By Mark Keohane
These men and women don’t say much. It would be ill-advised and it would be interpreted as ill-discipline. Here, in the uncompromising environment of the Infantry School in Oudtshoorn, the ethos is to listen, to obey and not to question.
This is a soldier’s world and only a few of those who have been seduced by the prospect of boxing in the next Olympics will get to London in 2012. Boxing may be their passion, but the military is a more probable end for most of them.
They arrived in Oudtshoorn in January ÔÇô more than a hundred young men and women ÔÇô with fists of fury, good intentions and ambitions of Olympic and Commonwealth gold. They came knowing they would be taught to box and schooled in military, with the allure of a fixed monthly income, a bed, and three guaranteed meals a day.
The best of the hundred is Siphamandla Natyandela, just 20 years old and a regular winner of medals among South Africa’s elite flyweight amateur boxers.
Natyandela never wanted to be a soldier. He had no interest ÔÇ¿in rifles, armed combat and wearing a uniform. He is a boxer, ÔÇ¿he says. The boots of a boxer are different to those of a soldier. ÔÇ¿So are the steps the two take. A boxer is expected to dance; a military man to march.
A boxer patrols the ring; a military man ÔÇ¿a border post. One uses hands to win; the other cannot rely on such innocence.
This kid is no soldier but he wants to be in Oudtshoorn. He wants to get up at 4am each day and run 10 kilometres. He wants to report to military training during the day because it givesÔÇ¿him a pass to boxing training in the evening. He wants to dismantle an opponent’s defence, even if it means he mustÔÇ¿first learn to dismantle rifles during the day.
Natyandela livesÔÇ¿ for those night sessions, a combination of push-ups, weights, banging the heavy bag and working the speedball. If his fitness allows it, he gets to prove he can box. And his fitness is good because he came to box, all 51 kilograms of this South African Olympic hopeful.
Being in Delta Company allows him to box. It also ensures he eats every day. ‘The food is good … very good,’ he says. ‘I have everything I need: Good training, medical assistance and the use of the best equipment. But the food … it is very good.’
Gideon Sam is president of Sascoc and the most influential sports administrator in South Africa. He was elected to fix South African Olympic sport after the dismal failure at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when South Africa won just one medal.
‘Never can that be acceptable,’ said Sam at the time. ‘Twelve medals by 2012 … that has to be our goal. If we don’t think big ÔÇ¿we shouldn’t be here.’
Cynics scoffed. A few of the more forgiving applauded Sam’s boldness, while some questioned the man’s sanity.
South Africa’s swimmers had medal potential but only a couple of athletes were ranked in the world’s top 10. Where would South Africa find the dozen to dazzle us with their medals?
‘Boxing,’ said Sam. ‘South Africa has won 19 Olympic medals in boxing, but since international readmission in 1992 we haven’t won one. Don’t tell me we don’t have boxers in this country … what there hasn’t been is a blueprint about how to maximise the natural talent by creating opportunities through institutions like the military.’
Sam, his roots in the boxing stronghold of the Eastern Cape, accepted there was a problem in talent identification but also ÔÇ¿in building Olympic and Commonwealth champions because ÔÇ¿the few good ones sacrificed Olympic glory for the more┬á┬á immediate demand of feeding their families. Many of the best amateur boxers are brought up on a diet of poverty and pity, so cash will always be the king decision-maker in determining when the amateur turns professional.
‘Financial hardship means our boys can’t be blamed for giving up a dream for money, so we at Sascoc, as the custodian of South African sport, had to find a way to negate this conflict, show these talented fighters we care, not just about their medal prospects, but also about their well-being,’ says Sam. ‘What we now have is a young boxer with a dream but also with a job. If he doesn’t make it as a boxer, he still has a future in the military, with the security of a salary and the opportunity to further his education.’
