A Tale of The Rose of The Hard knocks
I first heard on Robert Marawa’s Sport Centre on Metro FM that the life story of one Dingaan “The Rose of Soweto” Thobela had been bound into a book format by the award winning journalist Deon Potgieter. So when I saw I Rose of Soweto: The Dingaan Thobela Story on the sport section at a local library, I knew that I wouldn’t leave without it even though I hadn’t planned on taking a book that day. The book is, for me, a success just by virtue of it having being written. There’s a painful and conspicuous deficit when it comes to books documenting the lives of Africans athletes in the republic, particularly in boxing. The great thing about this book is that Potgieter had unfettered access to the subject and in so doing is able to give the reader a front row seat into one of South Africa’s cherished sporting figures. You’re immediately transported to the humble beginning of a Soweto boy raised by his strict yet loving paternal grandmother since his parents had split after his birth. South Africa at Thobela’s birth in 1966 ensured, as Potgieter put it, that “the odds were never going to be in Dingaan’s favour, and from the outset it was clear that his was not going to be an easy road to travel.” The colour of his skin was already a disadvantage in Apartheid South Africa and that was further compounded by the tribalist sentiments of his native Soweto. Being from Chiawelo, a neighbourhood that largely housed Shangaan-speaking Africans, meant that he’d sometimes be ridiculed for his embracing his ethnicity that was known for its bright colours. Growing up in unforgiving environments seems to be a common thread amongst many renowned practitioners of the sweet science that is boxing. The likes of “Iron” Mike Tyson and Floyd “Pretty Boy” Mayweather certainly would relate to Thobela’s meteoric rise to the top with odds heavily staked against you. Chapter 15, “The Rose vs The Road Warrior”, will undoubtedly add more fuel to the fire of the debate of South African boxing’s most unanswered question: who would’ve won if Thobela and Brain Mitchell had met in the ring? So badly did The Rose of Soweto want to fight The Road Warrior, a name he got because he defended his WBA junior lightweight title 12 times abroad because Apartheid, that he literarily fought every opponent that Mitchell had defeated but wasn’t enough. The author best summed up that chapter when he wrote that: “As with all great fighters these two will be matched a thousand times in the minds of those who would have relished seeing them compete. Just as it’s always debated who would have won a heavyweight clash between Muhammad (The Greatest) Ali and Joe (The Brown Bomber) Louis, so too the arguments over this one will forever flow forth.” Those who enjoy Page 3 content in newspaper won’t be disappointed since there’s considerable coverage of the much talked about relationship that Thobela enjoyed with then Basetsana Makgalamele, who’d go on to be crowned Miss South Africa in 1994. Our bloodstained past and the negotiation talks of the early 90s have, in hindsight, always sought the assistance of sport in ‘uniting’ South Africans across the racial divide and Thobela, like the rugby and football national teams in later years, was reminded by would-be president, Nelson Mandela, just how important his victory would be in his rematch, billed as Judgment Day, against Tony “The Tiger” Lopez, who’d controversially beaten Thobela in Sacremento, is all meticulously documented in this well written book. The only gripe I have with the book is that the author didn’t probe further into the life of Thobela after he’d captured his third world title when he ‘unexpectedly’ (at least in Rodney Berman’s world) defeated WBC super middleweight champion, Glenn Catley, who’s record stood at 26-3 with 20 Kos at the time. I’d like to think that how Thobela fell from grace would serve as an invaluable lesson for younger boxers not to make the same mistakes that the much revered The Rose made.
Overall the book is well worth any reader’s attention even if the reader isn’t a follower of the sweet science and is fitting and much needed documentation of the life and times of a pugilist considered by many to be the most naturally talented in South Africa’s boxing history.