The brawler who in­spired the mu­si­cal

Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - BON­GANI MADONDO Madondo is the au­thor, most re­cently, of Sigh, the Beloved Coun­try. He is an as­so­ciate re­searcher at the Wits In­sti­tute for So­cial and Eco­nomic Re­search.

Ezekiel Dh­lamini was not of royal blood, al­though many hailed him as such and for no­tal­to­gether be­nign rea­sons. They called him King, mostly be­cause of those he con­quered and laid flat on their backs in his ca­pac­ity as a pro­fes­sional and street boxer.

“King” was also short­hand for King Kong, the Hol­ly­wood pic­ture about an ex­tra­or­di­nary go­rilla that wreaked havoc in ur­ban Amer­ica. The name was a fit­ting one for Dh­lamini, who be­strode South Africa’s ur­ban heights and, for a minute, reigned supreme.

It is 60 years since Dh­lamini’s demise and 58 years since the mu­si­cal’s ex­alted open­ing in Jo­han­nes­burg, and South Africa’s tongues are aflame at the re­vival of “the first-ever black mu­si­cal”. Af­ter open­ing in Cape Town, King Kong:

Le­gend of a Boxer — once billed as the “Al­lAfrican Jazz Opera” — is blast­ing out in Jo­han­nes­burg, the city where King kicked butt.

Con­ceived in the mid-1950s, a pe­riod char­ac­terised by the sys­tem­atic at­tempted era­sure of African folks’ self-worth and con­comi­tant push-back through artis­tic ex­pres­sions rang­ing from jazz to ac­tivist jour­nal­ism, sar­to­rial el­e­gance and nascent African­ist ide­ol­ogy chan­nelled through the ANC Youth League, the mu­si­cal is of and for its time. And per­haps ours, too.

Af­ter all, how far have we moved be­yond the so­cial chal­lenges of the ’50s?

‘Spice Smasher’

Dh­lamini was as much a prod­uct of apartheid as he was an ir­ri­tat­ing nui­sance to the au­thor­i­ties, not be­cause he was ide­o­log­i­cally op­po­si­tional but be­cause he was the sort of out­law black fel­low brim­ful of the pride Africa’s dusky chil­dren were not sup­posed to pos­sess. To wit, a “cheeky na­tive”.

An­other self-de­clared “cheeky na­tive” was writer Nat Nakasa. In the win­ter is­sue of Drum mag­a­zine in 1959, Nakasa, jiv­ing be­tween ode and el­egy, ob­served: “Ezekiel Dh­lamini, that rugged, ever-un­kempt gi­ant with the iron mus­cles of a Dur­ban rick­shaw puller, is back in the lime­light. Within two years a le­gend has emerged around the man who threw him­self into a dam rather than face the grey same­ness of prison life.”

The man Nakasa called “the ‘Spice Smasher’, the ‘King Mar­shal’, or Man­dlenkosi Dh­lamini if you want to be of­fi­cial” was born in 1921 in Vry­heid. He at­tended a Catholic pri­mary school for two years and could not abide by its stric­tures, so hoofed it, never to set foot in the class­room again. At 14 he went to work for a white fam­ily in Vry­heid, per­form­ing the me­nial jobs an un­schooled na­tive “boy” was ex­pected to. Then and now. He couldn’t abide that ei­ther, and once again beat it, this time to Dur­ban.

“But Dur­ban was too quiet for this tall Tarzan-youth,” Nakasa wrote. Dh­lamini was soon on his way to what Nakasa called “wild, stab­bing, over-pop­u­lated Jo­han­nes­burg”, leav­ing be­hind his par­ents and five younger sib­lings.

Dh­lamini earned a liv­ing by gam­bling. He was ar­rested af­ter a man was beaten to death in a bet­ting ar­gu­ment, but was ac­quit­ted and, Nakasa wrote, “swag­gered straight back into his old life”.

Stabbed his dame

List­less in the city, like a rolling stone, a com­plete un­known with no di­rec­tion home, young Dh­lamini fre­quented a train­ing gym at the Bantu Men’s So­cial Club, with its hard­hit­ting boys un­der the fa­mous Wil­lie “Baby Bat­ter” Mbatha. He is said to have laughed at the sight of men fight­ing with “cush­ions ’round their fists” .

“Why don’t they use bare fists, these chaps?” he said. He told the boys he could lick them “all in a row, gloves or no gloves”.

“And when I’m done I’ll lick you too,” he taunted Mbatha.

Mbatha took the bait, donned gloves and in no time rammed enough two-fisted sledge­ham­mers into “Tarzan boy” to put the brag­gart flat on his back.

Dh­lamini promptly joined Mbatha’s sta­ble of fight­ers and thus be­gan his wild ca­reer in box­ing, in which he knocked out just about ev­ery­one in front of him. He went on to be­come a South African heavy­weight cham­pion, beat­ing Joe Foxy Mn­tambo to take the crown.

King found him­self with no op­po­nents and, bored, took to fist-fight­ing. When these bouts dried up he would oc­ca­sion­ally show up on cen­tral Joburg’s busiest streets clad in his gown with the em­broi­dered nick­names “King Mar­shall” and “Spice Smasher”, to ex­er­cise in pub­lic to the amaze­ment and glee of shop­ping crowds in to­tal thrall to the six-footed mus­cled species shadow-box­ing on the pave­ment.

