Road Running certainly exposes one to how the other half of South Africa lives. To be more mathematically correct: how most South Africans live. Last Saturday, the Solomon Mahlangu half marathon ran through Mamelodi and today’s race – on Youth Day – was held in Kagiso in the far West Rand.
When I first started running about 31 years ago, running through the black townships was considered life threatening for whites in light of the “antipathy” with which whites were regarded in the townships. Most whites would boycott such races but by participating in the 1000 Km Challenge as well as the Around the World Challenge, certain of us had no option but to participate in all races including those running through these supposed death traps.
Main picture: The township of Kagiso is surprisingly clean. Very few corrugated iron shacks are to be seen. In fact, the township has uplifted itself over the the past two decades to represent a lower middle class black stratum with mainly well-maintained livable houses maybe not with the opulence of Sandton or Steyn City but certainly comfortable.
Back then, due to my timidity, I even considered running in poor white or industrial areas akin to taking one’s life into one’s own hands. As such it was unthinkable to run in the townships unless one possessed a death wish.
The first race in which Ashley, Geoff Gilfillan and I ran in a black township was in Tsakane on the far East Rand, south of Nigel, about 24 years ago. It was still periodically wracked by violence but as the race was held on a Sunday which is a universal day of rest, we bargained on that fact. Our reasoning was that all the rioters would be calmly sipping their beers – Black Label quarts – in some dingy ramshackle shebeen & would not interfere with the runners.
Apart from the 3 of us from Roodepoort, there were another few whites and approximately 50 blacks. By 7:30, the start of the race was already 30 minutes overdue. In South Africa this is known as Africa Time. As it was my first experience of this phenomenon, I was incandescent with rage.
The next time that I experienced this was when I attended the wedding of a black female work colleague called Nomakhosi. The invitation read 13:00 so I duly arrived at 12:30.
Nobody was there.
I checked the invitation.
This was definitely the correct venue.
Was the date correct?
Did I have the correct time?
Finally a neighbour ambled across to my BMW & enquired why I was so agitated. I explained my predicament.
“Oh no,” he replied, “The wedding only starts at 15:00”
“Then why doesn’t the invitation state 15:00 and not 13:00?” I forced myself NOT to remark.
I was then offered a Coke in the lounge of their diminutive house while I awaited the start of proceedings.
The bride finally arrived at 16:00!
Such is time measured in Africa.
Back to my first race in a township.
Finally an official arrived with the starting gun, the entries and the lead vehicle.
At 8:00 the race was finally underway. The gun went off and the runners surged ahead. Within one kilometre, all that I could see in front of me was Ashley and Geoff. All the black runners had made good their escape. They were clearly in a different league to us.
Then the problems started. There were no marshals, marker boards or even refreshment tables. In an attempt to find the route both Geoff and Ashley surged ahead.
I was now all alone in the sprawling dusty treeless township called Tsakane.
From now onwards, I had to rely on the locals. It was a case of asking bystanders whether they had seen any runners and which direction they took. Fortunately others kindly offered water from a hose.
By the mere fact that I am recording my experiences on the race, implies that I survived the ordeal – my induction into township life.
The standard of organisation of races in the township has improved over the years but not always. From abysmal, it is now generally acceptable but not usually first class. For instance, Saturday’s race in Mamelodi has always been 300 metres short and despite complaints has never been corrected. In addition, for some unfathomable reason even though the race is organised in honour of Solomon Mahlangu, who was killed in the struggle for liberation, the course does not pass his memorial in Mamelodi!
Issues of security still loom large today but from a different source. At the 11.5km mark on this race, stood a black female, Tumi, who in trepidation was balking at running further. Apparently there were some vicious dogs on a property up the road which she was scarred of. I agreed to chaperone her through the danger zone and then go on my way as I was faster than her.
The 200 metres became 300 metres, then 400. She was sticking to me like glue. Finally I broached the subject.
“What is the problem, Tumi?” I enquired.
“I would prefer to run with you, if you don’t mind? She sweetly asked in her half black/ half white accent with an American twang interlaced with it, obviously the result of working for an American NGO.
“I am too scared to run in the townships. I stay in Centurion.” She confided in me.
Amazing. What a turn of the cards? The townships are now too rough and dangerous for cultured black people like Tumi.
We arrived at a compromise. I would slow my pace slightly and she would speed up a fraction. In that manner we ran the whole way back to the Moretele Resort. Tumi ran her PB – Personal Best – and I – well – my normal tepid time.
Today’s race was certainly better organised that the Tsakane race 25 years ago except that Mike and I were the only slow whities running the 21km race. With Mike hindered by a cold, after 10 kilometres, he faded. From then onwards, I never saw another runner en route, white or black.
Fortunately there were marshals, water tables and marker boards unlike Tsakane, but I ran all alone through the dusty black township.
For those who have never done so, a township teems with humanity. The inhabitants live on the streets with a dozen children visible for every adult. The houses, like everything else, are a mish-mash of styles, colours and constructions. From elegant 200 m2 houses to 20m2 shacks made from discarded boards and steel sheets all cheek by jowl. Even though none of the residents pay property taxes or electricity, BMWs & other smart cars abound and even the smallest shack has a satellite TV dish on the roof!
The atmosphere is cheerful with a cascade of music enveloping one: from gospel escaping from the numerous churches to jazz from the cars of beer sipping males. The throng of humanity never ebbs. It spills into the streets and along the pavements cheering one on.
It is a veritable celebration of humanity in all its shapes and forms, something to behold and not to fear.
For the whites who attend these races, it is akin to a door opening onto another world, a world in which the majority of South Africans lives, plays and procreates.
There is just one negative impression which irks me.
Why are there no trees at all and why is vegetation of any description so sparse? With a minimum of effort their world could be enriched and beautified.
Such is how the majority of South Africa lives. In vibrant teeming togetherness and apparent jovial solidarity in the bleak dusty townships dotted around South Africa.
It is my ardent wish that other white South Africans also take advantage of these road races to visit their fellow South Africans.
Without fail, they will be surprised at the hospitality that they are accorded. Not only that, but also the pride of the denizens of the townships is often reflected in the cleanliness of many of the homes. Indicative of this pride on Tuesday was when I saw a woman vigorously sweeping a sandy pavement with a broken tree branch.
For many it will be an eye opening experience with cheerful smiling faces abounding oblivious to their station and status in life.
Perhaps it is an opportune moment for us to reflect whether we as whites are too impressionable as regards material possessions in keeping up with the Jones’, Van der Merwe’s and Dlamini’s.