Lovemore Ndou: “They broke my left arm. They chipped my front tooth. They set a dog on me that almost bit off my eye.”
By Chris Akers
During research for my interview via Zoom with Lovemore Ndou, it is clear that he has led an eventful life, in which one can imagine he has displayed a wide range of emotions to their fullest extent.
Yet what strikes me when he first appears on my laptop screen, is how relaxed he is. His softly spoken and articulate demeanour does not seem to line up with the events he discusses. Events that tested him mentally, physically, and on one occasion, nearly ended his life.
The moments he lived through in his early years were like lumps of coal going into a furnace. Each incident would stoke his political mindset, which in turn shaped his current views on the world today and led him to practice law.
It is from the offices of his own law firm in Sydney, Australia that he is making his Zoom call from. How he got there started when he was born in Mesina, a border town between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Growing up during the time of apartheid was, as one suspects, very tough. Not just because of apartheid, but also due to issues closer to home.
“It wasn’t just the issue of been exposed to apartheid,” explains Lovemore. “It was also the issue of poverty. I come from a very poor family, and when I say poor, I mean to the extent that we would go a day or two without a meal. I didn’t start school until I was nine years of age, and part of it had to do with being poor.
“When I started school, I had to find a job. I had to pay for my school fees and my school uniforms. Where I come from there were a lot of gang-related issues going on. So as a kid, you had to know your limits and if you ended up in the wrong street at the wrong time, it meant your life.”
He is the second born of a family of seven siblings but the first son. As a boy, that meant carrying a lot of responsibility to help the family make a living. Such as collecting food, which he did. By gathering fish in crocodile-infested waters.
“That’s one of the things we had to do to make a living. It became my responsibility to have to swim through the Limpopo River, set up some fishing nets, and catch fish. And that river was always infested with crocodiles.
“But the funny thing about it is, my people, the tribe I come from, they always believe that if you’re a good person you didn’t have to worry about those crocodiles. Often you would hear people say when someone was killed by crocodiles that he just paid the price for his past behaviour.”
Though he was growing up fast through the responsibility he had towards his family, he saw things that no child should be exposed to. Violence due to the Zimbabwean Civil War was seen by the young Lovemore. Rapes and murders committed in his community by guerrilla fighters who were loyal to Robert Mugabe were witnessed by his young eyes.
“What happened was when I was eight years of age, we had to move to Zimbabwe. When we got there, it was during the civil war. At the time Abel Muzorewa had just taken over from Ian Smith. Back then, there was an ongoing civil war between the blacks. It was black-on-black violence. You had Robert Mugabe’s party and Joshua Nkomo’s party.
“I remember one particular evening, when this incident happened, people were gathered, they all came together. What it was, Robert Mugabe’s guerrillas were just torturing people, trying to send a message that if you don’t vote for him, you’re going to get killed. They beat up a lot of people and they also killed the local chief. I had to witness all that.”
He moved back to South Africa, though the political and societal environment was no less hostile. Lovemore made his voice heard and express what he felt through protest. Sadly, tragedy was to soon follow.
“Then years later, I moved back to South Africa with the outgoing apartheid protests, when the ANC was trying to take over. I remember during all of the protests, in particular concerning the government, they were filling up our schools with white teachers, whereas black teachers couldn’t teach in white schools. We just thought it was a way to control us, as back then we had what was called the Bantu educational system, which was an education system designed to fail black people. We felt when they kept bringing white teachers to our schools, it was another way to try and continue to oppress us. So we started protesting.
“I recall one day during the protest they shot my friend, who was only 12 years of age, and he died in my arms.”
His friend was gone, and Lovemore was soon to be affected more by the insidiousness of the world around him. All because of an incident involving a supermarket cashier.
“If you recall, back in South Africa during apartheid, apartheid was pretty much a large sign to segregate people. Black and white relations were not allowed. You could pretty much get shot for that. Blacks were not allowed to live with white people. We couldn’t go where they live and set up businesses, but they could come to where we lived and set up businesses and do whatever they wanted.
