In South Africa, amateur boxing has a proud history. It’s produced professional world champions, like Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala. And it’s given hope to many kids looking for a better future who live in disadvantaged communities, many of which were originally established during apartheid.
In spite of its popularity, amateur boxing in South Africa is struggling to survive. “Fraught with politics and poor funding, boxing gyms are battling to keep their doors open,” says Shaun Swingler, who photographed the gyms between May-July 2015. Given how beloved it is among youth, it’s unfortunate that they’re closing, he says, especially in under-resourced communities “where these gyms are needed the most.” Getting inside the ring “offers an alternative to a path of drug abuse and crime,” says Swingler, who is from South Africa.
The images capture the young boxers training and during fights, and the ambitious atmosphere of the gyms. One of Swingler’s aims with the story is to challenge some of the stereotypical representations of young black men living in South Africa’s poorer neighborhoods, “and to show the positive influence that sport, strong role models, and safe spaces can have on boys and young men.”
The boxing matches bring together spectators from all walks of life in a country dramatically divided by race and politics. The matches also draw guests to communities they normally wouldn’t visit. Swingler remembers observing these phenomena while photographing one particular fight in Cape Town. Organized for charity, it hosted boxers from affluent and established gyms, as well as boxers from less wealthy gyms. The crowd was a mix of people of different races and socioeconomic statuses, “something that is not always seen in South Africa, and particularly in Cape Town. It was wonderful,” says Swingler.
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