Setumo Stone

Pangaman: A boxing champ and struggle hero!

Think like a champion, speak like a champion, but live like a forgotten hero. The story of Norman “Pangaman” Sekgapane, transcends record-breaking boxing title fights, and speaks of a nation with little or no value for its human assets.

If Helen Zille is a “struggle hero”, then what do we call “Pangaman”? It seems the term struggle hero has become a mere vote-catching tool. In my opinion, the struggle went beyond “rebellion”. It was a lifestyle that people lived. The daily experiences and the daily challenges. People like Sekgapane lived and experienced the struggle. It thus prompts a question: “Do the people, who struggled, know their struggle heroes?”

By now many should know “Pangaman”. A lot has been written about his boxing achievements and fists of iron. However, there has been little attempt to contextualise the meaning of such achievements in the social transformation process.

“Panga” is undoubtedly a national hero. Today, the people of Magokgwane in Ramatlabama, Mafikeng, have a reason to believe that if one of their own could achieve greatness from humble beginnings and against all odds, they too can.

As a youngster I remember back in the days how we used to gather at his house almost daily, just to watch the videos of his boxing matches. It was a fascinating experience, which led to boxing becoming our favourite sport at the time.

But “Panga” describes himself as an ordinary person who despises violence more than anything else. In fact it was a violent encounter with bullies that brought about the birth of his journey as a South African boxing champion.

That day, he was attacked, threatened, and robbed of all the little money he had on him. It was after this incident that he decided to join Tladi Boxing Club in Soweto where he began his training as an amateur boxer. What he thought to have been self-defence became an exhilarating journey that made him the household name in South African sports.

Today “Panga” laments what he terms “lazy boxers”. “With so much money in boxing at present, the hunger and passion that epitomised the sport in the social context has all but diminished,” he adds. Indeed the jury is out there as to whether today’s sporting heroes are conscious of their social role, which should definitely go beyond the “glitz and glam”.

Many times, you’d hear successful people say that passion is more important than money. Unfortunately our society has become structured in such a way that those who have more money and less passion and courage get more recognition than those who have more passion and courage but less money.

Certainly the challenges of boxing in the 70s and years after the introduction of multiracialism in the sport required one to have had the courage of steel. According to “Panga”, the then local boxing association often avoided scheduling matches between local black and white boxers because they were afraid “the white boxers would be exposed”. As a result they imported stronger and more experienced white boxers from overseas.

One such boxer was Joergen Hansen of Denmark in 1974. This was the first ever multiracial match on SA soil. However, it became known just prior to the bout that Hansen was not in the same weight division as “Panga”, he was heavier.

“I think they wanted to destroy me,” says “Panga”. He recalls how Justice H W O Klopper (South African National Boxing Control Commission) insisted that the match had to go on regardless. Indeed, the mismatch was hardly a coincidence. On the same night Elijah “Tap Tap” Makhatini also faced Juarez de Lima from Brazil, who was also “overweight”.

Another challenge — as a result of race politics — was the decision to have him fight Antonio “Kid Pambele” Cervantes for a world title in 1978, virtually at the twilight of his career. “It was the right thing, at the wrong time. I think they were just pleasing me. Had it come earlier I feel that things could have been different,” he says.

Should “Panga” be bitter because of the unfair and unjust system he was trapped in? Therein — I think — resides his greatest strength: his ability to find peace and calm within himself. Undoubtedly this is the main characteristic that distinguishes many of our genuine struggle heroes from chance-takers.