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The Soweto Marathon and important lessons running taught me

Running the Soweto Half-Marathon was a drastic step in my sporting life, and I achieved more than crossing the finishing line.

Before the starting gun, I told myself that everything I had done while preparing for this race was behind me. Now was the time to give my best and make this race my magnum opus.

As I pounded the road on that stretchy and winding 21km route through Soweto, countless questions rose in my mind and I began churning ideas in my head. I was inspired to climb to greater heights of success and touch the stars.

Along the streets, a catalogue of colourful pictures juxtaposed with the unpalatable came together. There was the stench of poor drainage in the informal settlements mushrooming in Soweto and images of children as lean as matchsticks with protruding bellies crossing the streets, yet Soweto is one of the greatest townships on the continent and its legacy is deeply embedded in today’s South Africa.

The marathon is a run through our history and, during the race, one passes the Regina Mundi Church, a gathering place during the struggle years, Morris Isaacson High School and the June 16 1976 memorial to the students who protested. The route also features Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu once lived.

It dawned on me that most freedom fighters did not have the chance to enjoy a sporting life and family time.
Running through Kliptown and past the Soweto Towers brought faces of past heroes and heroines of the struggle to my mind and I could hear their voices through my mind’s ear. I saw Steve Biko and Tsietsi Mashinini holding meetings and addressing the needs of young people.

I saw Professor Khabi Mngoma in his lounge teaching children how to sing and play musical instruments. I saw Professor Es’kia Mphahlele under the tree displaying his patience while marking the scripts of his students and drilling them in identifying genres such as poetry, novel and essays. I saw Professor Thamsanqa Kambule in a dilapidated hall, showing his students that mathematics is not a complicated subject provided you master its formulas and theories.

These educational luminaries played a significant role as teachers and instilled a strong sense of patriotism among their students. They developed the character of soccer’s Kaizer Motaung and musicians Khaya Mahlangu and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, to mention a few.

While I was running, it was clear to me that I am enjoying the fruits of those who laid down their lives for the rest of us. I realised that we cannot betray the generation that fought and dreamt of this victory where all South Africans are equal.

I asked myself: What we can do to take their struggle one step further? How can people use their skills and tackle poverty? How can we build strong families and, through them, erect bridges of respect, co-existence and self-acceptance? How can a sportsperson use his influence to unearth and mould the talent of young people?

Running the Soweto Marathon reminded me that all of us have a marathon to run, be it in our personal lives, professions or in making our country a better place. It is laudable to run the Soweto Marathon but we should not forget that we individually and collectively need to run a race of development together with those less fortunate than ourselves. We neither need to be politicians or high profile leaders to serve and make a profound difference.

As I was about to cross the finish line it dawned on me that our ambitions will not be fulfilled overnight. The course will have some inevitable setbacks along the way. Every runner will experience a stage where stamina is needed; when the sun of hope is about to rise.

Through running we rediscover ourselves and are injected with self-confidence, self-discipline, self-acceptance and the wisdom not to give up. The road to self-development and making a difference in other people’s lives is a hilly and arduous route.

We will all need mental strength and the willpower to conquer against all odds. Running challenges us to keep our eyes fixed on the task at hand. It might take years, even a lifetime, before a goal is accomplished. But no difficulties can break the spine of determination. Eventually we will succeed, like a grimacing runner struggling to cross the finish line, with tears of painful joy.

Themba J Nkosi is a freelance writer and the founder and CEO of Themba Nkosi Dreamers Foundation, a non-profit organisation that funds the education of needy children ( including creches) and deserving students.

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