WATCH: No kid gloves as grannies get in the ring
When the grannies of Cosmo City get into the ring to limber up, you can be sure it's not child's play
Light particles dance in the dusty brightness of a Highveld morning, their giddy shimmer seeming at odds with the mood of the people, mostly women with babies, who wait in a long, inert line outside the clinic at Cosmo City Multipurpose Hall. More people lean on walls or sit on benches in static contemplation. Unmoved by the winter sunlight, they wait for friends, for family, for opportunity.
Across the way, on the other side of the complex, the sun swoops around a corner and onto a paved quadrangle where it flickers in surprise at an entirely different scene. Here faces glow with vigour and the wintry air thrums to the stamping of feet and the chanting of voices: "One! Two! One! Two!"
Four women march in a row with blue soccer balls in their outstretched arms as a nimble young man skips in front of them. "One! Two! Knees up!"
Two others, hands laced into red boxing gloves, display impeccable footwork as they rhythmically thump their fists into a punching bag. "One! Two!"
Supervised by a second muscled youngster, two more women spar in a roped-off boxing ring, circling and jabbing, careful never to land a blow.
Another four surround a tall man with pads strapped to his hands. "One! Two! Punch!" He holds the pads high above each woman in turn. They throw punches and in a continuous fluid movement bob down as he swings at their heads. "Left! Right! Duck!"
The instructor is former bodybuilding champion Claude Maphosa and the women in this class are all senior citizens.
Zodwa Twala, 95, is so tiny she has to stretch on tiptoe to reach Maphosa's pads, but she raises heavy gloves at the end of wispy arms and lands a well-aimed clip on each pad.
"Time to swap," calls Maphosa in his leonine voice, and the groups rotate. Twala, too small and frail to climb between the ropes, drops to her knees and crawls unselfconsciously into the ring, where she springs up again like a blade of grass missed by the mower.
"Bring that group out of the sun," Maphosa tells his assistant. "They are cooking already."
He hands out cloves of peeled garlic, cubes of fresh ginger and wedges of kola nut. "For energy and detox," he says. Instead of removing their boxing gloves, the women open their mouths and Maphosa gently places food on their tongues as though giving communion.
In a way, communion is exactly what Maphosa dispenses to this group of grannies. Proof of this is Constance Ngubane, 79, who moved to Cosmo City from Soweto because she had reached the top of a housing list. She arrived knowing no one.
"I wanted to mix with other ladies and I found them here," she says. "We started doing gym and gardening and sewing and drawing ... We visit together, we have tea together, we share." She lifts her arms with the spry delight of a much younger woman. "I was alone here but now I have family. Claude is very strict with us but he looks after us."
My grandsons tease me. They tell each other: 'Talk to gogo nicely or she will punch you.' But there is no punching at home, just joking. Punching is for exercise
Just over three years ago, Maphosa moved his A-Team gym to Cosmo City. "My father was a pastor and my mother believed in prayer, so the A stands for Anointing," he says. "On my first day, the gogos saw me putting machines in and they said: 'Hau, it's a gym.' I said: 'Yes.' They said: 'Can we join?' I said: 'OK.'
"I was a bit nervous about training them, but I realised there was a lot more to them than what you see. Since then they have come here without fail every Tuesday and Thursday, unless they have to collect their pension."
There are about 15 in the core group, Maphosa says. "More want to join but I have to limit it. We train the seniors for free and we have to buy food: they must eat before they exercise and afterwards they are a bit fragile, so we give them something."
Nqobile Khumalo hands around a bowl of quartered apples and the grannies munch, mopping their brows. Khumalo is a 29-year-old bodybuilder who met Maphosa when the A-Team had a gym in Soweto. He now travels to Cosmo City to help with the gogos. "I love working with them," he says. "They have so much life and they are curious to try things."
Boitumelo Mootane, 23, another volunteer, says the gogos have taught him respect. "The more you help them, the more grace and blessings they give you," he says.
