Nelson Mandela: the Shadow Boxer

The Shadow Boxer

NELSON Rolihlahla Mandela stands tall at six metres in the inner city, displaying his immaculate boxing posture in a sculpture inspired by the legendary Bob Gosani's 1950s photograph of him sparring on a Johannesburg rooftop.

Across the road from the old law offices of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela in downtown Joburg stands a painted steel sculpture of Madiba in sparring mode – a tribute to his fight for a free South Africa.

Created by artist Marco Cianfanelli, the unique work, aptly named the Shadow Boxer, stands between the Johannesburg Magistrates' Court and Chancellor House.

The sculpture was commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) with the assistance of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and the Bailey’s African History Archive.

African lawyers

Mandela was one of the greatest leaders of the 21st century and, dubbed the "Father of the Nation" by his countrymen, dedicated his life to the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa. However, apart from his political stance, Mandela was an avid boxer who readily posed fists up alongside other boxers.

The Shadow Boxer guards Chancellor House on 25 Fox Street, where Mandela and Oliver Tambo situated their Mandela&Tambo law firm in the 1950s. Now a heritage site, the space is open to the public, with historical displays.

As Mandela recalls in Long Walk to Freedom: “We were not only African lawyers in South Africa, but we were the only firm of African lawyers.  For Africans we were the firm of first choice and last resort.  To reach our offices each morning, we had to move through a crowd of people in the corridors, on the stairs and in our small waiting room … Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.”

Avid boxer

The Shadow Boxer was unveiled in May 2013 by Executive Mayor Parks Tau. "One of Bob Gosani’s great pictures, of Mandela sparring on the rooftop of a downtown Joburg building, will live on through the equally marvellous artwork which it inspired," Tau said at the unveiling.

Gosani came from this area; he was born and grew up in Malay Camp, opposite the Magistrates’ Court.

In his speech Tau drew links between the sport of boxing and the struggle of ordinary people for dignity under an apartheid system.

"In the artwork, the sport of boxing provides a way of thinking about the apartheid legal system of the time. Mandela boxing is symbolic of the fight for dignity and human rights which continues in our day. Going back to the inequalities and distortions of the apartheid period, the champions of the struggle were effectively boxing outside the ring, or competing in a ring that was biased in its nature. The failure of the legal system to represent all the people of South Africa, led to mass struggles which grew and intensified," Tau noted.  

Mandela trained as an amateur boxer in the 1950s, but did not engage in competitive fights. He found no pleasure in brute force and violence but rather the sport's science and tactics intrigued him.

"I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it.  I was intrigued by how one moved one's body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match. Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.  When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking of his colour or social status," he said in his autobiography.

Developing the inner city

The statue is in the south west of the CBD; falling into the Westgate precinct.

It is here that much City-development is happening around a multimodal public transport interchange including the Westgate Train Station, the Rea Vaya Westgate station as well as a large taxi hub.

"As we know, land values have increased significantly in the inner city over the past few years and so the Westgate land has now become much more attractive for development. It is also some of the last remaining greenfield and underdeveloped land in the inner city," according to Sharon Lewis, the executive manager of planning and strategy at the JDA.

As part of the developments in the area, the JDA has improved pedestrian mobility, making the area more user-friendly and helping attract new investments providing affordable high density housing, as well as commercial and retail space.

Westgate is made up of some 94 hectares and is in one of the city’s oldest suburbs, Ferreirasdorp.

The precinct is conveniently situated alongside the M1 and M2 freeways. Main Street Mall and Newtown lead directly out of Westgate.