Navy teaches disadvantaged children to ‘Roll with the Punches’

Did you know that the South African Navy in the 90’s spearheaded community outreach using the “sweet science”?  In 1998 the SANDF initiated the first boxing clinic on the West Coast to showcase local talent and generate role models for children who might otherwise gravitate to gangsterism.  Seen in the featured image are these children Shadow boxing with Jan Louwrens.

Boxing has always been a key sport in the South African military, with many of our great boxing heroes serving at one time or another in the armed forces, and nothing showcases this remarkable talent than a boxing outreach program to the community.

Equally, boxing has a long history of thriving in deprived areas. What better was to marry the two together by way of an outreach programme?

The first boxing outreach programme for children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds ever to be held on the West Coast took place at the Navy base SAS Saldanha in 9 December 1998, with the positive after effects continuing to this day…

Like all outreach programs the purpose of the clinic was to motivate children, making them aware of the benefits of sport as a conduit to physical and mental wellbeing, to make them healthy, confident and self-assured; providing role models and thereby turning them away from negative adult behaviour – alcoholism, drugs and warn them against the evils of gangsterism.

This community outreach programme was organised by the then Chairman of the Military Academy Boxing Club, S/Lieutenant Claudio Chistè a combat officer in the South African Navy, with the support from the University of Stellenbosch and the Military Academy, South African National Defence Force (SANDF). More than 70 children attended the training and instruction session which featured boxing stars such as the former world Boxing Champion, Gary Murray, former South African light-middleweight champion, Coenie Bekker, top SANDF trainer and referee, Jan Louwrens. The aim of the project was not only to teach children how to box, but to teach life skills and to facilitate the community building process.

South African military’s proud boxing legacy

1_Gary Murray winning the word championship title

Gary Murray after winning the World Championship

The South African military has a very proud legacy of boxing.  Former World Welterweight Boxing Champion Gary “The Heat” Murray is a leading example of this.  Gary was just 12 years old when he started sparring, but after he knocked out the local champion, he was hooked.  Gary’s family moved from Scotland to South Africa and he boxed for both Scotland and South Africa as a youngster, winning the South African National Title in Cape Town.  He joined the South African military for two years of his national service and won the prestigious “Super Trooper” title for the fittest soldier in the defence force, as well as the crown of Best Boxer two years in a row. After Gary left the army, he turned pro sharing the ring with greats such as all time knock-out king, Buck Smith (120 knockouts to his name), Dingaan “Rose of Soweto” Thobela and tough as teak Rusty Derouen (the fight was billed “War on the Foreshore” and won the “Fight of the Year” award).

2_Coenie Bekker in his army days pre winning SA Light-middleweight title

Coenie Bekker before winning the SA Light Middleweight title

Former South African Light-Middleweight Champion Coenie Bekker had a similar story to Gary Murray.  His family moved to the rough suburbs of Cape Town and after getting into a street fight with a local gang member Coenie resolved to get formally trained as a boxer.  In a long and impressive amateur career Coenie had 87 bouts suffering only 6 defeats, he won many titles in this time which included the Western Province Title as a Junior and Senior and also the South African Coastal Title at Junior level and Senior. Coenie also boxed in the South African army during national service and won many fights while serving as well as representing the then OFS Province, (Orange Free State, prior to 1994). After completing his military service Coenie decided to turn professional, with career highlights being his famous duel with Charlie “the Silver Assassin” Weir (who also served in the SADF) and winning the national championship to be crowned South African champion.

