Not so long ago South African boxing was regarded as beyond repair. There were transgressions aplenty, including allegations of maladministration and corruption.
A sport that once was one of the most popular in South Africa, even more so than football, lost its relevance and any regard.
The appointment of Tsholofelo Lejaka, the former director general of sport and recreation, as the new chief executive of Boxing South Africa (BSA) by then sports minister Fikile Mbalula in May 2016 was meant to herald a transition.
“All I can say is that I’m giving you the best,” said Mbalula when the announcement was made.
But that did not stop many cynics from doubting whether he could turn around a situation already deemed irreparable.
The reputational damage to the sport was at an advanced stage and fingers had been pointed at the previous administration, led by Loyiso Mtya.
Mtya called himself “The Godfather” and was accused of running the association into a shambolic state. He was also accused of corruption, fraud and abuse of power.
In an affidavit, whistle-blowers in 2014 accused Mtya, acting chief executive at the time, of accepting money to facilitate, among other things, illegitimate fights or high ratings for undeserving boxers to enable them to challenge for titles.
He was also blamed for boxers not being paid on time or their tax contributions not being paid to the South African Revenue Services.
He resigned in 2015.
Mtya still dismisses the allegations and maintains that the charges were part of an agenda to oust him.
“All the allegations against me were made up by a certain promoter whom I was investigating for malpractice. I was exonerated in 32 of those 37 charges, but my finances became exhausted and I didn’t have the energy to continue [fighting the issue in court], hence I decided to step down. The idea was actually to push me out of boxing,” says Mtya.
Lejaka was entrusted with the task of saving the sinking ship. Barely three months into the job, he made his presence felt by ensuring that boxers who were owed money for tournaments they had fought got paid.
Unbeaten former South African lightweight king Xolisani “Nomeva” Ndongeni had not been paid R100 00 by Sijuta Promotions’ Andile Sidinile after his fight against Tanzanian Emilio Norfat at the Orient Theatre in East London on April 22, 2017.
Seven others on the same bill had also not been paid, and some, including Mdantsane fight king Simphiwe “V12” Vetyeka, were owed up to R300 00.
“This new [chief executive] is doing his job properly,” said veteran fighter Mzonke Fana, when he got his payment of R200 00 one year after it was due.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian at BSA’s head office in Hatfield, Pretoria, Lejaka said that the initiative had been driven by the need to put boxers’ interests first.
“It was a big gamble but was necessary. After that we had to launch a legal bid to go after the promoters who owed the boxers. Even now the case is still on; we have to recover those costs,” he says.
Among the obligations of the new administration, he says, is to curb nonpayment of boxers by promoters. If payments are not made 14 days before a tournament, it gets cancelled.
“At the moment we don’t want to get involved when a promoter negotiates with a sponsor. It’s because this can be abused by promoters, who could hide behind us when monies are not paid. The 14-day rule is our only remedy. It’s a promoter’s responsibility to pay boxers, not ours.”
This is one of the initiatives introduced by Lejaka to clean up the image of the sport and, after two years at the helm, he has won praise from the boxing world.
“He’s definitely earned my respect. He’s young and dynamic and is a typical example of a broom that sweeps clean,” says world-acclaimed promoter Rodney Berman.
Last year, Lejaka shocked the boxing fraternity when he insisted that no boxer above the age of 35 would be allowed to fight without producing a comprehensive, updated medical record, which includes a brain scan. He immediately ordered 80 licensed professional boxers to submit their brain scans or risk having their upcoming fights cancelled.
“We’ve had these rules long before, but they were somehow dumped. But now we have made this rule to be compulsory, other than just existing,” says Lejaka.
“A boxer’s lifespan is ordinarily 18 to 35 years of age, but when it goes beyond, it’s exceptional. That is 17 years of absorbing punches, so we can’t take that risk [of not doing brain scans].
“We have a medical committee, which appoints doctors to work at ringside. Knowing medicine is one thing, but knowing combat sport medicine is another, so that’s why we have appointed doctors in all provinces who specialize in this to be supervisors during fights.”
Some boxers have been known to cheat the brain scan system, he says.
“Sometimes, due to financial problems, boxers would fake injury to get preferential treatment at public hospitals to get compliance documents. But, through our medical committee, we are able to create relationships with hospitals and remove this desperation of boxers trying to fend for themselves,” Lejaka says.
The importance of a contact sport specialist became evident last year when South African boxing sensation Hector “Hekkie” Budler cracked the eye socket of Filipino superstar Milan Melindo in the ninth round of their International Boxing Federation (IBF) world title fight in Cebu City, Philippines.
The ringside doctor interrupted the fight to attend to Melindo’s problem, but fight rules state that in that situation, a doctor should either stop the fight or wait for the round to end.
“We complained to the IBF [that the fight wasn’t stopped], but lost the appeal,” recalls Lejaka.
Part of this year’s program includes changing the law that forbids boxers from being promoters while still fighting. This, he says, prevents boxers from planning their careers when they are reaching the stage where they can no longer fight.