Johannesburg – In a country where violent deaths widely go unnoticed, South Africans have reacted with outrage and shock at Corrie Sanders' murder on the weekend.
The 46-year-old former world heavyweight boxing champion was shot in a restaurant in Brits outside Pretoria on Saturday night and died in hospital eight hours later.
Sanders' former wife Sunette said that Corrie, who was attending the birthday party of his nephew, was leaning over his daughter to protect her when he was shot.
With 40 murders or more occurring on most days, killings seldom make the national news, but Sanders' death has sparked widespread condemnation.
More than most other sports in South Africa boxing has crossed racial barriers and southpaw Sanders, who was known as “The Sniper”, was one of the most popular sportpersons in the country.
Although always considered a promising fighter, Sanders was already 37 when he was given a crack at the WBO heavyweight title in 2003 and in a fight described later by Ring magazine as the upset of the year, put down Wladimir Klitschko four times before winning on a TKO in the second round.
Just over a year later he lost to Klitschko's elder brother Vitali and although he fought a few times after that eighth round TKO, he retired in 2008 after a first round KO against fellow South African Osborne Machimana with a record of 38-4 with 31 knock-out victories.
He then turned his attention to becoming a successful businessman and a three-handicap golfer.
It is a mark of the high esteem with which Sanders was held by South African sportsman that tributes came from many top South African athletes.
Former Bafana Bafana player Mark Fish, who played in the Premier League and the Serie A, expressed his condolences to Sanders' family. “So sad to hear about the tragic death of SA boxing great and a true gentleman Corrie Sanders.”
Olympic swimming champion Cameron van der Burgh said: “Rest in peace Corrie. A champion of the world,” while former Springbok captain John Smit tweeted: “Just woke up to news of Corrie Sanders having been murdered, what another senseless waste of life in SA. RIP Champion.”
A former captain of the South African cricket side, Pat Symcox said: “Feel sick to the core. Just so damn angry over Corrie's murder. A helpless feeling and one that wants to scream out,” while another captain of the Proteas Shaun Pollock said: “Tragic news about Corrie Sanders. My thoughts are with his family. RIP.”
Vitaly Klitschko also paid a tribute, saying Sanders had a “dangerous” style of boxing. “Corrie Sanders was the most difficult opponent I ever fought.”
Unlike many other South African boxers who moved to the US to further their careers, Sanders chose to stay in South Africa, saying in an interview a few weeks ago that he never considered leaving.
“I loved this country too much to move to the US like other boxers. It might sound strange, but I felt I had more black fans than white.
“I think the two big sports in the black community are boxing and soccer, and whenever I was out and about, they would stop me and want to chat. That was always very humbling.”
Sanders' death is the latest in a number of high-profile murders that have shocked South Africa.
In 2005 Sanders' stable mate Msukisi Sikali, who held the world title in the junior flyweight, flyweight, and super flyweight divisions was stabbed to death as he attempted to fight off a group of muggers.
The father of South African international Doctor Khumalo was killed three years earlier, while reggae star Lucky Dube was murdered in a botched highjacking in 2007.
The boxers' death will once again ignite discussion in South Africa about the high crime rate and the failure of the government to deal with it, even though they say the statistics show a slight drop.
However, for Sanders' family, like the relatives of many others killed in senseless crimes, the statistics are little comfort.
Experts on crime point to the large gaps between rich and poor in South Africa to partially explain why the country continues to be plagued by so much violence. Those gaps, already among the widest in the world, are growing, economists warn. – Sapa-dpa