Punching Power

Hillbrow is inner-city Johannesburg’s most notorious neighbourhood. Set against the backdrop of poverty and crime is George Khosi’s boxing gym, one man’s attempt to bring discipline and aspiration to the youth of his neighbourhood.

Words & photography Nyani Quarmyne

Siyakudumisa Vapi (right), a licensed boxer hoping to make it as a professional, sparring at the Hillbrow Boxing Club. Vapi is training for a fight against the third-ranked fighter in the national featherweight division; if he wins it wil bring him closer to his objective of challenging for the national title, and being able to make a decent living from boxing. Vapi says boxing pulled him away from the streets and bad company, and gave him discipline. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. The gym has become a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them of the streets and even producing some national champions.

Siyakudumisa Vapi (right), a licensed boxer hoping to make it as a professional, sparring at the Hillbrow Boxing Club. Vapi is training for a fight against the third-ranked fighter in the national featherweight division; if he wins it wil bring him closer to his objective of challenging for the national title, and being able to make a decent living from boxing. Vapi says boxing pulled him away from the streets and bad company, and gave him discipline.

Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city’s most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime much of which is related to the thriving illicit drug trade.

During the apartheid era, Hillbrow was the exclusive domain of wealthy white South Africans. Then, during the unrest of the 1980s, black South Africans began to move into the area in defiance of the Group Areas Act, which decreed who could be where according to the colour of their skin.

The whites moved out, taking their money with them, and the area began a steady decline. After decades of civil unrest and the eventual loosening of barbaric apartheid restrictions, poor black South Africans flooded into the inner city seeking a better life, and in the 1990s, Hillbrow hit an apex of crime and poverty.

Unfortunately, due to poor planning, a lack of investment and myriad problems with cultural integration, this rapid increase in urban population led to a city divided – where Affluent pockets of the global super-rich live next to modern-day slum neighbourhoods with an overwhelmingly black populace, overrun with poverty. Hillbrow is one of these neighbourhoods. Towers like ‘Highrise’ still offer magnificent city vistas but to reach them, one must enter in the knowledge that the building is the chosen home of the dealers who operate with impunity in the park below. You will have to trudge up endless flights of stairs  — the elevators are almost always broken  —  and traverse garbage-strewn hallways to look out at the view. Long-term residents say Hillbrow is not as bad as it once was. But they still don’t walk the streets at night.

Against this backdrop, George Khosi’s story unfolds. A childhood spent on the streets, petty crime, hustling, and stealing to eat. He was constantly in and out of trouble with the law. Then, aged 16, because he was big and looked older than his age, George wound up in an adult prison. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest.

His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright, and his record in the image to the right speaks for itself – bright, that is, until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost the sight in his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over, but George picked up his gloves again – this time, to teach Hillbrow’s youngsters.

George operates Hillbrow Boxing Club on a shoestring. He does much of what he does for free, with battered equipment and a makeshift ring in the donated space of the forecourt of a disused petrol station.

Selina Mabunda wrapping her knuckles before boxing training at the Hillbrow Boxing Club. After gunshot injuries put an end to his own boxing career, George Khosi founded the club to instil discipline, camaraderie and an activity away from the streets for young people from the community, and also to provide a training space for upcoming professional boxers. The club operates in a donated space on the forecourt of a disused petrol station in Hillbrow, one of the country's most notorious neighbourhoods.

Selina Mabunda wrapping her knuckles before boxing training at the Hillbrow Boxing Club.

South Africa is an incredibly complex society — there are so many ethnicities, subcultures, economic disparities and world views, and all are inevitably set against the backdrop of the legacies of apartheid.

Within this broader context, inner-city Johannesburg is a patchwork of the most incredible contrasts, all within the space of a few minutes’ walk from each other. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the socio-economic challenges the nation faces. Drawn to explore this further, it was along the way that I found George Khosi and his boxing club.

It would be hard for anyone not to like George. I respected his humble ‘I’ll-do-what-I-can’ approach to rehabilitating his corner of the inner city in his own way.

Ultimately, I was struck by the notion of positive transformation and the hope of a safer, more peaceful society deriving from the violence of the boxing ring.

Members of the Zionist Church hold a service in the weight's room of George Khosi's Hillbrow Boxing Club. The church rents the space for a Sunday 'spirited prayer meeting'. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime much of which is related to the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight since, as he says 'they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman.' When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them of the streets and even producing some national champions.

Members of the Zionist Church hold a service in the weight’s room of George Khosi’s Hillbrow Boxing Club. The church rents the space for a Sunday ‘spirited prayer meeting’.

Natalie Baniea trains a young boy during an afternoon session at the George Khosi's Hillbrow Boxing Club. As the club does not have the resources to provide child-size equipment, the youngsters make do with adult gloves. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight since, as he says 'they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman.' When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them of the streets and even producing some national champions.

Natalie Baniea trains a young boy during an afternoon session at the George Khosi’s Hillbrow Boxing Club. As the club does not have the resources to provide child-size equipment, the youngsters make do with adult gloves.

Yomi Shokunbi, a Nigerian living in South Africa, training at George Khosi's Hillbrow Boxing Club. Currently a model and fitness trainer, Yomi hopes to qualify for his boxing license in a few weeks time and become a professional heavyweight boxer. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight since, as he says 'they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman.' When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them of the streets and even producing some national champions.

Yomi Shokunbi, a Nigerian living in South Africa, training at George Khosi’s Hillbrow Boxing Club. Currently a model and fitness trainer, Yomi hopes to qualify for his boxing license in a few weeks time and become a professional heavyweight boxer.

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