Tuesday, 25 June 2013

25.06.2013 Nelson Mandela - the Shadow Boxer

With the father of the nation and one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century now critically ill in hospital, I thought this might the right time to write something about Nelson Mandela's time in Johannesburg.

Madiba moved to Johannesburg in 1941 where he first found work as a night watchman at a local mine. He then moved to the Alexandra township and got a job in downtown Johannesburg working as a clerk at a sympathetic Jewish lawyer's firm. The building (just off Library Gardens Square on Harrison Street) housing the firm is now called the Nelson Mandela Building and has a school and various offices in it.

After completing his BA degree and embarking on a law degree at Wits University (which he sadly was not allowed to complete), Mandela and his friend Oliver Tambo opened a legal practice for black South Africans in downtown Johannesburg opposite the Magistrates Courts.

Chancellor House where Mandela and Tambo had their legal practice
As the only black lawyers working in Johannesburg they dealt with a huge workload and the offices were constantly filled with people. As arguably one of the most important places in modern South Africa's history it is now finally being recognised as the historical landmark that it is and is going to be turned into a museum. For the moment there are exhibitions in the windows which explain what Tambo and Mandela were doing here and how. Amazingly as recently as four years ago the building was half-derelict and occupied by squatters.

The corner offices face the magistrates courts where a striking new monument to Mandela was recently erected. It is based on a photograph taken of the young Mandela shadow boxing on a nearby inner-city roof. Boxing was very important to Madiba, it kept him fit and focused, he admired the self-discipline and strength it involved and under it all of course boxing was egalitarian - the colour of the opponent is irrelevant in a fight. Underneath the monument is a quote from Long Walk to Freedom about boxing.

The original photo on which the monument is based
"In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant."

As a seriously ill and frail 94 year old man, it is sometimes difficult to look back and imagine how Mandela was in his youth - especially given that most of the world only caught sight of him once he was released from prison and had already dramatically aged. Therefore this monument was a very smart commission. It shows Mandela as a fighter, as strong, focused, hands on and of course most of all young. It's striking and inspiring and I hope will become a place where people can remember the great things which he achieved and how hard the struggle was, long after Madiba is gone from our lives.

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