This story is important to me. I need to pinch myself occasionally because it feels like a dream, as though I have lived many lives and been touched by the lives of many. I inherited a curiosity about the world. As a boy, my father would discuss science in the 1930s before the atom had been split, before Roger Bannister ran the mile in under four minutes, before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summited Everest. However, he never spoke much about his experiences during WWII despite my inquisitiveness. The post-war economic recovery gave cause for much optimism but unbeknown to most South Africans, we would be severely disconnected from the rest of the world from the early 1960s as a consequence of the Nationalist government’s pursuit of its apartheid policy. The consequences would be catastrophic, especially for black South Africans.
My father was a voracious reader and every Friday we collected our family stash of newspapers and subscriptions from the local Central News Agency: one of mine happened to be Illustrated Sports History of the World. It was the only way we had any chance of really appreciating what might have been happening in the rest of the world. The other option was to tune into BBC World Service on short wave radio.
At some point, I read an article about an Ethiopian marathon runner who mesmerized me, Abebe Bikila. As an absolute unknown, he became the first African to win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon, running barefoot on the cobbled streets of Rome in 1960. The leading European competitors were exasperated after the race; they could not hear him trailing them. His bare feet gave no hint of his foot strike, nor could they hear him breathing. He created Olympic history once again by winning the marathon at Tokyo in 1964. At the time, I had no idea of the extent to which the spirit of Bikila and black South African marathon runners would enrich my life.
In my final year school exams I used Bikila as my topic for my English oral examination. I will never forget those lines about Bikila’s silent footsteps devouring his opponents over Rome’s cobbled streets. He struck me as a truly ethereal figure, epitomizing the spirit and gracefulness of Africans as I had got to know them in my childhood.
Black South Africans were less fortunate. They would have to wait until 1992 before returning to the Olympic Games at Barcelona and four years later, South Africa would celebrate a relatively unknown Josiah Thugwane winning the Olympic marathon at Atlanta. Apartheid had robbed Thugwane of his schooling and education; he was barely literate. Luckily, he could run.
My story covers some of the inhumane deeds that happened between Rome and Barcelona. It is a story I feel compelled to tell. The achievement of black runners cannot be isolated from the unimaginable social consequences of apartheid and the extent to which they were disadvantaged.
As a white South African male, I had to endure the ideological nightmare of military conscription and fumble my way through an undergraduate degree at Wits University in the 1970s while South Africa was close to melting point beneath a seemingly calm society. Well, that was if you were fooled by apartheid’s propaganda mouthpiece – the South African Broadcasting Corporation or SABC – and draconian censorship in all facets of our lives. I despised it and I regarded the government of the day as criminals. So, too, did my father. He became actively involved in opposition politics, even opposing then Cabinet Minister Dr Piet Koornhof in a general election.
In the early 1970s, Wits University was a formidable force in distance running and especially the Comrades Marathon. One of its runners, Charles Coville, was instrumental in helping Vincent Gabashane Rakabaele and Michael Monaheng run the 1974 Comrades. Blacks were not allowed to compete. Both ran unofficially and runners and spectators alike gave them a rousing reception when they finished. This simple act helped stimulate the hopes of millions of black and white South Africans over the next 15 years as blacks, and women, were allowed to enter the Comrades from 1975. As a marathon runner, Rakabaele became a household name. At the time, no-one had any idea of the profound positive social impact the Comrades Marathon would have on South Africa. It remains so.
The Comrades would transcend South Africa’s social, racial and gender challenges. While the Nationalist government was armed to the teeth fighting the spread of communism and godlessness in South Africa, the Comrades community was emancipating black South Africans and healing a nation severely fractured by apartheid. It cemented its position as the nation’s foremost sporting event during the 1980s. Record entries. Record fields. Record performances. Record ratings. In a turbulent political
decade when apartheid South Africa, in economic stagnation, was on the cusp of a civil war, the Comrades Marathon would provide the one day each year when citizens witnessed how South Africa could and should conduct itself.
