Comrades: a South African institution

Jacob Dlamini

On 15 June, thousands of runners will take part in one of the most gruelling feats of human endurance in the world: South Africa’s Comrades Marathon. This year will be the up-run, meaning the race will start in Durban and finish in Pietermaritzburg. Along the way, runners will negotiate the “Big Five” hills, so-called because they are some of the most difficult climbs in road racing anywhere. The Big Five are: Cowies Hill, Field’s Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts.

These are killer hills and many a runner has felt his legs turn to jelly just staring at them. The 89km race may cut through some of the most beautiful places in South Africa, it may traverse a landscape so majestic writer Alan Paton called it beautiful beyond the singing of it, but most of that is nothing but a blur to runners trying valiantly to make it to the finish line within the allotted 12 hours. It is said that you do not fully understand the taste and feel of madness until you have tried the Comrades.

For South Africans, the Comrades is a national institution, up there with biltong and the braai. We may not all like biltong, we may even be vegetarians, but we know that these are institutions that in some ways define who we are. It is the same with the Comrades. In our mental backdrop we know that the Comrades follows the June school holidays in much the same way that winter follows autumn. It is just the way things are.

We know, too, who Bruce Fordyce is. In fact, the compact-built Comrades legend ranks among the few South Africans who need no introduction. We all know him as the star athlete who dominated the Comrades for the entire 1980s. Come the day of the Comrades, regular folks will go about their business, run errands, do their shopping or visit friends. But, at some point, they will each want to find out who won and who the stragglers are. It is just what people do on the day of the Comrades.

In some ways, the Comrades is not simply a national institution. It is also a lens through which to tell the history of modern South Africa. It is, for example, testament to the full integration of South Africa into the world that the Comrades has been dominated by international runners since the end of apartheid, with local runners making a strong showing every now and again. The globalisation of the race today, illustrated by the fact that overseas runners constitute a sizeable chunk of the estimated 12 000 participants each year, also serves to remind us of the spirit of internationalism on which the Comrades was founded.

The Comrades was first run in 1921 to commemorate South Africans who had died in the First World War. It was initiated by Vic Clapham, a First World War veteran, who had served in East Africa. He wanted the race to honour the triumph of humanity over danger. He wanted the marathon to acknowledge the feats of endurance that had marked the war. However, this spirit of the Comrades was marked more in the breach in the first decades of the race’s history. It wasn’t, after all, until 1975 that the race was opened to both blacks and women. The first black runner to win a medal was Vincent Rakabele, who placed 20th in the 1975 race. That same year, Elizabeth Cavanaugh made history by becoming the first female winner.

To be sure, the Comrades is more than just a national institution. It is also the world’s oldest ultra-marathon. As ultra-marathons go, it is also one of the easiest (relatively speaking) to qualify for: you only need to finish a marathon under five hours. That, as they say, is not enough for many people to run either a marathon or the Comrades to win it, but it certainly places qualification within the bounds of human possibility and achievement. Any average Joe serious about giving the race a try can qualify.

But it is as a national institution that the Comrades is better understood. It is as a national institution that the Comrades tells us a lot about who we are and what we are capable of. Here is a race founded in celebration of human accomplishment but which limited that celebration to only a few until the 1970s; here is a race that showcases the best of what South Africa can offer and, in doing that, allows South Africans to compete against the very best in the world. More importantly, the Comrades places such mental and physical demands on its runners that distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender and class are undistinguished. The Big Five do not really care how much money you have in the bank, what texture your hair is, or what language you speak.

It is testament to the heroism of the human will that the majority of those who start the race finish it. But, then again, that is nothing more than the illustration of the can-do, vasbyt mentality that South Africans have been known to display on occasion. This is not to suggest that South Africans must view every challenge in life as they would a Comrades race. It is to suggest, rather, that South Africans are capable of more than they realise and that it helps to be reminded of this sometimes.

Jacob Dlamini is a PhD student in History at Yale University, a columnist for The Weekender, and former political editor of Business Day.