Running with white people

Two weeks ago, I was part of a 20 000 person strong crowd that participated in the Sophomore Nike Run Jozi. The first one was a 10km run (with an extra kilometer or so) through the Johannesburg CBD. From Braamfontein, through Troyeville, Yeoville and Hillbrow; the finish line was at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown. We ran under a banner of reclamation and greatness. Armed with neon green tops and over-priced running shoes, we ran as corporate soldiers. Unified, running to “take back the city” and “reclaim our streets”.

It’s unclear where the city went in the first place. No-one knows who stole it. And what of the streets? Did they always belong to us, these misplaced streets? This time around, we ran not under the dark shroud of night, but rather in the brutal, revealing light. We gathered on the bottom of Katherine Street in Sandton, shielding our eyes from the sun.

The route was to take us through Alex to Innesfree Park. 20 000 people; anxious, excitable and loud. Loud that is, until it was time for the national anthem to be sung. I imagined it was the nerves, the heat, the exhaustion but somehow, these factors miraculously disappeared in time for “Die Stem”. A thundering roar built up into crescendo, crashing like a wave over “In South Africa Our Land”. False start.

Alexandra Township lies just east of Sandton, separated from the Capital of Glam by two intersecting main roads. Proclaimed a “native township” in 1912, it was one of few urban areas in which black people could own land. In its 100 year history, the township has survived many demolition attempts. Its proximity to wealthy white suburbs made it a target for eradication. But it lived through the Group Areas Act, and breathed through the bulldozers. It came to a standstill in the Bus Boycotts and burnt in shame during the xenophobic attacks of 2008.

Alexandra is, for many, a place of pride. A nucleus for active resistance which housed many great leaders and writers. I know we’re not allowed to think this anymore. We’re no longer permitted to be in love with the township. We stand accused of romanticizing the unacceptable. Indicted for believing that some kind of culture breeds there. Do not make the hood look pretty. Do not portray it as if real people live there. If it’s not about poverty or violence, then it’s glossing over the facts and the hardships. Because apparently these things are mutually exclusive. You can’t be both hood and happy.

Running through Alex, known to its residents as Gomorrah, with a bunch of white people is an interesting experience. The previous day, 1 in 9 activists had been told to “go back to the townships” at Jhb Pride. A few minutes earlier at the starting line, a majority of the runners (who were white) refused to sing the beginning parts of the national anthem. I was feeling unsettled. Discouraged. Heavy under the weight of wealth and privilege.

It’s a lot to live with, let alone run for. On 18th avenue a burst pipe spews clean water onto the half-tarred road. “Oh my,” comments a blonde runner, “I can’t believe these people choose to live like this.” Another is concerned about the smell. “I’m going to struggle to get the stench of Alex off me when I get home.” You see, as much as this could have been a bridge built, for me it only highlighted the contrasts. That two communities a street apart can be so separate. South Africans have chosen ignorance. We have decided to not know what’s on the other side of the road. To be safe in our enclaves, and only venture out to edify our prejudices or prop up credentials.

21 thoughts on “Running with white people

  1. I have to be honest, I have never been anywhere where white people refuse to sing the beginning parts of the National Anthem. I would like to see footage of that. Most of the umlungus who would be doing Run Jozi would consider themselves ‘enlightened’, so I find that claim pretty hard to believe to be honest.

  2. Thanks, enjoyed this read very much. In my 2 years of road running in JHB I noticed the different running styles, etc. of black and white participants (there must be some commonalities too) – and I think it would make for a very interesting sociolgy/anthropology of sport.

  3. White people problems: You can forget the words of the first part (‘Nkosi’) and sing the second (‘Die Stem’) with feeling and sing it flawlessly:

  4. im sorry you experienced what sounds like such a kak day. reading this makes me wonder if you were really experiencing what you write, or if you are projecting a bit as well. I can imagine there were a few idiots out there, there always are, and I am sure most of them are the more privileged whites (having not left their comfort zones for many moons). However, i challenge you this: be truthful in your writing and include all you witness on the day, not just that which makes for a good (bad) story.

  5. absolutely rubbish story, this kind of mediocrity and blatanty biased sensationalism is a glaring example of the social situation this country is in and exactly the reason we are going to the dogs. instead of looking at the positives like the fact that 20 000 runners turned up to run this route and the steps towards a more integrated society that represents, you choose to knit pick the utterings of a few stupid individuals. it is a shame really but i suppose it is inevitable that this country will do a complete 180 and be a sad story for all of us to read to our grandkids one day.

  6. lindokuhle on the day of the race (i stayed home), i wondered what both white and black people would be thinking during the alex leg. for black people i wondered whether some people would experience pangs of guilt (because you know, maybe oi ketsa betere or something like that) for being able to afford that luxury of just spending a saturday morning running (instead of cleaning, working etc), and i wondered whether white people would experience any kind of guilt (the obvious kind of white privilege) or whether they would keep their noses turned up and keep it moving. it was lovely to read your story. i only wish people like rob, who will inevitably comment like this, would finally get it.

  7. A good story looks at both sides of the argument. This does seem a bit one sided, besides the point of whether some of the points are true or not, which they probably are.

