Practice 1: Boxing Games
Practice 1: Boxing Games (2007)
Boxing Games video can be watched here.
Practice 1 (excerpt from thesis):
George Khosi is a former South African boxing champion. George started boxing in 1986 and is the only South African champion with 366 wins and four losses. From 1986–1994, he boxed professionally, but in 1997 he was shot in an armed robbery, which ended his boxing career. After recovering in 1999, his dream was to open a gym. In 2004, with the help of Rhema Church, he opened his gym in Hillbrow, and this is where he started producing many champions like Rita Mrwebi, whom he trained since she was nine years old. His gym is also a safe haven for children and young people in one of the most dangerous areas in Johannesburg, providing them with a space where they can play and train in physical fitness.
Boxing Games (2007) (Practice 1), was created by George and I in his boxing gym in one of the more dangerous areas in Johannesburg – Hillbrow – in 2007. In his gym, George trains 80% Black male and 20% Black female amateur and professional boxers from lower to middle-class backgrounds as well as children and young people who come to the gym after school. “Some are from South Africa and some are foreigners” (Khosi, 2019). Boxing Games (2007) was made while I was an artist in residence for the kin:be:jozi residency project and it was also included as one of my performances for my master’s thesis. Inspired by the collective training sessions that George led, over the course of two weeks, we (George and I) changed the rules of boxing. Instead of two opponents fighting it out in the ring, there were now 12 amateur and professional boxers with boxing gloves on, playing the boxing game in the ring. George, the boxers and I would take turns shouting out different rules: “Box!” “Change!” (change partners) “Shout up to the sky!” “Fall down dead!”. On the night of the performance, after the game was played audience members could don boxing gloves and play too.
Boxing in South Africa is tied to the struggle against apartheid. The story of a boxer taking up boxing so as to make themselves a more respectable, “civil” human being is not a unique story tied to the practice of boxing (Waquant, 2004; Fleming 2011; Woodward, 2014). Believed to promote certain necessary principles like discipline, civility, respectability, self-defence and independence, boxing was seen to “cut across both linguistic and ethnic divides” and was taken up by both Johannesburg’s elites and working class (Fleming, 2011, p. 47). Nelson Mandela looked to pugilism as a practice that offered “a kind of transcendence” – a way to “keep it together” in a deranged and extremely volatile place, a practice which assisted individuals to sustain some form of sanity (Campbell, 2014, p. 124). It was a way to train the “mind of the fighter” so as to continue the fight against inequality:
The gym not only kept me physically fit and busy during my spare time but was an enjoyable form of relaxation and took my mind away from the more serious problems of race relations that harassed us at the time. The next morning I would wake up feeling fresh, strong enough to carry about my body with ease, and ready to begin the new day and face up to all the trials to which life exposes me as a Black man in my country (Mandela in Campbell 2014, p. 123).
As evidenced in the interviews with Silo and the other boxers, George's gym is a place where young men and women, coming from all over the African continent, come to escape their own lives for a period of time, step into the ring and train: “He is the one who is making it easy to play in such a hard place to play in. […] In Hillbrow, you always work with fear. So, in Hillbrow, you have to overcome your fear. If you can survive in Hillbrow, I think there is no place that you can’t survive” (Silo, 2019). While fear in Johannesburg is a daily occurrence for everybody who lives there, during the kin:be:jozi residency, when walking in the streets of Hillbrow feelings of fear became especially heightened. When we walked into George’s boxing ring that first day in June 2007, and upon meeting George for the first time, something softened in me: I noticed that I felt safe. I was attracted to working with George because of the space that he had made (and continues to make) every single day and, interested in the relationship between risk and play, I wanted to know how we could be safe so that we could play in an unsafe area like Hillbrow.
Campbell, K. (2014) ‘To Think as a Boxer’ Transition, No. 116, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918-2013 (2014), pp. 120-127. Indiana University Press on behalf of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Fleming, T. (2011) ‘Now the African reigns supreme’: The rise of African boxing on the Witwatersrand, 1924–1959’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, 28:1, 47-62, DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2011.525303, https://doi.org/10.1080/14725843.2015.1009623
Silo (2019) Interviewed by Anthea Moys ‘Interview with boxers after playing boxing game’.
Wacquant, L. (2004) Body and Soul Notebook of an Apprentice Boxer Oxford University Press, Inc: New York.
Woodward, K. (2014) Globalizing Boxing London: Bloomsbury Academic.