Proudly South African

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You learn so much about yourself when you run 56km, and one thing I learnt in running my first Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra Marathon is that my faith in my fellow South Africans is not misplaced. – BY MICHAEL VLISMAS

It’s so easy to see the news and believe we live in a country being ripped apart across racial lines. It’s easy to mistakenly believe that South Africans are all racists who argue about colour and language and cannot live side by side. But when you run 56km on the streets of South Africa, you realise what a lie this is, perpetuated by politicians who specialise in highlighting what keeps us apart, so that we may, out of fear for each other, support whatever agenda they push onto us. But this is not the real South Africa, what I saw during my race.

I saw South Africans of all races and languages doing exactly what this year’s race asked of them – to run as one. And they do it so easily, because ordinary South Africans are all one at heart. I saw runners stop to help a fellow runner who tripped and fell. I even saw one runner turn around and run back after he’d heard a runner fall behind him.

As we ran through Kalk Bay, we clapped hands for the two old white rockers who’d set up in their roadside garage and were cranking out some amazing tunes on their electric guitars. There was also a lady and her young children in their driveway making pancakes for the runners. And further on, the coloured ladies were handing out their baby potatoes. And I heard that most beautiful way of the black man who, when an elderly white man declared his race over, exclaimed, “Sorry, Baba. Sorry.” Just a simple way to say I share in your suffering. Or maybe even more significant, I recognise your suffering. You are not invisible.

 

With a Little Help from Friends

When we reached the start of Chapman’s Peak, I felt my legs falter, and then a bus came up behind me. A Cape Muslim man was at the front of it, and we took on that hill together. He carried about 50 of us up that hill, telling us when to stop and walk and then when to start running again. I know I would not have made that hill without him. That’s what South Africans do. Sometimes we run up a hill together. Sometimes we have to walk. But always we keep moving forward together. And when we reached the top, a Kaapse Klopse band heralded our achievement with their trademark music, playing with such passion that I know a symphony in the Sydney Opera House wouldn’t have come close to moving me as much.

I ran through Hout Bay, where people from the squatter camp had come to join the throngs lining the road and cheering us on. When we reached Constantia Nek, I was forced to walk. “Michael from Strand,” said a voice behind me, reading my name and club on my vest. “Are you okay, my friend?” An Indian man pulled up next to me, and put his hand on my shoulder. “Ja, it’s just a bit eina,” I told him. “Me too, my friend, I’m also hurting. I’m just hiding it better than you. C’mon, let’s go together.” And so I started running again. I think about what he said. We are all hurting. Some of us just hide it better. So many South Africans hide their own hurt, but are there to help others.

 

Doing it Together

Once at the top of Constantia Nek, there are some sneaky hills – some runners in my club call them the “Damnit Hills,” because you don’t expect them. Two Indian men were running behind me as we hit the first of these, and I couldn’t help but smile as I heard one say to his friend, “No man, now I’m just bedonnerd.” Bedonnerd… what a fantastic word. In that moment, there was no question of the politics of language. No tearing down statues or protesting for the rights of only one language. Just a moment of being purely South African. Words like lekker and bru and bra and eish and yebo, and so many others that are more a part of our South African-ness than any legislation could ever force upon us.

And as we ran across the finish line, a black man put his arm around me and said, “We did it!” You know what, we did. For one day, once again, ordinary South Africans did it. They came out in their thousands, stood on the side of the road and cheered for their fellow South Africans from start to finish. They showed each other compassion, gave each other hope, inspired and helped each other. Because that’s who we are. Sometimes we stumble. Sometimes we walk. And sometimes we run. But we always get on with it, together. We are ordinary South Africans who do what ordinary South Africans do. We are extraordinary to each other. Every single day.

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