Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape is the second largest township in SA and has one of the highest crime stats. This is also the area that gave birth to boxers such as the deceased veteran Happyboy Mgxaji and Vuyani Bhungu, to name a few. It has also mothered the first African woman World Champion, Noni Tenge.
Now fast forward to 2015, where Thulani Mbenge, a 23 year old boxer from Mdantsane is making his mark and proving your background doesn’t determine your destiny – diamonds and gold are found in the dirt, after all.
Thulani won the 2014 Eastern Cape Sportsman of the Year award. He is also a Commonwealth Games medalist who won for the first medal for Boxing South Africa in the same year.
He has had a passion for boxing since he was young, growing up in the township where a dustbin-bag hanging from a tree outside his home used to be his punching-bag.
“I come from a disadvantaged background where there’s a lack of facilities and equipment. Passion is the only thing that keeps you attached to your dreams there,” says the 23 year-old. “The word ‘impossible’ to me means ‘I’m possible’, ” he adds.
Thulani has four siblings. His unemployed parents struggled to make ends meets, but Thulani never gave up on his dream to box. When his childhood friends hung around the corner of street pavements, Thulani dreamed of being in the corner of a boxing ring about to go and take on his opponent. This desire “kept me going every day. I want to improve my parents’ lives. I want to take them out of the situation they find themselves in.”
But this isn’t easy.
“I struggled to buy a boxing kit as my parents couldn’t afford it, but I drew strength from such challenges,” he says, and from the support of good samaritans who sponsored him with boots and gloves. “I appreciate all that support ‘cos it’s made me everything I’m today.”
Punches from his opponents aren’t the only thing that Thulani has had to dodge in his life. There is a lot of alcohol abuse and crime in his community. “I’ve seen dreams fade away because of drug abuse; boxing kept me off the streets.”
Thulani emphasizes the importance of education. He is currently studying Information Technology (IT) through Business City College. “Sport is a short-lived career, we must have something to fall back on,” he believes. He is also a believer in the power of reading, “Books take you to a place where you’ve never been. There might be someone who has written a book about what you’re going through and this makes you want to read more.”
When the sweat on his forehead has dried out, Thulani spends his spare time following his other passion, restoring hope to young people.
“I’ve gone through a lot of things in my life and I’m using my experience to pick others up.”
He may be doing a lot of jumping and skipping at the gym but Thulani remains a grounded young man. “I’m still the same old township guy, I don’t let my achievements go to my head. My parents taught me to respect other people,” says the humble boxer.
Young people must follow their passion and not choose a career because of how much it pays “There are no short cuts in life. Follow your heart and you’ll never regret any second of it…” advises the young motivational speaker.
Tell us what you think: Do you love a particular sport? Has playing sport helped in any way?