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Sunday 26 March 2017

"South Africa's Schwarzenegger" aims to lift poor with township gyms

* Bodybuilder wants to build township gym franchise
* South African champ trained by Schwarzenegger's mentor
* Red tape, lack of finance stifles small businesses

Men lift weight at a township gym in Johannesburg's Alexandra township. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
Men lift weight at a township gym in Johannesburg's Alexandra township. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
A man walks past a mural of a body builder outside a township gym in Johannesburg's Alexandra township. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Joe Brock

Striding around the gym he built in his grandmother's backyard, South African bodybuilding champion Tumi Masite recalls the day Arnold Schwarzenegger's former trainer paid him a visit.

Reg Park had heard about Masite during a trip to South Africa a decade ago and offered him advice that helped the bodybuilder win national championships. Now Masite wants to give other poor South Africans a chance to lead a healthier - and more prosperous - life.

"Reg Park taught me a lot. He was also from a backyard gym. My dream became to reach out to the disadvantaged communities," Masite told Reuters, gesturing to a rubbish-strewn street in Johannesburg's rundown Alexandra township, where men sit swigging beer and smoking cigarettes.

"A lot of black people lack basic education about a healthy lifestyle. Lots of people are not working. Ikasi Gym is here for the people."

Masite still works out in the courtyard of his family home in Alexandra, but much of the property has been converted into a popular gym, packed with locals lifting weights, riding exercise bikes and punching boxing bags. He's opened two more of his Ikasi Gym branches and plans to expand further.

His goal is to bring exercise to South Africans who can't afford $60 a month at upmarket chains. Masite's 350 members pay 100 rand ($6.45) a month.

Masite believes his business can succeed because townships are tight, often neglected communities, and he can offer more than just bodybuilding training and a place to work out.

Ikasi Gym is helping around 50 people recover from strokes. Masite also trains young South Africans who have had run-ins with the law or drug problems. Some of Ikasi's members have got jobs in security since joining.

"We are about community. I stay with my members, we eat together, we know each other. Sometimes I use money from my child's pocket to help people," Masite says.

Community spirit

Fitness is big business in South Africa. Richard Branson's Virgin Active has more than 100 branches, and a cheaper version, Virgin Active RED, opened in 2014, a sign of the market Masite hopes to target.

And Ikasi Gym is the sort of business President Jacob Zuma's administration hopes will thrive. The government has set a goal of helping small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) create 90 percent of jobs by 2030.

South Africa, however, has one of the highest SME failure rates in the world. Red tape, lack of access to finance and skills shortages stifle entrepreneurship.

Masite and his colleagues feel they have been ignored by the ruling African National Congress, even though the party will be relying on the support of poor townships like Alexandra, where unemployment runs at 25 percent and violent crime is rife.

"We need government to come and put hands into this gym and see how we're doing good things for the community," said Ikasi's 35-year-old boxing trainer, Richard Khunou, as dozens of children gather to watch him sparring.

"Politicians tell you they will give you a better life but once they get to a higher position ... they put money in their pockets and forget about us."

Reuters

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