The 2006 Soweto Marathon was recently launched with a number of new innovations as it moved under of the Nedbank Series banner. The most significant change was the decision that the whole event would ‘Come back Home’ to Soweto, with the start and finish based at Elkah stadium, the cricket oval used during the World Cup.
A move from NASREC was inevitable as the race, which attracts over 10,000 runners had outgrown the equestrian arena at the exhibition area. This opened the way for even greater exploration of the historic and tourist attractions of the South Western Township.
The new marathon route takes in Klip Town, Freedom Square, the Walter Sisulu memorial, Moroka and Jabulani Police stations, the Dlamini Mosque, Chris Hani Baragwaneth hospital, Diepkloof, Orlando East, Soweto Highway, Meadowlands, Archbishop Tutu’s House, Mandela Family Museum, the Hector Pietersen Museum and Memorial, Winnie’s house, Ubuntu Kraal, Oppenheimer Tower, Morris Isaacson school, and the new June 16th Acre. It is arguably the best Soweto Township tour, and you do it with a (running) bus load of friends!  Together with the T-shirt, goodie bag, Gold Silver and bronze medals, and over R575000 prize money this value for money race is one that should feature for every South African runner.

In one of those quirks of measurement, the place where Hector Peterson was shot during the June 16th Uprising 30 years ago, is also in the 30km of the marathon route. This seemed to confirm that the new route had moved to its logical home.

The venue change benefits all the other distances offered, as all now gain a true Soweto experience.
The 20km walk passes Regina Mundi Church and Klipspruit Valley rd before joining the marathon at Tutu’s house in Vilakazi St, where as the 10km run turns after the church into Roodeport road to join both others for a common final five kilometres from Morris Isaacson to the finish.

A route crammed with tourist sites is one thing, but the most exciting aspect is the renowned level of motivation that runners receive along the course. Crowd support features in all great city marathons and memorable races. The encouragement and enthusiasm of a local community can turn the hardest of hills into a breeze, and has a healing quality on the sorest of bodies. The Soweto experience is amongst the best in the world.

Soweto beats to its own pulse: a contagious vibe that infects all who come into contact, and one I have had the pleasure of experiencing since the first measurement in 1991. Despite perceptions to the contrary, even as a lone pale skinned cyclist measuring on a Saturday morning, the reception was special: Taxis drew close to share a ‘welcome to soweto’ from driver and passengers. People waved and greeted, and groups of youngsters clapped, cheered and encouraged as I cycled the (many) hills. Crossing to measure against the traffic, drivers give way acknowledging with thumbs-up ‘sharp’.
When stopping for a kilometre mark, time had to be allowed for explanation, and to turn down the offers of help when it was thought I had punctured.
More recently explanation was unnecessary as school aged kids would simply confirm their suspicion that this was the marathon measurement.
Cycling past the Pietersen memorial up to Nambitha pub and restaurant, the manager promises that breakfast would be ready for when I am finished!

Three years ago on a Sunday afternoon run around Orlando west, I was stunned to be greeted and engaged into conversation by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as he came out of his house: .. these were all on a normal day in Soweto: Come marathon day nothing is too much for this vibrant community
Soweto has significant diversity of lifestyles and wealth, from the corrugated iron shacks of Mandela park, to the luxurious mansions and cars of Diepkloof, known as the Beverley Hills of Soweto.
No matter where you go, kids enjoy carefree play in the streets, kicking home-made balls: neighbours gather in open conversation, passer-by greets passer-by, and there is open laughter and warmth. It is reminiscent of the small mining, farming and neighbourhood communities of my UK childhood, when everyone in the street shared each family’s joys and sorrows.

There is no end to the heart warming experiences: In scouting the new route a month ago, Cheryl Winn and I drove around, and around, the Orlando West suburb of the Mandela family museum, in search of street combinations that would provide the required distance. On our sixth circuit into Vilakazi street, a diminutive figure, no more than 12 years of age, flagged us down, to enquire “did we know where Mandela’s house was? Were we lost? Could he help?”

Soweto may have greater tourist, and business, awareness than other townships, but that is something set to change expand in the lead up to 2010.
“Each week thousands of foreign visitors come in bus loads to share Soweto, but so few South Africans take the time to experience their own heritage” says Theo Rafiri, 20-time Comrades finishers and gold medallist, who lives only doors from Archbishop Tutu and the Mandela Museum, “so many people are missing out”
It’s a statement without argument.

Runs and measurements in more ‘up-market’ suburbs pale in comparison. Indignant motorists are intolerant of the any disruption to their frequently excessive speeds. In spite of flashing roof lights on support vehicles, signs and bright vests, there is an intolerance of any intrusion into their area, and any silent inquisitiveness is largely based on fear of crime, than concern for the visitor.
Come race day support is rare, while complaint of inconvenience is common. The sight and sounds of exuberant kids play, the cheers encouragement, clapping, and the neighbourly gathering of township life, are all replaced by a silent urban canyon of high walls, electronic fences, and an occasional un-animated passer-by. Here the ‘drive-in house’ dominates, where people don’t talk over the wall, let alone greet strangers or neighbours walking or running down the road.
The comparison was emphasised in the inaugural Nedbank event that poured runners from Sandton down into Alexandra and back.  Only the vigorous excitement of the narrow township streets could re-energise runners for the sole-destroying leg-fatiguing climb through the lifeless Sandown suburbs.

It’s hard to rationalise why so many Durban clubs opt for the over-used NMR Durban North routes, where support is so sparse, and races are treated as an intrusion or inconvenience at best, instead of capitalising on the character of their own community.
That townships are generally hilly is as much a statement on the previous dispensations determination to keep prime land for the minority, as it is about the geographical lie of the land.
Through sound organisation and community support Chatsworth AC attract between 1000 and 2000 runners to each of their three races, with most runners returning because of the hospitality.
Around South Africa and increasing number of races making their mark with township communities. Cape Town’s Topform Club host a Khyalitsha/Mitchell’s Plain run, Gugulethu has a Reconciliation Day 10km, and Gauteng North’s Tshwane 21 and 10km circumvents Attridgeville. Of all the suburbs encountered in this months Cape Town marathon, it was the much-maligned and deprived Langa community who provided the greatest animation.

A glimmer of change looks set to occur in this province with a potential sponsorship of the Umlazi 15km race now to be held in early November.
Running provides the vehicle to experience everyday township life and for many there will be a questioning of values: While the glitz, glamour and ‘bling’ of up-market urban South Africa may exude financial wealth, the true wealth, richness and values of life, and humanity may well be better expressed by in the tighter-knit, less affluent communities.

Don’t rely on my word, run Soweto and see for yourself – it’s a perception-changing experience.

Leave a Reply