Pumping iron in Alexandra

Jon Pienaar
Pule Selepe is passionate about fitness. Photo by Oresti Patricios.
Jon Pienaar

Setting up a public gym can be an expensive business, but chance and hard work conspired to create two bustling fitness outlets in Alexandra near Sandton. And these gyms are not just about looking good: a big part of iKasi Gym’s focus is building strength of character.

Walk down Richard Baloyi Street in Alexandra near Johannesburg, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a group of bodybuilders who meet up at a gym nearby the derelict Nelson Mandela centre. The gym is headed by a man called Tumi Masite who has biceps the size of a grown man’s thighs.

Masite spends most of his days helping ikasi [township] folk change their bodies and minds. And it’s largely because of the legacy left him by muscleman-cum-actor Reg Park. Anybody who’s been in bodybuilding will immediately recognise the name that became synonymous with bodybuilding in the fifties and sixties. The winner of numerous bodybuilding titles, Park’s celebrity was increased when he trained one of the world’s most famous bodybuilders - Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Champion bodybuilder Tumi Masite of iKasi Gym. Photo by Oresti Patricios.

But how did Park become involved in a fitness centre in the township of Alexandra, some five kilometres from Sandton? In 2004, Park visited the newly-established Nelson Mandela Yard Interpretation Centre in Alexandra. The heritage site has subsequently fallen into disrepair, but the precinct is adjacent to a home owned by Alex resident Masite, a man who—like Park and Schwarzenegger—loves bodybuilding. Masite transformed part of his home into a personal gym — some of it even spilling out into the yard. And when Park and his entourage arrived to see the Mandela site, the first thing that caught the bodybuilder’s eye was Masite and his mates ‘pumping iron’.

“I didn’t know who he was,” says Masite, adding: “My first dumbbells were branded with the Reg Park brand, but I never thought I’d ever meet the man.” Park offered a little advice on the exercises the young men were doing , and casually asked if they were ‘serious’ about bodybuilding. The answer was a resounding “Yes!”

Park invited Masite to visit him at a Morningside gym the former Mr Universe frequented, and started training the Alex local for competition. Meanwhile, Masite built his own gym business by giving up-and-coming weightlifters a township gym to train in.

After his first bodybuilding show, Masite recounts how Park brought Richard Branson to his door. Park hadn’t warned Masite in advance that the world’s most famous entrepreneur would be popping in. “I didn’t even know that I’m sitting next to Richard Branson,” Masite recounts with a laugh: “Reg Park was here on this side. I was sitting with both guys, but I only know one guy. Reg doesn’t want to tell me. I’m like: ‘Hey, who is this guy?’ and Branson is busy laughing,” says the owner of iKasi Gym, recounting the day he met Branson.

Park negotiated with Branson for Virgin Active to help sponsor iKasi Gym, and encouraged Masite to work towards creating a professional, sustainable business. “He told me that in order to impress that guy (Branson) I need to work harder, put more guys into competitions,” Masite says. That’s how Masite’s gym went from being a backyard hobby to a fully fledged health organisation with two branches in Alex.

iKasi Gym on Richard Baloyi Street Alexandra. By Jon Pienaar.

An irony is that Alex is situated so close to one of the country’s most affluent suburbs, yet this wealth has little impact on the day-to-day life of youngsters who are exposed to poverty, unemployment and overcrowding. Census information interpreted by WaziMaps.co.za shows the population in Ward 105 (Alexandra) is very young, and that the average annual household income is some R29,000. 22% of households don’t bring in any income, but there’s a high rate of homeownership in this area. 64% of people live in a house, while close on 13% live in shacks. The unemployment rate is over 50%.

Bodybuilder Pule Selepe, who has become a part of Masite’s operation, says: “With the high level of unemployment in Alex, this space offers potential employment opportunities for aspirant artists in the fields of acting, modelling, boxing, arm wrestling and more.” Selepe adds that iKasi Gym also teaches people how to become fitness experts.

iKasi Gym has changed many, many lives over the years. “I owe it all to Tumi,” says Thabo Malibeng who first joined the centre five years ago when he was walking home from church and saw people training. “I had a small gym at home, but no weights, so Tumi invited me to be a part of iKasi. Today I’m one of the instructors,” Malibeng says.

Ntombi Tshabalala has been working out at iKasi Gym since 2013. “When I first came here, Tumi told me that it starts with the mind. Tumi told me to come and first look. ‘You can’t start today, because you have to prepare the mind’ Tumi told me. I asked him how does one do this. And he answered that you do this by being in the gym and watching what others do,” she says.

Aerobics instructor and weight trainer Ntombi Tshabalala. Photo by Oresti Patricios.

Watching, Tshabalala explains, trains and inspires the mind. She says this is the first crucial step to training. When she started training, Tshabalala had issues with her chest, and couldn’t do much. “Nowadays I can do double training sessions. What happened over time was that my chest opened up and allowed me to be myself,” she says.

Tshabalala contends that when you’re training something special happens. “You’re fighting your fears. The body says, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ But you learn to conquer your body, and you do this by training your mind first. It’s not about the body - it is about what’s inside. This is how you earn respect for yourself and everyone else here. Whether you’re big or small it always starts with the inside. There’s no discrimination,” Tshabalala says.

It’s been just over ten years since Reg Park happened across this lokshin gym. Sadly Park developed a dangerous form of skin cancer called metastatic melanoma, and passed away at his home in November 2007 with his wife at his side. But Park’s legend, in part, lives on at iKasi Gym thanks to Masite, Selepe, Tshabalala, and Malibeng — and in how they flex Park’s credo. Once asked what his advice would be to others, Park said simply: “Enjoy your training, enjoy your life.”

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