Things haven’t changed much since the early 1950s, when a youthful Mandela worked out on week nights at the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre, or the “DO” as it’s still affectionately known.
Spartan and slightly run down, the walls ooze with the intermingled history of sport, community life and the decades-long fight against apartheid oppression.
It was here that Mandela came to lose himself in sport to take his mind off liberation politics. Nestled in the heart of South Africa’s largest township just south of Johannesburg, the community centre was also where famous African songbirds like Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie first performed.
The 1976 riots against the imposition of the Afrikaans language in black schools were planned from the D.O. as Mandela and other leaders languished in apartheid jails.
“Here, look, these are the very same weights Madiba used for training,” proud gym instructor Sinki Langa, 49, told a visiting AFP reporter, using Mandela’s clan name.
The DO — or Soweto YMCA as it is called today — opened its doors in 1948, the same year the apartheid white nationalist government came to power.
Mandela joined the D.O. in around 1950, often taking his oldest 10-year-old son Thembi with him.
In a letter to his daughter Zinzi, while on Robben Island where he spent 18 of his 27 years in jail, Mandela recalled his days at the gym.
“The walls... of the DOCC are drenched with the sweet memories that will delight me for years,” he wrote in the letter, published in his 2010 book “Conversations with Myself”.
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