Inspiration leading to first Community Outreach

One particular moment in the early part of Claudio’s life would prove to be rather poignant in demonstrating the power of the sweet science to bring a community together. Back in 1991 when he visited the then Ciskei with his grandmother, Selma, at the invitation of her close friend, the late Chief Lent Maqoma, Chief of the amaJingqi (for a period served as Acting Paramount Chief of the amaRharhabe Royal house after the death of Inkosi Enkhulu Mxolisi). During this visit,  they were invited by a local to a boxing match in nearby Mdantsane (where over 23 world champions and 50 national champions hail from, amongst them Nkosana “Happy Boy” Mgxagi, Vuyani “The Beast” Vungu, Welcome “The Hawk” Ncita, Nkosinathi “Mabhere” Joyi).  The atmosphere was electric, with the community in full spirit behind the two sportsmen in the ring. The power of the sweet science was clear. Claudio’s dad, Diego, being a former Italian welterweight title contender, reinforced the affinity with the sport.

Claudio joined the South African Navy immediately after school, taking up boxing as a sport, going  on to have 10 bouts ranging from development tournaments in townships to representing the SANDF at provincial level. Being trained by top defence force coaches John Jantjies (former SA Kickboxing Champion & SA boxing contender, who had taken over from Steve Kalakoda as coach of the SA Navy team)  and Jan Louwrens,  with SA Kickboxing Middleweight Champion, Chad Alexander, as his sparring partner. Subsequently Claudio went on to win the Western Cape & Western Province championship.

3_Claudio being congratulated by world champion Gary Murray after beating provincial champion Heindrich Pienaar

Claudio Chistè being congratulated by world champion Gary Murray after beating provincial champion Heindrich Pienaar.

Legacy of Community Outreach makes social impact

It was these experiences which led Claudio to hold training camps for military personnel assisting in training aspiring paratroopers in preparation for their gruelling parabat selection, and to organise this community outreach programme which has since gone on to be an inspirational training ground for aspiring Olympic boxers and South African national champions. This project received praise from the University of Stellenbosch and the Military Academy, SANDF for community service in social upliftment, consequently promoting the perception of the defence force amongst the local community.

At the time, organiser Chiste stated with what now seems a prescient understatement, “I think it was very successful. There were about fifteen kids who really showed talent and if we got them interested, we’ve achieved our goal”, adding: “The idea was to let them have fun while learning a skill to exercise their bodies and develop their minds”. This laid the seeds for follow on outreach programmes, which indeed provided a learning environment for the acquisition of these skills. A case in point being  Gregory “The Hitman” Gans, where at the age of only 13 he attended one of the follow-on outreach programmes, showing tremendous talent. With extremely hard work and dedication he obtained his National Colours (Protea) for Kickboxing within the first year of starting with the sport. He won the SA Kickboxing Championships and was selected for the National Team where after he represented South Africa in an international bilateral competition against Mauritius and won his fight with a spectacular knock-out. He went on to represent South Africa in numerous international events, including two World Kickboxing Championships in 2012 and 2014 whereby he brilliantly achieved second place during both World Championships (1).

The link in South Africa with the military and boxing are deep rooted.

Fist-fighting as a sport came to South Africa only during the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795 (preceding even soccer and rugby 1862), with boxing as a sport being one of the legacies of colonialism. Bouts were conducted under the London Prize Ring rules for close on a century but illegal bare-knuckle fights-to-a-finish were common in military camps in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape. In fact, one of the earliest references to boxing in South Africa is a report about the arrest of two characters, Japie and Mahmoud, after a fight in Cape Town in the early 1860s (2).

Perhaps the overall impact of this sport was best summed up by Professor Njabulo Ndebele who researched extensively the effect on the community when he said at a recent seminar, “What is also fascinating is to reflect on the contribution of boxing to one’s moral compass and character. The values espoused in the ring. The restraint of power. The demonstration of discipline and self-control. A code of conduct. These men have huge potential to injure but instead there is an instinct to protect – to win through technical skills, thought and the following of the rules”.


Sources:
Sunday Times, Die Weslander, Boxing World, Military Academy Yearbook, Department of Defence, Supersport.
(1) Source: http://www.dod.mil.za/defence_people/PteGans.htm
(2) Source: https://www.supersport.com/boxing/blogs/ronjackson/SA_boxings_Happy_Anniversary

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