The streets of Nyanga and the boxing ring can be unforgiving. But for Sipho Ndongeni, they are fertile grounds for changing the lives of the young people he comes into contact with in his roles as a sergeant and boxing referee.
The 46-year-old officiated two World Boxing Organisation (WBO) title bouts in Gqeberha in July. Ndongeni lifted Lukas “The Demolisher” Ndafoluma’s hand when he beat Cristiano Ndombassy to retain the WBO Africa middleweight belt. He was also in the middle for Immanuel Josef and Sihle Jelwana’s fight for the vacant WBO Africa flyweight title.
“Those were the greatest fights of my refereeing career. I could not ask for more,” says Ndongeni. “Jelwana fought with tenacity. Unfortunately, he was knocked out.”
If it weren’t for Covid-19 restrictions, these fights would have been held in Windhoek, Namibia, in June. The pandemic also denied Ndongeni the opportunity to officiate in Nigeria in April. But these disappointments didn’t stay with him for long as boxing is more than just a job for him, it’s his life.
Born and bred in Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape, a township considered the mecca of boxing in South Africa, Ndongeni acquired his refereeing licence in 2011.
His first foray into boxing was unconventional. “I was doing sub B [grade 2] in 1985 when I fought a boy older than me over a chair,” he recalls.
“My teacher saw me and told the principal. He [the principal] came with two pairs of gloves and called us to fight in the assembly. Fellow pupils watched live while others through the windows. [At the end of the fight] he said, ‘This kid is a boxer.’”
Ndongeni says the reason he fought for that chair was because it was different.
Something to do
Although he was an amateur boxer until 1995, Ndongeni’s love for the sport never stopped, even when he moved to the Western Cape in 1998 in search of a better life. He started out as a member of the neighbourhood watch at the Nyanga police station in 2000. Three years later, he joined as a reservist and was appointed as a constable in 2004.
“Crime prevention begins with uplifting the youth who are born in crime-ridden areas. It is important to observe their character at an early age. When children are involved in sport, they are not easily swayed into crime because they have something to do,” he says.
In 2011, he saw a notice in a local newspaper about a boxing tournament to be held at the Mew Way community hall in Khayelitsha. “I approached organisers and told them I want to be involved, but this time as an official, because I was already working as a police officer.
“I was sent to a boxing workshop organised by BSA [Boxing South Africa]. That was where I was trained and became an accredited referee. I am now a member of the World Boxing Union, World Boxing Federation, World Boxing Organisation and International Boxing Federation.”
Ndongeni is also a member of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in one of the most violent townships in the country. According to crime statistics for the first quarter of the 2021-2022 financial year (April to June 2021), Nyanga recorded the ninth most contact crimes in the country and was in 12th place for murder statistics. Ndongeni wants to help change this, but he isn’t relying only on his police work. He owns a boxing club where he trains aspiring boxers to become professionals as well as defend themselves.
He splits his time between being a police officer and a boxing referee with the support of the SAPS. “They are 100% behind me. They divide my leave days equally. For example, if I will be in the ring for four days, two days will be paid and non-paid two days.”
In both his jobs, people’s lives are in his hands. “Boxers’ lives are dependent on you [as a referee]. They might die in the ring. A boxer will take a punch and fall and immediately stand up and say, ‘I’m okay.’
“But you can see that he is not okay. And this is where it gets challenging. If you stop the fight, his corner will say you were too quick. Now you have to decide not only for the fight but for a boxer’s life as well.”
Ndongeni bemoans the lack of marketing in boxing. “Boxing is not dead. It’s just that it is not televised. Even when it is televised, it is 10pm. Who is watching then?
“You can go around Gugulethu and ask who is Toto Helebe,” he says, referring to the ABU South Featherweight champion and former undisputed South African bantamweight champion. “Nobody knows because they never saw him on TV. Unlike if you go to Khayelitsha and ask about Mzonke Fana. Everybody knows him. Why? Because they saw him on TV. There are boxing tournaments in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. But boxing fans don’t know these tournaments.”
His advice for aspiring boxers is that passion and discipline are virtues. “Today’s boxers want to be pushed. No one knocked at my door when it was time for gym at 5am. The coach must find you at the gym waiting for him.”
Training youngsters has made him popular in the area and that makes his job easier. “I do not encounter problems when going to cases. People cooperate. They are good with me,” says Ndongeni.
He says he believes in a crime-free society and that is why he became a police officer. “I hate crime. It would be an honour if we can live in peace and harmony.”