOC delegate, the great American hurdler Ed Moses, tearfully embraced Mandela just before he boarded the game-ranch’s helicopter, I realised the deal was done: a multi-racial South African team would go to Barcelona later that year. Mandela was invited to the Olympics as guest of honour, while President FW de Klerk was pointedly absent from the guest list.
As the historic 1994 elections approached, a white right-wing bombing campaign left more than two dozen dead. But, almost miraculously, the violence petered out as election day approached. The hardline right was by now isolated and emasculated – partly at least because the fears of most whites had been assuaged; they had been won over by the magnanimity of Mandela and by his sports policies.
When Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 as the country’s first black president, I was in the VIP area — through a security lapse rather than by invitation. As he walked past, Madiba recognised me, smiled broadly, and said: “You see, Paul, we’re boxing clever. We’re winning – so far!”
His unity-through-sport strategy came to full fruition in 1995. Rugby had been reviled by anti-apartheid activists for decades as the white man’s game, the epitome of racial exclusion. And more than a year into Mandela’s official rule, only a small proportion of the top players were black. When South Africa hosted the World Cup, though, Mandela chose to do the unthinkable – he donned a green-and-gold Springbok jersey, went onto the field and danced and hugged the no-longer-racist Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar. They jointly lifted the trophy.
A couple of days later, amid national euphoria, Mandela and I filmed an interview in the sun-drenched garden of his Johannesburg home, in a once whites-only upmarket suburb. Afterwards, as we packed away our cameras, Mandela lingered, put on his dark glasses, and threw me an imaginary rugby ball. He said: “There you are, Paul: it worked!”
Yes, Madiba, it did.