BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
ATHLETICS provided Lincoln Bernardo the perfect opportunity to pit aside the politics of the day in the mid-1970’s.
As a student at St Columba, he was involved in the country-wide high schools students’ uprising of 1976 which had conscientised thousands of students who took to the streets of South Africa to rally against apartheid and the teaching medium of Afrikaans.
The formation of the South African Council on Sport in 1973 also played a pivotal role in how he conducted himself in his political life.
“SACOS created a platform that allowed us to rise above the oppression, racism and exploitation. It gave us hope, it gave us pride and it gave us dignity as human beings.
“I enjoyed school sports because it gave us a break from the monotony of school. It wasn’t easy being in a school system bent on creating subservient individuals, although there were individual teachers determined to give us a critical education, despite the apartheid system. School, in that sense, was not my most enjoyable years. However, sport provided some relief. To some extent it took my mind off the politics of the day,” he says.
Being schooled in the broader Athlone area and being a member of the South Peninsula Amateur Athletics Club, Bernardo was faced with an apartheid system “that declared us “non-humans”.
Engaging the system
He was determined to engage the apartheid system with acts of resistance – both organised and individual – because he wanted personal liberation, and hoped to see liberation in the next generation of students, including his children.
Bernardo wouldn’t allow apartheid to break “our collective spirit”, his bold and brave approach being tested to the hilt on the occasion of being “put off” from a beach five kilometres from George in the South Western District, South Africa in the 1970’s.
Ordered off the beach
He and his friends were ordered off the beach by a man who called himself the mayor and who also controlled the caretaker’s hut on the beach. They subsequently had to leave the beach near George and go to the “coloured beaches at Kleinkrans or Pacaltsdorp.
“We were put off a beach that had a board “proudly” displaying that “dogs and surfers” were not allowed on the beach,” he says.
The board did not specify that the beach was reserved for whites.
This was not the last time Bernardo was put off a beach with friends.
Group Areas Act
“It was this backdrop that spurred me on, including my family that always allowed for critical thinking and conversation, especially my mother,” he says.
His family also lost their family house in Woodstock in 1975 due to the Group Areas Act. Surely too much for a schoolboy athlete aged 17 to deal with.
In 1976 he joined other students on the streets of Cape Town and they fought with stones and petrol bombs against police and soldiers heavily armed with R1 rifles.
“They were determined to break our resistance to the system with violence. I remember marching to Sinton High in Athlone from St Columba High and being attacked by police on route. I also remember a police vehicle cornering us in a dead-end street and one of the cops jumping out of a vehicle shouting “staan of ek skiet” (stop or I’ll shoot). Thankfully my speed saved me once again as I was able to out run him and was able to make it into someone’s yard and jump over the back wall,” recalls Bernardo.
Bernardo was a speed merchant all right.
It’s not every day that someone beats a sprinter of the calibre of Edmund Lewis of Spes Bona High in Athlone and Paarl Achilles Athletics Club in Paarl.
Bernardo is younger than Lewis and gracious in his adulation for Lewis.
“Lewis was the benchmark for us as sprinters at the time.”
He had beaten Lewis on more than one occasion in the boys under 19 sprints.
But Lewis, he says “always worked on a strategy for the big occasion”.
And he did. In 1975, Lewis won both races at the South African Amateur Athletics Board’s Track and Field Meeting in Durban. He also held the SA Board junior men’s 100m (10.8 secs) and the 200m (22.1 secs) records.
Bernardo was second in both races.
“I think it’s fair to say that Edmund Lewis from Boland was my greatest rival although we ran in different age groups. We competed in certain races where I managed to pip him to the post. He was very competitive but was always a good sportsman,” says Bernardo.
At the Durban championships, Bernardo, representing Western Province, won eight medals, the most by any athlete at the meeting (see results in newspaper cutting, excluding the triple jump event which is not published).
To keep himself motivated in athletics Bernardo carried with him a newspaper clipping of the local white athletics results.