His life and ca­reer con­tin­ued on that tra­jec­tory un­til Si­mon “Greb” Mthimkulu, a boxer 6.3kg lighter than King, broke his jaw and his rep­u­ta­tion. Doc­tors ad­vised him not to fight any more.

King’s big­gest fight was with the vi­o­lent demons in his soul. In 1956, work­ing as a bouncer at Polly Cen­tre Hall in Sophi­a­town, a jeal­ous Dh­lamini thought his dame, Maria Miya, was two-tim­ing him and stabbed her to death.

The po­lice found him with the mur­der weapon, which he re­fused to drop, pro­vok­ing the trig­ger-happy cops to fire three bul­lets into him. Much to ev­ery­one’s dis­be­lief, King sur­vived. Upon his dis­charge from hos­pi­tal, he was taken to the Fort (“Num­ber 4”).

At his trial he begged the judge to give him the death sen­tence in­stead of mak­ing him serve time. A per­former and spec­ta­cle man at heart, Dh­lamini was ter­ri­fied of jail, not for its hard­ship but for its daily mun­dan­i­ties. For him, life with­out fight­ing for the crowd was worse than death.

Nakasa bought the story that a ter­ri­bly frus­trated King drowned him­self in a prison dam one win­try day in April, 1957.

Slum yards of Sophi­a­town

The orig­i­nal King Kong was a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween writ­ers Harry Bloom and Pat Wil­liams, di­rec­tor Leon Gluck­man, set de­signer Arthur Gol­dre­ich and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Stan­ley Glasser, in­fused with a riv­et­ing, street-sourced mu­si­cal score by the only African in the pro­duc­tion, Todd Mat­shik­iza.

The mu­sic of Mat­shik­iza — jazz scribe, com­poser and scion of the fa­mous Queen­stown mu­si­cal fam­ily — trans­fused the show with ur­gent, res­o­nantly com­plex strands of the black ex­pe­ri­ence as lived in the slum yards of Sophi­a­town.

Songbird and ac­tivist Miriam Makeba played Joyce — based on the doomed Maria Miya — in the “opera”, op­po­site the Man­hat­tan Broth­ers’ Nathan Mdle­dle in the lead.

The sug­ges­tion that Dh­lamini took his own life used to ren­der Makeba, who died in 2008, apoplec­tic. In an in­ter­view at her Honey­dew home in 2003, she told me: “I never fell for that ruse. It’s a fa­ble . . . a fa­ble, baby.” Makeba makes this claim in her mem­oir,

Makeba: My Story, say­ing that the jazz opera was the true story of a great African boxer whose life was full of frus­tra­tion, for the au­thor­i­ties would not let him travel over­seas where his true com­pe­ti­tion was. This, she says, was be­cause “some years be­fore, an­other African cham­pion Jake Tule (born Ja­cob Ntuli), un­de­feated at home, went to Eng­land where he killed the first man he fought”.

Scooped the rights

Ac­cord­ing to Makeba, “When Tule came back the au­thor­i­ties were up­set. This black man kills a white, and his peo­ple treat him like a hero. They were not go­ing to let that hap­pen again. So, later, Dh­lamini was not per­mit­ted to go abroad.”

About his sui­cide by drown­ing, she sounded even more in­dig­nant: “Ev­ery­one wants to know: how did this six-feet-four drown in a lit­tle pond of wa­ter . . . We all sus­pect foul play by the au­thor­i­ties. ”

For her, “it is from these sus­pi­cions that a white man, Mr Harry Bloom, writes the book to the jazz opera, King Kong”.

While her anger might have been jus­ti­fied, Mama Africa’s own ver­sion was shrouded in apoc­rypha. There’s no record of the for­mer Bri­tish Empire ban­tam and fly­weight cham­pion killing a white boxer.

That the re­vival of the jazz opera is fi­nally a re­al­ity is a mir­a­cle. The 2017 ver­sion is di­rected by Eric Abra­ham and pro­duced by Jonathan Munby. The re­vised li­bretto was penned by Os­car-nom­i­nated screen­writer Wil­liam Ni­chol­son, while re­cent French Le­gion D’Hon­neur re­cip­i­ent Gre­gory Maqoma han­dles the chore­og­ra­phy.

No­body is telling how the pro­duc­ers scooped the rights. This was not the first at­tempt to re­vive the mu­si­cal. For years the late colum­nist and play­wright John Mat­shik­iza, the only son of Todd, had tried and failed to re­vive his fa­ther’s legacy.

Two years ago, Todd’s friend, jazz and mbaqanga light­ning-rod Ramapolo “Hugh” Masekela, was on the verge of seal­ing a longheld dream of re­viv­ing the mu­si­cal with the Mar­ket The­atre. Again, si­lence. But now it has hap­pened. King Kong:

Le­gend of a Boxer is on at the Joburg The­atre un­til Oc­to­ber 8.

Pic­ture: TBG Ar­chives

STRONG AS A LION Ezekiel Dlamini, the boxer on whom the mu­si­cal ‘King Kong’ is based.

Pic­ture courtesy of Irene Menell

QUICKLY IN LOVE Miriam Makeba as Joyce, owner of the Back of the Moon she­been, sings to King Kong (Nathan Mdle­dle). In the back­ground is Slim (James Thomp­son) in the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion of ’King Kong’.

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