The Cape Town-based Helebe, making his third title defence, won the verdict after collecting 116-112, 117-113 margins from two judges. The third judge saw the bout 117-114 in favour of Ngema.
Boxing South Africa’s acting chief executive Loyiso Mtya, who was at ringside, said the split-decision outcome reflected an evenly contested affair and both boxers did South Africa proud.
“There has to be a loser but this 12-rounder ended with South African boxing being the winner,” said Mtya.
“These boxers were well matched and we saw a classic here tonight.”
Ngema produced a workmanlike display from the opening bell and tried to force the pace at various stages of the fight. His efforts to impose himself on the bout were severely hamstrung by Helebe’s busy left jab, which seemed to upset his rhythm.
Helebe was a model of composure and weathered the best of Ngema’s attacks with effective counter-punching.
On reflection, Helebe scored the bulk of his points in the earlier rounds when he caught his opponent several times with straight rights but it was clear he lacked the power to hurt Ngema.
From the seventh round onwards, Ngema traded heavily on a second wind as he varied his attacks to Helebe’s head and body, but he too could not take his opponent down.
Surprisingly, given the high tempo of the bout over 11 rounds, both boxers still looked remarkably fresh in the final round when Helebe took control as Ngema produced a spirited finish.
In the main supporting bout, Lwandiso Gugushe scored a third-round knock-out win over Simphiwe Tom to claim the vacant Cape Province junior lightweight title.