SOWETO, South Africa: In a sweaty township gym where Nelson Mandela once trained as a young boxer, athletes are still pumping iron today, inspired by the peace icon’s example as he fights for his life in hospital.
Things haven’t changed much since the early 1950s, when a youthful Mandela worked out on weeknights at the Donaldson Orlando Community Center, or the “D.O.” as it’s still affectionately known.
Spartan and slightly run down, the walls ooze with the intermingled history of sport, community life and the decades-long fight against apartheid oppression.
It was here that Mandela came to lose himself in sport to take his mind off liberation politics.
Nestled in the heart of South Africa’s largest township just south of Johannesburg, the community center was also where famous African songbirds like Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie first performed.
The 1976 riots against the imposition of the Afrikaans language in black schools were planned from the D.O. as Mandela and other leaders languished in apartheid jails.
The D.O.—or Soweto YMCA as it is called today—opened its doors in 1948, the same year the apartheid white nationalist government came to power.
Built with funds donated by Colonel James Donaldson, a self-made entrepreneur and staunch supporter of the now governing African National Congress (ANC), the D.O. center includes a hall, and several sparsely furnished smaller rooms like the one where Mandela sparred as a young man.
Today the gym is housed in an adjacent hall, which was the original building on the grounds erected in 1932.
Mandela joined the D.O. in around 1950, often taking his oldest 10-year-old son Thembi with him.
In a letter to his daughter Zinzi, while on Robben Island where he spent 18 of his 27 years in jail, Mandela recalled his days at the gym.
“The walls . . . of the DOCC are drenched with the sweet memories that will delight me for years,” he wrote in the letter, published in his 2010 book “Conversations with Myself”.
“When we trained in the early 50s the club included amateur and professional boxers as well as wrestlers,” Mandela wrote to his daughter, who never received the letter because it was snatched by his goalers.
Training at the D.O. was tough and included sparring, weightlifting, road running and push-ups.
“We used to train for four days, from Monday to Thursday and then break off,” Mandela told journalist Richard Stengel in the early 1990s, while writing his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.”
When he was handed a life sentence in 1964, Mandela kept up the harsh regime of his training to stay fit and healthy.
“I was very fit, and in prison, I felt very fit indeed. So I used to train in prison . . . just as I did outside,” Mandela said in a transcript of his conversation with Stengel, given to Agence France-Presse by the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory.
Mandela was eventually released from jail in 1990 and in 1994, he was elected South Africa’s first black president.