  8. I really dont understand the purpose of this article. Complaining about what? Ignorance? Perhaps. Perhaps there is a paragraph missing…
    I was one of those white faces… and to start of, it was a race. 10km in fact. I’ve never ran a 10km, so it was tough, and at many times I rarely lifted my head. When I did, there was a smiling face, perhaps even a little black hand waiting to be touched and to support whoever came along. It was a great race, and I thought everything about it was well organised. Well done to Nike and City of Joburg.
    At the starting point, I was excitingly waiting for the Anthem, but by the time the “sound” of the anthem reached me, we were somewhere in Die Stem. I barely sang a few words. And so probably the white person next to you too… I mean seriously white people refusing to sing? The notion is absurd. Sure, many people never made the effort to learn, but I can tell you a week later at Soccer City (Springboks vs NZ) they sure tried.
    I guess we as South Africans are defined by our ignorance, but surely an event like that tries to show a different view. To show us how close Alex really is. To make us smell. To experience. To build a bridge. And in the end 20000 people did.

  9. @Rob Are the dogs that this country is going to the same people who are stealing the streets? And they’re stealing them with sensationalised words? This is truly a dire situation then.
    Also, perhaps I am being biased. This is because I expected more. Because dead silence in a crowd of 20 000 is more than just a handful of idiots, and because bigotry is polarising.

    • no “the dogs” as im sure many are aware, is a figure of speech. so it obviously doesnt have anything to do with the stealing of the streets. so lets just quickly glance at the happenings of the past few weeks and our current economic situation. we have been gripped by violent strikes, ridiculous wage demands (why dont i feel sorry for the workers etc blah blah) i do feel we could all earn more money and all be able to drive cars and live in nice houses, but we live in an overpopulated country with 15 million unemployed indivuduals. (they i feel sorry for). our rand has depreciated almost 10% since the strikes began, foreign investors who are crucial to our economy have shunned our bonds and equities, we rank appalingly on the world measure of labour productivity and measures of potential FDI that needs be be our lifeblood to move this country forward. we have a system (BEE) that is an absolute joke, because it benefits a handful of individuals mostly poloticians and convicts (as illustrated by the feature on goldfields on carte blanche). So that is why the country is going to “the dogs”. we have no future as long as we have an entitlement mentality instead of one of unwavering work ethic, fully committed politicians who are there to serve the people and not their corrupt fat pockets, an attitude of striving to bring the entire population up to a level of productivity we can be proud of and be competitive globally (we rank 144th in the world in labour productivity).

      Going back to the event and the silly comment about the whites refusing to sing the national anthem. Lets look at the average age of the runners, probably youngish (maybe 30), have lived in a changing, fairer, striving country, trying to heal the wrongs of the past, may of whom would have grown up next to blacks, indians, whites, coloureds, you name it in schools, have them as colleagues and friends, etc etc etc. These are the same people who stand in their lounge and sing at the top of their voices when watching rugby and soccer etc, do you really think that they would decide that this is the day that they all decide to randomly boycott the anthem of the nation they are proud to be a part of. I was there, maybe in a similar position on the starting grid as charles because i too only heard murmering and by the time i could make out we were singing the national anthem, we had just about reached “Die Stem” and i too didnt really sing much of anything.

      Perhaps next time try to focus on the bigger picture, the things that matter, the dire situation that SA finds itself in and the people who are trying to bridge gaps and take steps forward as a nation – Nike, City of Joburg and the 20 000 runners that attended (even the disgusting whites who all stood in unison to boycott the national anthem). So yes bigotry is polarising, just a pity you are the culprit.

  10. ‘for how long will the white South Africa question the validity of a black South African experience’ I couldn’t agree more, obviously this is a generalisation, but one that is quite apparent in many circles of white SA life. There is an unforeseen future, and I, for one, as a white South African, am keeping my eyes wide open and ears to the ground as this long awaited shift takes place. I just dont particularly like it when things get slammed rather that looked at for what they really are. But perhaps your experiences were exactly what you said above, and that is also worthwhile hearing. This isn’t, after all, a news piece – its a story from your perspective.

  11. I’m thinking that people from Guguletu, etc. should do a “Take Back the Neighbourhoods” run through the Southern suburbs of Cape Town and Llanddudno. I wonder how that (and they) would be received. Also sure that many more Nyanga residents might know that first part of the national anthem.

  12. Reading these comments, I am reminded of the old saying, “The hit dog barks.” Some of us need to go back and educate ourselves on what this article is and is not. As I was taught, the name originates from the fact that newspapers use to publish opinion pieces “opposite the editorial page,” hence the term, ‘Op Ed.” Nkosi’s perspective, i.e. opinion, does not need to be shared by or agreed to by all readers in order for it to be valid and true for her.

  13. The comments here is a slight improvement one has to read on the average South African based websites of mainstream news organizations, i.e. a barrage of bigotry and white victims politics. You have to admire the persistence of stock responses to Lindokuhle’s piece: You must have had a shitty (kak) day, you’re projecting, “I don’t know any whites who don’t sing the Xhosa and Sotho parts of the anthem,” focus on the “positive,” and I “little black hand waiting to be touched.” I rest my case.

    • Agreed.. Mainstream SA media comments pages are a hotbed of smug racists… This is a brilliant and uplifting article, irrespective of the gripes about singing the national anthem, clueless insensitive madams and so forth. Overall, it feels like people are starting to wake up to the fact that we’re in this together and the sooner we unify as citizens, the likelier we will all enjoy the benefits of the country’s resources.

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