“So there was this guy who was running a supermarket who was white, and a lot of black people went there. His daughter was sometimes at the register helping to serve customers. I used to go there to buy groceries for my family, and the girl took a liking to me. She started flirting with me but nothing ever happened. People started talking about it and they were like ‘If the father finds out, you know what’s going to happen. You’re gonna be killed.’ Eventually, he did find out that his daughter liked me. One day the cops just kicked down the little shack we lived in, took me out and I was arrested. I was then hit with some trumped-up charges.”
At first, they tried to put a sexual assault charge against him. But the girl spoke up.
“She said, ‘If you do that, I’m going to tell the whole world that’s not true and what really happened. So eventually they just decided that they were going to lock me up with no charge.”
He was transferred from Musina to another little town that was about 90km away and kept there for 90 days without charge.
“Back then, they had a law where they could lock up political activists for 90 days without a charge. but the law was getting abused on anyone they didn’t like and I became one of those victims.
“After the 90 days, I was taken back to Musina and taken to the court the same day. That day I was hit up with new charges. Apparently, I stole something from the supermarket. I was hit up with theft and I was sentenced to six cuts, which meant they lashed me and I drew blood.”
Lovemore was taken to the police station and the police started hitting him, referring to him in very derogatory language. It got to a point where he got really upset and decided to draw blood himself, but with his tongue. He told the officers to f— off.
He admits it ‘was the biggest mistake I made.’
“They just started beating on me, kicking on me,” describes Lovemore. “They broke my left arm. They chipped my front tooth. They set a dog on me that almost bit off my eye.”
He pauses and points to a scar just below his right eye.
“People often see this scar on my right eye and often think it’s from boxing. But this is a dog bite. I recall that I almost died.”
Cuts, scars, and broken bones. Each of them part of the physical tapestry on his body that details the misery he had to endure under the apartheid regime. He knew what had happened to him was wrong and that something had to change.
“I remember waking up in the hospital the next day and I was thinking to myself that this is wrong, that it couldn’t continue, and that I needed to do something about it. That day, that’s when I decided that one day, I was going to become a lawyer, a political activist and fight for justice.”
Although he wanted to do something, to change what was happening to him personally and in society, it was no surprise that anger had built up inside him. To paraphrase Charles Bukowski, he’d had so many knives stuck in him at that point, that when he was handed a flower, he couldn’t make out what it was. It took him time to be able to control his anger.
“I was a very angry young man growing up. And you’re right, it had to do with my environment. I had to deal with poverty. I was exposed to violence, again related to apartheid. I was just angry. It didn’t take much to upset me.”
Sport was the avenue that he knew could offer him a ticket out of poverty. He tried a lot of sports, eventually settling on soccer. However, most of the time on the pitch he wasn’t playing soccer.
“I was a good soccer player but because of my anger issues, I didn’t last long on the field. Each time someone did wrong, I’d turned around, knock them out, and got kicked out. It kept happening all the time, to a point where people used to place bets to see how long I was going to last on the field. Often I was seen chasing other players instead of chasing the ball! That’s just how angry I was.”
It was an incident during one particular match that changed my life and led him to the squared circle.
“We were playing against one of the local schools. This kid played rough and I knocked him out cold. They got the security guard to take me off the field. And I remember him talking to me and saying to me ‘I don’t think soccer is for you. You don’t last too long on the field. Maybe you should try boxing.’ I thought I had nothing to lose.
“The next day I went to the boxing gym and took up boxing. I recall the first thing they said to me was ‘Son, we need to work on your anger.’ I thought ‘Why do I have to work on my anger. This is fighting I need to be angry to fight.’ But I was wrong, as when you look at it, boxing is scientific. It’s like playing a game of chess. You have to have a clear mind. Think of it this way. You try and resolve a problem when you’re angry. You can’t resolve the problem and you end up making more mistakes. But if you calm down, you can fix the problem.
“I had to learn the hard way. I was put in sparring against bigger boys and the angrier I got, the more I got hit. Eventually, I decided to start listening. I started to calm down and I realised each time I calmed down, I was doing well. I would count to five and I would perform well.”
Boxing tempered his anger and had a profound effect on him that is still felt today.
“Boxing changed me, not only as a boxer but me as a person, because I became this calm and collected person that I am today. When I look back, and this is why I say boxing saved my life, growing up in South Africa back then, almost every teenager walked around with a knife or a gun. Chances are I could have been killed or I could have ended up in jail and not taken up boxing. So that change me. I also made boxing my career and if I hadn’t changed my attitude, I don’t think I would be here today.”
