In a sweaty township gym where former South African president Nelson Mandela once trained as a young boxer, athletes are still pumping iron today, inspired by the peace icon’s example as he fights for his life in hospital.
Things have not changed much since the early 1950s, when a youthful Mandela worked out on week nights at the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre, or the “DO” as it is still affectionately known.
Spartan and slightly run down, the walls ooze with the intermingled history of sport, community life and the decades-long fight against apartheid.
It was there that Mandela came to lose himself in sport to take his mind off liberation politics.
Nestled in the heart of South Africa’s largest township just south of Johannesburg, the community center was also where famous African songbirds such as Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie first performed.
The 1976 riots against the imposition of the Afrikaans language in black schools were planned from the DO as Mandela and other leaders languished in apartheid jails.
“Here, look, these are the very same weights Madiba used for training,” proud gym instructor Sinki Langa, 49, told a visiting reporter, using Mandela’s clan name.
“They have lasted all these years,” he said as he added another set to a bar his fellow trainee, Simon Mzizi, 30, was using to furiously bench-press, sweat dripping down his face.
Nearby, other fitness enthusiasts worked out to the tune of soothing music — which, unusually for a gym, included opera.
The DO — or Soweto YMCA as it is called today — opened its doors in 1948, the same year the apartheid white nationalist government came to power.
Built with funds donated by Colonel James Donaldson, a self-made entrepreneur and staunch supporter of the now governing African National Congress (ANC), the DO includes a hall and several sparsely furnished smaller rooms, like the one where Mandela sparred as a young man.
Today, the gym is housed in an adjacent hall, which was the original building on the grounds erected in 1932. Mandela joined the DO in about 1950, often taking his eldest son, Thembi, then 10 years old, with him.
In a letter to his daughter, Zinzi, while on Robben Island where he spent 18 of 27 years in jail, Mandela recalled his days at the gym.
“The walls ... of the DOCC are drenched with the sweet memories that will delight me for years,” he wrote in the letter, published in his 2010 book Conversations with Myself.
“When we trained in the early ’50s, the club included amateur and professional boxers, as well as wrestlers,” Mandela wrote to his daughter, who never received the letter because it was snatched away by his jailers.
Training at the DO was tough and it included sparring, weight-lifting, road-running and push-ups.
“We used to train for four days, from Monday to Thursday, and then break off,” Mandela told journalist Richard Stengel in the early 1990s, while writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
When he was handed a life sentence in 1964, Mandela kept up the harsh regime of his training to stay fit and healthy.
“I was very fit, and in prison I felt very fit indeed. So I used to train in prison ... just as I did outside,” Mandela said in a transcript of his conversation with Stengel, held at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.
Mandela was eventually released from jail in 1990 and in 1994 he was elected South Africa’s first black president.
In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela admitted he was “never an outstanding boxer.”
“I did not enjoy the violence of boxing as much as the science of it. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle,” Mandela wrote.
“Back in those days, boxing was very popular — it was part of that culture,” said Shakes Tshabalala, 81, who has been involved with the center from the start.
Pugilism always played a big part in Mandela’s life and at his nearby house, today a museum, boxing-related items, such as the WBC World Championship belt donated by Sugar Ray Leonard are on display.
Back at the center, a new generation of youngsters are training.
Although few of them box today, they draw their inspiration from Mandela’s example in healthy living. While the ailing 94-year-old statesman is battling a recurring lung infection, the gym-goers firmly believe the liberation icon will return for one last round.
“Mandela was a sportsman. This is why today he is still alive,” Langa said. “I am worried about him, but I know he’ll win. He’s a fighter.”