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Thursday 12 July 2018

The strange story of Benoni, the princess and the pugilists

When Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco is not living an alluring lifestyle with Prince Albert and the glitterati of the principality, she can sometimes be found hanging out in a decidedly uncool former mining town outside Johannesburg.

Princess Charlene grew up in Benoni, a city known for its mine dumps, many lakes and a shopping centre built as a replica of a Mississippi paddle steamer. It is home to just 160,000 people, fewer than Cairns in Australia.

Princess Charlene in Benoni this week. Pic: Benoni City Times

Benoni, bizarrely, is also the home town of some of the most beautiful and talented women on the planet; and the home of several world-class sportsmen.

Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron was born and grew up in Benoni, while Princess Charlene, the former Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock, went to school here and has several family members who are still residents. 

Australian television star Jessica Marais, who starred in US TV series Magic City, was also a Benoni girl, as is multiple award-winning Afro-Soul singer Lira.

New Zealand-based comedian Urzila Carlson is another ex Benonian, having worked at the local paper, the Benoni City Times, founded in 1921.

Also born in Benoni: Grace Ntombizodwa Mugabe, the second wife of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and First Lady of Zimbabwe from 1996 until his resignation in November 2017.

Benoni's a fairly tough place, but has produced more than its fair share of boxing champions, dating back to Vic Toweel the former undisputed world bantamweight champion in the 1950s - known as "the Benoni buzzsaw" - to more recent world champion pugilists Brian Mitchell and Philip Holiday (who once beat triple world champ Jeff Fenech).

Former world heavyweight Gerrie Coetzee is from down the road in Boksburg and is often seen in Benoni.

One of Benoni's many mine dumps

Springbok rugby star Bryan Habana is also from Benoni, as were former Bafana Bafana soccer internationals Pollen Ndlanya and Rowen Fernandez, who started his career at Benoni Northerns. The late former South African wicket keeper Denis Lindsay ran a sports store in town.

Princess Charlene is in Benoni this week; set to mark Nelson Mandela Day (July 18) with visits to local orphanages as part of her charitable work.

“It’s always great to come back home," she said. "I always found that in my life swimming gave me an opportunity to travel the world. I always felt responsible and a need to give back to my country and give back to those who are less fortunate."

Prince Albert visited Benoni in 2015, having lunch with members of his wife's family at a popular local Irish pub, McGinty’s.

PS: Leading Australian travel writer Catherine Marshall and yours truly both went to Benoni High School and I started my career on the Benoni City Times - hence my interest  


1 comment:

  1. I remember years ago hearing of your Charlize/Charlene connection. Simon thinks his dad came from Benoni or Boksburg. Quite a town!