The Broader Picture: Freedom fighting

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The Independent Culture
MUHAMMAD ALI'S first trip to South Africa had everything going for it when he boarded his plane in New York on 9 April. The international stature he had acquired in and out of the boxing ring during the Sixties and Seventies had provided an inspiration to black South Africans during those bleak apartheid days. He had established a mythical appeal not unlike the jailed Mandela's, and his arrival was awaited with something of the excitement that preceded the ANC leader's 'Welcome Home' rallies after his release.

By the time Ali's plane had landed in Johannesburg on the Saturday afternoon, Chris Hani, the ANC's second most celebrated legend, had been assassinated, gunned down four hours earlier outside his home. The following two weeks, the time Ali spent in South Africa, proved to be the most tumultuous, taut and politically nerve- racking in the three years since President F W de Klerk decided to open the floodgates and initiate talks with the ANC.

Somehow, all went well. If anything, Ali's trip was the richer. He saw the anger and the tragedy of black South Africa, as well as the exuberance. He attended the Hani funeral, where he kept a properly low profile among a crowd of 100,000, but made a point of paying his respects to the dead leader's family, devoting particular attention to his daughter, Nomakhwezi (above), aged 15, the first person on the scene after her father had been shot.

Otherwise, the Ali road-show went ahead as planned. He went to Soweto's one mosque, to an orphanage and to the Dube boxing club, where he left the head table to join a group of young boys sparring on the grass. He squared up to a tiny boy called Mandla Mahlalela (right), advanced on him and, through gritted teeth, said 'That's Joe Frazier] I'm gonna get you, Joe Frazier]'

He was at his best in that environment, floating and stinging almost as of old. A number of people who met him, his speech and his movement impaired by Parkinson's disease, remarked afterwards that they found themselves relating not to the man before them but to an image, a backward projection, of the most charismatic sportsman the world has ever seen.

'He helps you make that projection. He doesn't hide himself,' said Laura Jones, who co-wrote, with Mbongeni Ngema of Sarafina fame, a musical about Ali that opened 11 days ago in Johannesburg. Magic at 4am is about a South African gold-miner and amateur boxer who models himself, every sphere of his personality, on Ali. Ali watched the premiere from the mayor of Johannesburg's box, joined the company on stage at the end, and danced and sparred with the leading actor, bringing the house down.-

(Photograph omitted)

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