Welterweight Bongani Mwelase won Commonwealth gold in 2006, turned professional and is fighting Lovemore Ndou for the IBO title in September. Hawk Makepula and Philip Ndou were Olympic fighters who won world championship belts. Two fighters from five Olympic Games over 18 years: the return is abysmal, but then so was the investment.
‘I look at these young boxers in front of me [today] and I say to you that you are here because you had a dream. We are here to make sure you will always have the opportunity to try and live that dream,’ said Sam in addressing the 100-plus fighters in Oudtshoorn. ‘We care and we believe in you. Never stop believing in yourself. Never stop believing in your dream.’
SANDF General Aubrey Sedibe was equally emotional and passionate. ‘The Delta Company [of the SANDF Infantry School in Oudtshoorn] has brought new life to the Western Cape boxing community. The synergy of military sport and civilian partnership we are experiencing in their region should be a catalyst of a chain reaction for other sporting codes. The drought of medals during world sporting events by SA teams can be terminated by strengthening the bond of all South African sports organisations. It starts here in Oudtshoorn.’
Natyandela recently went home to Ngangelizwe, Umtata. It was a rare occasion, he says, because he owes it to his family to be in Oudtshoorn realising the dream.
‘It is always nice to be home, but they know I want to make it to London in 2012, and to do that I cannot be living and training in Umtata, because that way there is no guarantee about your safety, your income and how many times you eat.’
He doesn’t want to be a soldier but he knows that to be a boxer he has to also be a solider. Also the food is good at the Infantry School. Natyandela mentions that more than once, but so are the grooming, the guidance and the discipline.
‘When you send a soldier to war he has to be trained to ÔÇ¿be emotionally strong and his body has to be the strongest possible. Despite the natural talent of these intakes, many of them don’t have that discipline because of circumstance and environment. We change that quickly here,’ says Corporal Nneko Mokoena, the voice behind the commands to punch, swivel, bob and weave.
Mokoena’s speciality is boxing so there is more enthusiasm than fear in his tone, but the boxers are no special cases in the day. They are treated as soldiers first and then boxers, and their schedule is that of a solider who can throw a punch and hopefully take one as well because only 12 of the 100 will make it to a training camp in Cuba, ÔÇ¿and of those 12 not all will be certain ÔÇ¿of Olympic selection.
‘Delta Force is just one of the selection points,’ says Sam. ‘To make it you are going to have to be bloody good. We aren’t sending anyone to London out of goodwill. This is no charity. It is a chance to box for your country, but even bigger than that it is a chance to have a career and to live better. We know only a small percentage can ultimately make it, and that is just where the system has failed the majority who don’t. Projects like Delta Company are a starting point in fixing that.’
‘Run solider run … mark time … company halt … about turn … shoulder arms …’ Uniforms, guns, lots of screaming or more appropriately controlled chaos. Oudtshoorn Infantry School is not a place for boxers, but one for soldiers with a few boxers among them.’Punch, swivel … left … left … right … jab … jab … punch.’
Sam doesn’t hold back his enthusiasm.’Cuba, boys … Cuba is the promised land.’
Cuba is where 12 of these boxers will go because no country does Olympic boxing better than Cuba. ‘To be the best you learn from the best,’ says Sam.
Boxing has given Cuba 32 of their 65 Olympic gold medals, and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Jackson Chauke was South Africa’s only representative.
‘Unacceptable,’ says Sam. ‘We want at least three boxing medals in London in 2012. To get three medals we can’t send one boxer.’
Natyandela dreams of owning one of those three medals. But for now, at three in the afternoon, he must first march before he can dance … ‘left, left, left right left …’
He doesn’t like the heavy boots. No boxer does. He wants to dance, but he knows to dance he first has to march.
‘Soldier’, screams the corporal. Only tonight will he be a boxer again. That is why he is here. To box. He can cope with being a soldier first because tonight he gets to box, to rest and to eat … good food; very good food.
Keohane is chief operating officer at Highbury Safika Media. This article first appeared in Business Day Sport