Opinion / 8 September 2019, 12:30pm / clinton van der berg
Nothing could have prepared me for the grim picture that intruded my WhatsApp feed last Friday.
Blood spewing from her body, Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels lay dead in the road outside East London, metres from the car she had been driving in. It was at once shocking and traumatising, a potent reminder of the psychosis of violence that reaches into every corner of this damaged country.
“Baby Lee” was 25 when she died, a woman who had shown so much steel in her short, tumultuous life. She was a black belt in karate, had run up nine straight wins in the professional boxing ring and had earned a degree in education.
But for all her promise and power, “Baby Lee” was a victim; of abuse, of misogyny, of unspeakable violence.
The irony is that the public face of “Baby Lee” was a tough one. She earned money for fighting; she had grit and guile. She hung tough in sparse township gyms and she ranked among South Africa’s best boxers.
Yet there were unmistakeable signs of a soft, vulnerable inner core. In her fifth fight, she backed off after hurting her Argentina opponent. “Finish her!” roared promoter Andile Sidinile, who regarded her as a daughter.
Two fights later, she hurt Micaela Joana Lagos, who had to be taken to hospital. When “Baby Lee” heard, she burst into tears.
The South African was more measured in her next pair of fights, anxious not to hit too hard, fearful of causing lasting damage.
“I made her see a sport psychologist after that,” said Sidinile, the man who first spotted her talent when he saw her training for karate in a boxing gym at Fort Hare University. She was just 19, but there was sharpness in her punches and relentless ambition.
“Baby Lee’s” dad wasn’t keen, but her mum encouraged her.
“Just one fight .... if I like it, I’ll do it,” the aspirant told Sidinile.
Nine fights later, she was among South Africa’s elite boxers.
Yet dark times loomed. Sidinile says that her boyfriend, who shot and killed “Baby Lee”, was unhappy with her boxing. The pair would occasionally visit. “She would be shaking in his company; I knew something wasn’t right.”
“Baby Lee” called Sidinile and told him everything: of the endless abuse, the beatings, the sexual assaults. She ran away to Aliwal North, returning in recent months only because of the promise of a fight in Saudi Arabia. She hoped a protective order would keep her estranged boyfriend at bay.
“Baby Lee” teamed up with Zolani Tete, the WBO bantamweight world champion, and continued to train even when the Saudis changed their minds. A fight beckoned in Mthatha next month. Life was better.
She awoke last Friday and called Tete, asking for a lift to gym in Mdantsane.
He wasn’t training, so he recommended she ask her mother.
“Baby Lee’s” sometime boyfriend was waiting, his police-issue pistol filled with bullets, his body filled with rage.
He pumped three bullets into her. It was a sickening, shattering end to a life rich with promise and potential.
Like all of us, all “Baby Lee” wanted was to carve a place for herself in this world.
She was a fighter, but that wasn’t enough to save her.
Her story can’t suffer the same fate. Talk about her. Think about her. Don’t forget her.