For Maphosa, the improvement he has seen in the women's health is reward enough.
"Some of them have had operations, some had breast cancer ... and if you see them now you can't believe it," he says. "If I take these gogos and compare them to other gogos who don't exercise, there is a big difference."
Maria Mokhine, 77, had high blood pressure before she joined the group. "After I started boxing it went down to normal," she says. "Before, we were sick, we were tired. Now that we box we are not tired any more. When you are boxing, you feel all right, you feel fit, gardening is easier, you are stronger."
Lydia Letswalo, 70, was recovering from broken bones after a taxi accident when she started boxing. "I was sick, but now I don't take any tablets, I'm very healthy. After three months here I went to the clinic and they couldn't believe it, they said: 'How did you improve so much?' And I said: 'I am exercising.'"
Outsiders assume this is a self-defence class. They imagine supergrannies patrolling the streets of Cosmo City, knocking muggers senseless at every corner. But these gogos box for fitness, not for combat. Letswalo giggles when asked if she has ever punched someone to protect herself.
"My grandsons tease me," she says. "They tell each other: 'Talk to gogo nicely or she will punch you.' But there is no punching at home, just joking. Punching is for exercise."
If these women are anything to go by, punching seems to do as much for the spirit as it does for the body. Despite its flowery name, life in Cosmo City is no picnic. Like any township in South Africa, its streets are awash with unemployment and those who have a little must make it go a long way.
At 66, Mabel Mokgosi is the baby of the group and one of its newest members. She has diabetes and high blood pressure, both of which have improved since she started boxing.
"When I come here I have no stress," she says. "It keeps me fit and I'm happy here." Born in Pretoria and raised in a rural area, Mokgosi and her family lived in a squatter camp for many years. "Then they brought us here and gave us the RDP house. So now I have my own house," she says. "But I am a pensioner and so is my husband, we have no jobs any more. My three sons live with us and they also have no work, they eat our money. Sometimes I can't buy electricity, sometimes we are short of food. I am in debt because I have to borrow money, then when I get my pension I have to pay it back. It is tough. The boxing helps with the stress and the worry."
Life is good
Gladys Ngwenya was born in the place now called Cosmo City in 1941. She married and moved to KwaZulu-Natal and later moved back with her daughters and grandchildren. "Life is good here except for the tsotsis," she says. "They get in the houses and break things and take things, our phones, TV, everything. They are a problem. But I go to church and pray every Sunday. Here at the gym I feel safe. It is a good place."
Most of Ngwenya's friends have come from elsewhere. Mokhine was born in Nooitgedacht in 1940. "I stayed with my parents on the farm, got married there, had four children there and then, you know, apartheid. They moved us to Zewenfontein in the homeland, where we stayed for many years. My parents passed away, my brother moved to Pretoria. Then on November 22 2006, they moved us here to an RDP house." Mokhine grows roses in her own garden now. But her favourite place is the gym. "I love boxing," she says. "You don't feel cross with people any more, you are nicer to them."
Letswalo was born in Randburg in 1947. "There was a bantu location at Ferndale before they called it Ferndale. I was born there, then my parents moved to Soweto, but they didn't like Soweto, so in 1956 they moved to the farms. Now I live here in Cosmo City Extension 2. It's ... well, it's home."
Letswalo says she is lucky because she lives near the gym. Others have to walk several kilometres to get there, "From Extension 8 it is R7 for a taxi one way," she says. "The women do not have R14 for a return fare. They walk. It would help the ones who stay far away if Claude had some way to fetch them."
Maphosa echoes this wish. "These grannies come here faithfully but they also have to survive, they've got their kids to look after, grandkids. Some of them have to come from far. If we had a bakkie or something to carry them that would help. We could bring others, which would help the community, because these women are role models."
• Maphosa and his boxing gogos were introduced to us by Beautiful News, the multimedia platform founded by photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn. Beautiful News generates positive conversations about South Africans who show generosity and kindness or provide inspiration in their communities