Boksburg Bomber’s fight against apartheid
Kenddrie Utuk of American film company Fontabila Productions will start production of ‘Gerrie’ in May after spending more than a year gathering information on Coetzee, the former World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight champion of the world who acquired fame at the height of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Utuk said: “Our interest in Coetzee as a subject for a boxing film was first aroused when he was honoured by Hapa (Hollywood and African Prestigious Award) two years ago in California.
“The organisation honours outstanding achievements by Africans and Americans and they must have known a thing or two about Coetzee denouncing racism in his home country. Because of what Hapa stands for Coetzee would have been a worthy recipient.”
In the press conference that followed Coetzee’s World Boxing Association heavyweight title conquest after defeating Michael Dokes in Ohio in September 1983, there are quotes in American newspapers that he disapproved of the internationally popular ‘great white hope’ label.
The Washington Post reported that Coetzee despised being referred to as “the great white hope”.
“I feel I am fighting for everybody, black and white. What makes me happy is for black, brown and white people to accept me as their fighter,” said Coetzee.
The New York Times reported Coetzee’s promise to promote racial harmony in South Africa: “When I return home, I will continue working to help people get together.’’
There are several instances when Coetzee ignored laws during the height of apartheid, although his actions were never under the spotlight of SA’s mainstream media.
Coetzee fought African American Randy Stephens in 1976. Subsequently, Coetzee and Stephens became sparring partners. During this time Coetzee also had another African American heavyweight James Dickson as a sparring partner. Both Americans lived at his home in Boksburg, which was against the law because it conflicted with the Group Areas Act.
In the mid-1980s, Coetzee had adopted a boxer, then classified ‘coloured’ from a town close to Boksburg. Initially, the boy asked Coetzee to train him. In view of the boy’s travelling concerns, Coetzee offered him accommodation and later adopted him. When the SA Police heard about this, a policeman called at Coetzee’s Boksburg home.
“You thought the policeman was using a hammer when he knocked on the door,” Coetzee recalled.
“Once I opened the door he brushed me out of the way and went through the whole house. He wanted to know where the boy slept and where he washed.
“A few days later, I was issued with a court summons, but I failed to respond, and nothing came of it.”
After being crowned world heavyweight champ, there were numerous requests for media interviews. Coetzee appointed an Indian journalist, Farook Khan, as his media spokesman. This appointment did not go down well with white South Africa, more so as Khan had won acclaim for investigative journalism during apartheid.
“Farook lived in Durban and often he travelled to my place in Boksburg for meetings. On occasions he slept over at my place,” said Coetzee.
“He travelled with me a few times when I fought overseas.”
Coetzee’s passive resistance to apartheid was noted by South African business. Despite his rise to fame as a genuine world heavyweight contender, sponsors were hard to come by.
Thinus Strydom, Coetzee’s business manager at the time, had managed to tie up a world title bout with Don King, who promoted Michael Dokes, the reigning WBA champion. King was unable to secure enough funding and turned to Strydom to save the bout.
At the time, Strydom was connected to a company Defy, which was Southern Africa’s largest manufacturer and distributor of major domestic appliances. Once Defy decided to bankroll the bout, it went ahead and the ring at the Richfield Coliseum, Richfield, Ohio, was adorned with Defy branding.
Given Coetzee’s racism stance, it was ironical that an apartheid cabinet minister Pik Botha was at the Johannesburg airport to give him a hero’s welcome after he lifted the WBA world title. Botha was the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.
“Throughout all of this one of the most treasured moments of my career was when I was called to Nelson Mandela’s office in the early 1990s. It was overwhelming because the country was preparing for democracy and Mr Mandela was leading the way,” said Coetzee.
“It was a surreal moment and he awarded me a medal. I was surprised to hear that he had listened to radio commentaries of a few of my fights while he was in prison.
“He invited me to visit again on two other occasions later on. During one of these visits, I gave him a medal which FW De Klerk (SA’s state President at the time) had awarded me on behalf of the SA Government.
“It didn’t seem to bother Mr Mandela that it was a SA Government medal. He saw it as a gift from me and I was grateful for that.”
Filming of ‘Gerrie’ will start in May in various locations in South Africa and the producers expect to premiere the film in December.