Friday, 5 July 2013

Mandela, Running and Me

Tonight I heard that Nelson Mandela had died. I think it was less; "breaking news" for me. And more; news I've been expecting and resigned to hearing for a few months now. 

I do most of my best thinking when I am out running.
I think it is the act of just concentrating on your breathing and running that allows your mind to open up. Running allows your thoughts to wander down intellectual avenues and alleyways they might not have otherwise gone down.
And so over the last few months I have sometimes thought about Nelson Mandela’s health when it's been in the news, and tomorrow morning when I lace up my running shoes I am sure my head will be swirling with thoughts of the African iconic giant. It was on one specific run last summer I realised I could sum up my thoughts on Mandela and his struggle for a peaceful post-apartheid South Africa by three running experiences.
Running Experience Number 1
I first went to South Africa in 1992, it was two years after Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island but would be another two years before the first free multi-racial elections. I had a 4 year-old godson growing up in Soweto and so I stayed in a part of the famous township called Mapetla with his family. I had previously heard all the stories about townships and what a “scary” places they were. And so after my first night there I tentatively asked if it was safe to go for a morning run.
The friends I was with all laughed at me. “Of course you can go for a run. You don’t believe all that newspaper stuff you read do you? You’re in Soweto not the Bronx or Brixton!” Obviously as far as they were concerned South London and parts of New York were far more dangerous than the most infamous township in the world. Surprisingly this was despite news coverage of clashes between ANC supporters and the Zulu Inkatha Party – this was obviously not something that impacted on their everyday lives and sense of community.
I still remember the run. People starred at me as it was clearly a novelty to see someone jogging through the streets. When I returned home to my godson’s family the neighbours all teased me saying that I am a “real Englishman” and must think I am white because “only white people run when there’s nothing to run from”.
When I think of all the runs I have done in my life this was one of my favourites. And when I think of all the subsequent times I’ve been to South Africa this was the visit I enjoyed the most.
Running Experience Number 2
By 1998 Nelson Mandela was President and my godson’s family had moved out of Soweto into a suburb of Johannesburg. I stayed with them for a few weeks and frequently went for morning runs around the neighbourhood.
On the runs I saw very few white people but I was no longer the “strange Englishman” runner who thought he was white - black people were running in the same park I was running in. My runs were testimony to the “white flight” from Jo’berg  I had heard so much about. I never saw a single white runner in the neighbourhood, but there still seemed to be an air of hope. My fellow black runners seemed to have taken many of the values, aspirations and even activities of the white people ‘whose homes’ they were now living in. The fact they were running - an activity previously preserved for white people - was just a physical manifestation of this.
Mandela as President had taken over a role that just ten years previously no one had thought he would ever have and my black South African runners were living lives and doing activities they had never even dreamed of previously. 
Running Experience Number 3
Three weeks before work sent me out to interview Nelson Mandela (I am a journalist) I happened to be visiting my same set of friends - the year was 2004. I hadn’t been to South Africa for a few years but it felt familiar. On my second day I decided to go for a run, I knew exactly where I was going to go; right out the door, right at the end of the road, run down the hill, take a left into the park, run around the park and come back home.
The mother of my godson saw my lacing up my running shoes to head out; “Where do you think you’re  going? Things have changed in South Africa you know, you can’t just go for a run.”
She told me how the park I had enjoyed running around so much back in 1998 had become a dumping ground by gangsters for their murder victims. I went running but not around the park, I stuck to the main roads.
A few days later I visited other friends in Soweto. I was told to make sure I kept my car doors locked and windows wound up as carjacking was now common place. This was no longer the kind of place people would laugh at you if you asked if it was safe to go running.
Mandela was no longer President and it felt as if people were now living with the realities of a post-apartheid country and not the dreams. I could still run to the park if I wanted to but it might just be safer if I took a different route.

My Next Running Experience

I am overdue a visit to South Africa and I am sure it will have changed again since I last ran there. What I am sure of though is that my next running experience will give me another insight into this amazing country, the type of insight that usually comes when my mind is open and I am running.
(The picture today is of a poster for the  “Mandela Day Marathon” a relatively small marathon held every year in Manye Hall, South Africa in honour of the great man. With his passing I will try and make this my next African marathon)

This is an update of a blog that I originally wrote 5th July 2013

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