At the end of the day black competitors had to return to township life and the indignity of apartheid but, for 11 glorious hours, everyone was equal and left the finish with dignity and the same sense of camaraderie, regardless of race, age or gender. It ameliorated racial tensions during a volatile time and inadvertently became a catalyst for social and political change. Most running clubs were integrated and South Africans were learning about one another.
My fortuitous Comrades Marathon experiences were beyond anything I could have imagined. My 1981 debut kept me on the road for more than nine hours and punished me brutally. I shared my pain, my fear and my will to finish with hundreds of other strangers. We were all Comrades novices yet our souls connected. Unbeknown to me, I had been exposed to the magic of Comrades that brings out the very best in a community. In retrospect it was one of the luckiest moments in my life.
My subsequent association with Comrades and South Africa’s road running scene introduced another altogether unexpected dimension. My running improved out of sight and within two years I was training and racing with the best black and white South Africans. My Comrades time improved to 5:30 and then 5:26. I suddenly had an outside chance of winning and my exposure to Comrades at the pointy end also provided unimaginable experiences from near-celebrity media status to hyped-up rivalries to sports science. All totally unexpected.
Suddenly I was running some 4,500km annually, enmeshed with the likes of Mark Plaatjes, Thulani Sibisi, Kenny Jacobs, Hoseah Tjale, Titus Mamabolo, Matthews Motshwarateu, Gibeon Moshaba, Israel Morake, Petrus Kekana, Ernest Seleke, Zithulele Sinqe, Charles Vilakazi and many more. When the starter’s pistol was fired at weekend road races, these great men were accorded a modicum of dignity within the heinous social sins of apartheid. From that moment we were all equal on the road and they ran for their lives. They ran with dignity. They ran with speed. They ran with grace. They ran for recognition. They ran to make a silent political statement. They ran because they wanted to prove that they were just as good as anyone else. They never had to remind anyone. They never had to say anything. Their results told the story.
My vehement disapproval of apartheid and the Nationalist government prompted me to seek a secure future for my three daughters in a free, democratic society. I emigrated, opting for the Chicken Run to Australia in 1987, totally devastated by the social and physical damage the government had inflicted on South Africa. And they showed no sign of letting up. My story will serve as a reminder of those dark days.
I first returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison in 1990. Following the 1994 general election I have been a frequent visitor, marveling at the Rainbow Nation and observing the new democratic political wheel turn full circle.
In the intervening years, not only had I but also the South African running community, lost contact with those pioneering black marathon runners from the apartheid years. Some had died like Rakabaele whose burial in a pauper’s grave in the foothills of Lesotho in 2003 was only announced to the public in 2009, through the forensic efforts of journalist Duane Heath. Some had simply vanished. Others had been murdered. During apartheid, they were despised by their oppressors yet subsequently appear to have been ignored by their liberators, despite running exultantly for black emancipation before liberation. No one seemed to care. As the years slowly passed I had a restlessness to track down the likes of Thulani Sibisi and Hoseah Tjale, fellow runners I had known intimately. This finally happened in 2013.
After 20 years of democracy, South Africa has healed many wounds of the past despite its self-indulgent government. The challenges ahead are great but, in my understanding, nowhere nearly as great as the challenges of 1987. South Africans have many great attributes including resilience and a capacity for change. These reserves will be tested once again in the years ahead.
I have written this book in honour of my black South African colleagues who were less fortunate than me. I have also written this book in honour of the Comrades and all of its participants over the years; years that have seen some remarkable changes in the South African landscape. I introduce you to some of the wonderful characters I was privileged to know, work with and run alongside. In doing so, I have relived my own personal triumphs, disappointments, challenges and achievements that have been intricately linked with the simple joys of running, my South African heritage and a hectic life lived on four continents. I also gaze into my crystal ball and speculate on the future of the Comrades
I hope that you enjoy this roller-coaster ride of a book as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Bob de la Motte