Lovemore became so good at the sport that he was chosen to represent his state boxing team. While his teammates were part of the same team, the different ways they were treated emphasised their separation in society based on their skin colour.
“When I was active as an amateur during apartheid, even though we all represented the same state, white fighters were always treated differently to us. They were always given better treatment. We would be travelling to the same town or tournament; they would be travelling in a bus and we would go in a truck. By the time you got to the venue, you were already tired, just from sitting at the back of the truck. Even when it came to meals, they would be given proper meals whereas we had to share leftovers.
“It bothered me to a point that I decided that I was going to take it up with the authorities. I wrote to the management and I complained. I said that If we’re representing the state and come from the same team, then we need to be treated the same. They soon listened to me. They also started providing us with better equipment. Better boxing ring, better boxing bags. So that is one of the things I did.”
Getting justice for his teammates at the amateur level did not translate to fairness in the pro game. Although a ban on interracial fights was lifted in 1975, he got the rough end of the stick from the judges. And not always because of his performances in the ring.
“This is the thing and what I always tell people,” starts Lovemore. “You can change the rules, you can change the law, but you don’t necessarily change people. You don’t change their attitude, which is a problem today in South Africa. People say ‘Now we’ve got laws against apartheid, we’ve got laws against racism.’ You can change those laws but you can’t people. When people have been taught to behave that way, and they don’t know any other way to behave, it’s going to take years, a very long time to get rid of those attitudes.”
The laws did change, but all the officials were still white. And they still practicing racism. It was really hard for a black fighter to beat a white fighter on points. The only chance Lovemore had of victory was to knock his opponent out.
“You could beat him up and knock him down each round. As long as he stayed on his feet and finished the fight, he would win on points. Officials would always try to find a way to disqualify me. Sometimes you would knock a fighter down and the referee would take their time to count. They would find excuses not to be counting, like sending you to your corner. So it was hard.”
The chance to move to another country came about in 1995. To move away from the morass of racism and bile that he had encountered most of his life.
“I always wanted to leave South Africa. If you look at it, I didn’t leave South Africa during apartheid. I left South Africa just after it became a democratic state.
“For me, I wasn’t naïve and thought that now we have a democratic South Africa, that things are going to change. As far as I am concerned, if you control the economy, you pretty much control the country. Black people might have taken over, but still the white people controlled the economy, so they pretty much controlled the country.”
The chance to leave South Africa began when he fought on the undercard of Kostya Tszyu vs Roger Mayweather in Australia. Before leaving for Down Under, he did some research on the country.
“One of the things I discovered is that Australia used to have a Keep Australia White policy. So when I left South Africa, I thought that I would be treated the same way in Australia by white people that I had been treated in South Africa. But when I came to Australia, I was shocked. The reception that I received was different. People didn’t see a black man in me. People saw a human being and they treated me with respect. I pretty much fell in love with the country.
“I recall going back to South Africa and telling my wife at the time ‘We’re moving to Australia!’ And she was like ‘Whoa!’ We’d just read about Australia having a Keep Australia White policy.’ I said ‘No. You need to go and experience what I’ve experienced there. It’s different.’
“The following year, I came back to Australia to live. For me, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. Australia providing me with all these opportunities that my own country of birth denied me. I wasn’t only able to succeed as a boxer, pursue a career, make some money, and win the world title, I was also able to educate myself.
“Today I hold seven university degrees. I’m grateful to Australia for providing me with those opportunities. Today, I’m a solicitor. I own my law firm. I don’t think had I continued to live in South Africa, I would be where I am today. I don’t think I would have all these things I’ve achieved today.”
So dedicated was Lovemore to his education, that when he fought Miguel Cotto, he landed in Las Vegas and at customs, was asked why his bag was so heavy. They thought his bags were full of boxing equipment. What they found in the bags was training his mind.
“Each time when I travelled overseas, often fighters will fill their bag with training equipment and clothes to change. I always filled my bags with my law books as I had to keep up with my studies, as I was studying on a full-time basis.
“They were wondering why all these books and I explained to them that I was studying law. One of the things that I used to do during training camp, is would finish training, then go up to my hotel room and study. And that’s how I managed to do it.”