For over half of the calendar year, Mdantsane, South Africa scintillates at over forty degrees celsius. Children litter the streets as an after-thought, seeking the simplest of relief. In the peak of the Eastern Cape’s summer earlier this year, children tragically drowned after desperately throwing themselves into the Bridle Drift Dam for hydration. 

Only thirty-five years ago, the attack that sparked the infamous Egerton Bus Boycott Massacre had taken place only a stones-throw from the urban township’s stadium. People were shot and killed by the police whilst protesting a price increase in their local bus service. The massacre was a pivotal moment in the lives of people in Mdantsane – murdered over bus tickets

For me, and most reading this piece – it was unfathomable. 

One man, born shortly after the Egerton Massacre, could attest to the struggles he suffered as one of the children left during its aftermath. Two-weight world champion and reigning WBO bantamweight belt-holder, Zolani Tete (27-3, 21 KO’s) had climbed out of the troubled area and become a national treasure in the process. He spoke exclusively to Boxing Social ahead of his primary contest in the second season of Comosa’s ‘World Boxing Super Series’. 

“Mdantsane is a typical ‘black population’ area with small four-roomed houses and shacks. Most people leave their homes to look for work earlier in the morning and come back at six-o’clock in the evening.” He continued, “My parent’s house was right at the heart of the township, a tiny four-roomed house that accommodated about twelve of us, including grand-children. Township life was the survival of the fittest and it was infested by gangsters who fought for the right to own the area.”

The ‘Last Born’, known for punishing knockouts, hadn’t grown up an aggressor. Quite the opposite. Living in the township had presented trouble with his peers, similar to that experienced by Western teenagers today, with a complete lack of outlet or alternative ways to focus his energy. 

“It was not easy to grow up being bullied, mainly because of my tiny stature. My brother and I were always in trouble and always fighting back, side-by-side. As I am the last-born in the family, the elder siblings would protect me to the bitter end. The bond between us was so strong as most of the time we would be left by our parents all alone, as they would be gone to work and only be back late at night. My siblings were my shield and my shock-absorbers hence, I still feel so indebted to them.”

The son of a pastor and the apparent (yet-unproven) participant in over four-hundred African amateur bouts, Tete had found his way between the ropes. That lack of stature, his nervous disposition and an unusual willingness to challenge himself had led him to the local boxing gym. Of the many young men and women who plant their foot in the doorway of any martial arts/combat club, only few return. However, for Tete, it gave him a sense of purpose. 

The ‘Rising Stars’ club was his home for those early years, alongside his brother Makazole, the elder of the siblings. The pair would partake in technique classes but mainly enjoyed testing themselves against the other boys in the club during some hardened sparring. The mind can only hazard a guess at what contests would have looked like in Mdantsane in the eighties, though the equipment and safety precautions were almost non-existent. 

Zolani beamed, “We wanted to explore more-and-more, until we could not run away at all! The boxing venom went through our blood stream, it still does to [this] date. The likes of former IBF junior-featherweight world champions like Welcome Ncita, Vuyani Bunga and Mbulelo Botile were so inspirational to me. I feel that I have taken the torch from them and [I am] taking it to another level. I am the first boxer from Mdantsane to have been a WBO world champion.”

Considering the size of the Frank Warren-managed fighter now, it is a marvel that he used to compete in the flyweight division. Tete fought in his native South Africa for his first seventeen contests, losing his first attempt at a world title within that period to his countryman Moruti Mthalane. His first two outings overseas saw him drop two contentious decisions in both Mexico and Argentina, chipping away at his faith in a sport that had been his salvation. 

After reconvening, he travelled once again to Mexico, taking the decision away from the judges with a tenth round knockout. Infact, his loss in Argentina had been his last and had occurred six years ago, during which time he had left a trail of opponents reeling on the canvas. Power was evident, though Zolani explained it was becoming a complete fighter that he yearned for. 

“I have power in both hands and there is just now, no-one who would ever withstand my power. I aspire everyday to emulate the power of Tommy Hearns, the skills of Sugar Ray Leonard and the boxing science of Floyd Mayweather Jr. I chop trees with sledge hammers for power and I am so dangerous because of my southpaw stance and my height intimidates my opponents. I practice almost everyday to perfect my skills.”

With the unveiling of the World Boxing Super Series, the boxing world stood still, mouths agape when looking at their bantamweight line-up. Champions Tete, Naoya Inoue, Ryan Burnett and Emmanuel Rodriguez all featured. It was exactly what we had hoped for, emulating the success of the all-unifying cruiserweight division which concluded in July of this year. 

The casual fan was happy to see the inclusion of Burnett, the Matchroom fighter who’d featured on PPV cards in the past. However, the true boxing fraternity had their interest peaked with the inclusion of Naoya Inoue and of course, the star from the Eastern Cape. Tete was delighted he had finally secured the platform to test himself, telling me he was excited at the prospect of discovering who was ‘the best of the best’!

“It’s an honour for me to be in this series and I wanna grab this opportunity with both hands as I have been calling out champions and not getting any response. Now, the WBSS has made it possible for me to be an undisputed world champion, which is my ultimate dream come true. The tournament will be a barometer for me to test my utmost best, watch the space!”

Of his opponent on October 13th, Mikhail Aloyan, the WBO king explained, “I did not know a thing about him before the announcement of our fight, but now I know just about everything about him, from his amateur [contests] to his first four professional fights. I have not taken him for granted. I will bring an A-class performance and see whether he will cope with my experience at this level. [You can] be the judge. Preparations are good and hard but let me promise you, he will feel my power early and he will decide to quit, rather than taking punishment.”

Whatever happens during the course of the Super Series, it was the opportunity that both Tete and his team had craved. They had worked tirelessly, building their profile and travelling the world from Africa to Argentina in search of acceptance within the sport. Knocking out names like Paul Butler had damaged his marketability, limiting his options at a time when he should have been front-page news. 

The young boy, who dusted himself down on the minimal streets of Mdantsane, had become a revered champion. The bullying he suffered in the shadows of the Egerton Massacre had shaped him into a vicious athlete. For Zolani Tete, boxing was everything at a time when he had nothing. It gave him hope in a township that offered little. He was a fighter, after all.

“My success is vital to all of the South African youth as it will spell out that, even if you are from the humble beginnings, you can be counted amongst the greatest, as long as you strive for the best. Boxing is big [at home], it just needs more exposure and marketing internationally. I don’t feel any pressure [to succeed] at all, I am standing tall and hoisting the South African flag even higher than ever before!”

Article by: Craig Scott

Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209