WINTER JUNE 1970
I am 6 years old, and a few months into my school career and lived with my parents in a town in the Northern Cape called Vryburg. My dad worked on the railway and my mom was a housewife, raising four kids, of which I am the eldest.
One early winter’s morning I, as usual, cycled to school. My hands were freezing. The handlebars were hard. The cold called up soothing thoughts of our cosy kitchen, where my mom usually warmed my shirt, hanging it close to the coal stove.
I turned the last corner and the school gates loomed in front of me. My worst fear became true as I noticed three boys in front of the gate. During the previous five months, they bullied me. I was regularly punched, kicked and my clothes torn. Every time my mom asked me why I was bleeding or why my lip was cut, I told her I fell off the bicycle.
On this particular morning, I was smacked in the face twice by two of them and kicked in the shin by the third one. It was not that bad this morning, but I knew that when I had to go and buy the daily bread and milk at the Greek shop, they would wait for me.
As predicted, it happened again that afternoon. This time, I had a big swelling underneath one eye. As usual, I did not put up a fight. I was too scared to fight. Crying and with a big lump under the eye, I pedalled my bicycle home, not realising that the car parked across the street was my dad’s. He had watched the whole unfair fight.
That same evening, at about five, my dad arrived home from work. He told me to put on my sneakers, a PT shirt and pants and commanded me to join him. Whilst we were driving, he told me he was taking me to the local boxing gym. He also told me it was time for me to learn how to box. I was petrified. I questioned him, but he replied that in order to become a man, I needed to fend for myself. ‘It is one thing to pretend to your mum that you fell off your bicycle, but quite another to acknowledge that you are actually a real sissy,’ he added.
During the weeks that followed, I ran away from the boxing gym a few times, but my dad took me back every time. First, however, I got one hell of a hiding at home. And so my boxing career began. I really started enjoying punching somebody else and not being on the receiving end. The boxing coach soon spotted my talent, but my dad was still sceptical and wanted to see me in the ring before he agreed.
Three months later, I had my first bout in the ring. It consisted of three, three-minute rounds of boxing. I won my first fight and was rewarded with a tiny silver trophy. Other tournaments followed. I won them all and more trophies fought for space in my mum’s showcase in the lounge.
My first boxing trophy’s Boxing in Vryburg
Word quickly spread through the school, and I was treated with more respect. However, there was still some unfinished business I needed to take care of.
After every boxing match, my dad taught me to treat my opponent with a cold drink and a hot dog. I was six years old and had no idea why I had to do that, but I did. During this time, I was matched against a boy that was from Kimberley. At the weigh in, I noticed his one leg was thinner than the other. I was shocked and refused to box against a cripple. My dad assured me that this boy would not have been in the boxing ring if he was not good at it.
During the first round, I held back as I felt sorry for him. By the end of the first round, though, my coach in the corner warned I would lose this fight. ‘There is nothing wrong with his hands, he is beating you’, start throwing punches’, he yelled at me.
It was tough going during the following two rounds. This half-crippled boy with the thin leg was good and packed a serious punch. I barely won the fight, and I learnt to never to judge an opponent by his looks.
My dad had a trait. He made me do things without me realising why I am doing it. Living in a railway community, the railroad tracks ran only a few metres from our house. On Sunday mornings, we gathered the excess coal that dropped from the Locomotives. My dad carried his hessian bag, and I carried mine. We walked for kilometres.
The coal load took its toll as the bag filled and became heavier with every step. By the time it was full, the return trip was excruciating. ‘Come on, your mom needs the coal to prepare lunch on the stove,’ was his constant reminder during our return trip. I never realized he was toughening me up. Chopping wood in the backyard was another chore turned into a training aid.
In the December of that year, my dad returned home one evening to announce his promotion, which implicated that we would move from Vryburg back to East London in the New Year. I was born in East London and my parents lived there before moving to Vryburg.
With no time to spare, my priority was to sort out the three bullies. I did just that. One of them squealed to his parents, resulting in my dad being summoned to the headteacher’s office, together with me. The bloodied bully’s dad was wealthy and influential, respected, and contributed lots to the school. He wanted immediate action taken against me. My dad listened to what the headmaster had to say and answered: ‘We are leaving Vryburg’. Then he turned around, smiled at me, and we left, leaving a speechless headmaster in our wake.
Later in life, I repeatedly experienced this type of haughty attitude at the other schools I attended. If your parents were not wealthy, not school board members, you would end up drawing the short straw.