“I had a cut out, from a local newspaper, of the best local times I could find and mounted it on a small piece of cardboard that could fit in my pocket as a form of motivation to break the local records and prove we were capable of producing outstanding performances despite our lack of facilities,” he says.
He was aware of Jim Hines’ joint world mark of 9.9 seconds (hand-timed) and Hines’ electronic time of 9.95 seconds at the 1968 Olympics.
“In my athletics career, I looked to world [Olympic champion] champion Jim Hines at the time. Because of South Africa’s isolation, world records were being set elsewhere and I strived to emulate his performance in the 100 metres. The world record was 9.9 seconds on a tartan track at the time. Unfortunately, my best time was 10.9 seconds on an ash track. I was under 19 at the time,” he says.
Bernardo first knew of his abilities when in high school, although he had an interest in the sport at primary school.
He attended the Wesley Practicing School, Salt River, between 1964 and 1971 and St Columba High School in Athlone between 1972 and 1976.
He remembers in primary school there not being much of an infrastructure for “people of colour” to progress in the sport, given that this period represented “the heart of the apartheid era”.
“In high school I started to understand that I was pretty fast in the 100 and 200m, especially the 100m and went on to captain my house (Gold), set new school records in both distances, won the junior and senior victor ludorum and represented my school in both the inter-school and Champion of Champions at Green Point Track and Athlone Stadiums respectively,” he recalls.
He was introduced to club athletics by Oswald George, his friend, and ultimately by Winston Kloppers his coach.
“I met Winston through Oswald. He was Oswald’s school’s athletics coach (Wesley Practicing School). When I was introduced to Winston he put me through some time trials to assess my athletic ability. Once he was satisfied I had some potential, he offered to coach me. He was a touch coach, putting us through off-season training which essentially meant strength training on the beach. He kept a close eye on me during training because he believed I was not pushing myself to the limit and, on occasion, referred to me as being lazy, especially when I couldn’t touch my toes during warm ups,” he says.
As sprinters, George and Bernardo earned the nickname “Sprint Twins”. George would also win some of the races involving Lewis and Bernardo.
They trained on the sand dunes of the beaches at Strandfontein and Muizenberg where they did wave running (knee deep) to get used to lifting their legs high when running in competition.
“A high knee lift was considered an effective way to reach maximum speed in the shortest possible time during sprints,” says Bernardo.
They did track work at Heathfield High and at Hewat Training College in Crawford.
Denied world stage
“It was during the training sessions at Hewat that I got to see the likes of Gareth Mclean, Andy James and Mohammed Paleker,” he says.
He admired Paleker for “his easy, almost effortless style and Gareth McLean for his sheer speed and grace and, of course, Andy James for his power”.
Many were denied the world stage and could only dream of international competition.
Sports isolation did not stop Bernardo of having a goal.
“Athletics allowed one to broaden one’s horizon from the daily struggles of our community and focus on other matters, like setting a new world record in the 100 metres. The latter would be nearly impossible to achieve given the tracks we were forced to compete on, such as grass and ash, but it gave one a goal nevertheless. And it was important as a young person to have a goal beyond the direct control of the system [apartheid]. An opportunity for us to produce a world-class performance, despite our material limitations, enforced upon us by the apartheid regime,” he says.
The goal of competing on the world stage was achieved by the next generation of athletes Bernardo had hoped to see.
“It was very refreshing to see on TV the likes of Wayde van Niekerk doing so well in the Olympics, breaking the world record in the 400 metres. In some way, I believe the sacrifices of those of us that came before him, laid the foundation for his success today.”
Lincoln Bernardo, 59, resides in Century City, Cape Town. He is married to Nadya Hoosen. His mother Sylvia is 89. Lincoln has two children, Jason 26 and Carla Bernardo 25.
He has three dogs who are “an integral part of the family”: Wesley (Bull Terrier), Nooi (Jack Russell) and Myrtle (Pit Bull).