By Allan Parrott and Clement du Plessis
EVERY year, since 1970, on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend runners will line up at the corner of Main Road and Dean Street, Newlands. This Saturday will be no different. Elite runners from Africa and all over the world will line up in front to lead about 13000 athletes through some of the most scenic parts of the Cape Peninsula in the Two Oceans Ultra-Marathon.
Newlands is a southern suburb of Cape Town – the crème de la crème of real estate in the Western Cape. A suburb where blacks worked as gardeners and domestic workers pushed little white boys and girls in prams in the plush open spaces available to the white franchised citizenry made available to them by the government and municipality of the day. Much of these practices still happen today.
Yet in 1975 Piet Koornhof, the minister of sport, (who later married a “coloured woman” with whom he had children), only allowed blacks to compete in the marathon once a permit had been obtained from his office. That is as far as ‘integration’ had gone. Thereafter it was apartheid as usual – a sure-fire example of normal sport in an abnormal society.
Vincent Rakabele became the first black runner to win an ultra-marathon (56km) in South Africa in 3 hours 18 minutes and 5 seconds in 1976 – the year of the high school students’ uprising in South Africa in opposition to the use of Afrikaans alongside English as a compulsory medium of instruction in schools since 1974. The uprisings changed the course of South Africa’s political history.
A native from Lesotho
Interestingly, Rakabele is not even South African but a native from Lesotho. The first black winner from South African soil was Hosea Tjale, in 1980 in a time of 3:14:30.
It is a well-documented fact that politics played an integral part in sport – in South Africa and around the world.
The policy of racial segregation in South Africa denied many black runners in the fold of the South African Council on Sport, (SACOS) a hardline anti-apartheid sports organisation, the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with their white counterparts. This makes the achievements of Rakabele and Thompson Magawana, (a South African and the record holder of the race in 3:03:44) even more noteworthy.
While Rakabele and Magawana did not run under the banner of SACOS, they were certainly disadvantaged because of the racial policy in South Africa.
(In South Africa there were three different national athletic unions based on race: white, coloured and black)
The race in those early days had been dominated by whites in a country with a black majority who had been excluded. Some would make the argument of the homelands (as an exclusion) even though the homelands had been a creation of the ruling white government. Nonsense!
The SACOS onlookers
Before Rakabele, the race was won by Dirkie Steyn (1970), Rob Knutzen (1971), Don Hartley (1972 and 1973) and Derek Preiss (1974 and 1975), but none of them could break through the 3:20:00 barrier. That milestone was left to Rakabele (3:18:05). Ulla Paul was the first woman winner in 1975 in a time of 5:14:51.
Throughout this time the SACOS athletes had to watch from the pavements with some being suspended for running on the sidelines in the Two Oceans competition during apartheid. This was seen as collaboration and taboo in SACOS policy. Those who watched (supported) the Two Oceans from the sidelines never got suspended. Instead, some of the supporters reported the involvement of SACOS athletes in the Two Oceans to the home union, The Western Province Amateur Athletic Union, which led to their suspension or expulsion from the organisation.
Kriel eventually deserted SACOS and competed in an official Two Oceans Ultra-Marathon race in 1977, clocking a time of 3 hours 26 minutes and 15 seconds for seventh place.
Athletic pundits reckon this was a superb performance given that Kriel had to break through the prejudices and other stumbling blocks at the height of apartheid in 1977 – the year Elvis Presley was found dead in his bathroom and Steve Biko, anti-apartheid activist of the Eastern Cape, was brutally murdered by the apartheid regime.
It wasn’t all rock and roll for the SACOS athletes on the principled side of the apartheid divide. The majority stuck it out until sports unity talks came about in the late 1980s.
The athletes who made a successful transition from SACOS to athletics in a democracy (post 1994) were Desmond Zibi (second place, 3:11:33 in 1999), Donovan Wright (6th place, 3:13:01 in 1999) and Keith Court (third place, 3:13:29 in 2001).
They competed in several Two Oceans marathons with Zibi and Wright gaining another top ten finish. Court missed out on a top ten place, gaining a credible 13th place in 2000.
Their performances were of international (world) standards without a shadow of a doubt.
They did not have international coaches putting them through long hours of training. Coaches who learned their trade in the fold of SACOS such as William Davids (he coached Keith Court) and Allan Parrott (he trained his wife Jowaine to second place on three occasions) provided the expertise.
In the case of Wright, he was a law unto himself, effectively coaching himself. He was also a gold medallist at the Comrades marathon on more than one occasion.
Allan Parrott coached Quintin February as a juvenile in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
And he had coached him again when he wanted to run the Two Oceans. In 1998 he clocked 3:31:55 (41st) and was the first Boland athlete home. He ran a silver in 1999 in 3:56:02 (219th).
David Snyders, who was the best standard marathon runner in the SACOS fold, had ambitions of a top ten finish, but could sadly only manage a placing of 14th in a time of 3:23:32 in 1993.
Athletes who jumped ship before unity talks and sports unity and who excelled were John Korasie (3:48;03) and Nico Vermeulen (3:28:49).
Worcester athlete, the evergreen Kosie Koopman, also excelled in the Two Oceans. His best years were 1992 (4:06:48), 1993 (3:57:04 – a silver), 1994 (3:57:50 – a silver) and 1995 (3:57:44 – a silver). Or maybe his best year was 1998 when he placed 5th in the Masters Section (over 50).
Another Worcester athlete Kosie Botha competed for nearly 30 years, winning 13 silver medals (sub four hours), and was placed second and third in the Masters Section (over 50) in 2008 and 2009 respectively. In 2018, he came back to win the Grand Masters Section (over 60) of the race. This after he placed second in 2017.
Kosie has a best time of 3:24:21 set in 1991 with a highest placing of 13th.
These performances were good going for athletes who were only privy to a standard marathon and shorter bereft of the facilities, backing, and the frequency of the marathon.
The picture is no different in the ladies’ section, if not more remarkable given the fact that the SACOS ladies athletes had only competed over a maximum distance of 21,1km. There were many reasons for this; such as no co-operation from the white municipalities during apartheid, white businesses – although they were supported by the majority black population – were reluctant to sponsor SACOS events, and the logistical organisation of distance races was far more challenging than a track and field meeting around a 400m grass patch.
Jowaine was placed second on three occasions. She gained her first runner-up placing in the early days of sport unity in 1992 – barely four years out of the SACOS fold, an outstanding achievement. And in 1995 and 1996, it took two world champions (world champion mountain runner, Eniko Feher of Hungary and disgraced world 100km champion, Maria Bak of the old East Germany) to beat her into second place.
Sprang to prominence
Farwa, who is younger than Jowaine, sprang to prominence in 1999 in the colours of Mitchell’s Plain Amateur Athletic Club when she clocked 4:07:48 for 13th position. Continuing on the trail blazed by Jowaine, Farwa would go on to clock the fastest time by a SACOS female athlete – 3:43:34 (in 2003) against Jowaine’s 3:47:06. Her best position was 3rd in 2003.
On Saturday, the race will be run again, but not an iota of the history of SACOS runners will be found in brochures or other forms of media here and around the world.
- Clement du Plessis covered the Two Oceans as a sports journalist for several years during the late 1980s and the decade of the 1990s.