Comrades Marathon – historic perspective – Part 3

The storm clouds gather

In the 1970s storm clouds gathered rapidly after the false calm that seemed to characterise the previous decade. The policy of apartheid had reached its zenith and began to collapse under the weight of its own absurdities. In 1969 Premier John Vorster, mindful of the importance of rugby to his pampered white constituency, had made concessions to enable Maori players to tour with the 1970 All Blacks. Some ultra-conservative members of the National Party, led by Jaap Marais, saw these concessions as fatal to the integrity of apartheid. If blacks and whites were playing rugby together, they would have to socialise together afterwards- and where would that lead us?

The breakaway Herstigte Nasionale Party, formed by the Marais group, may have seemed eccentric, but in the 1970 general election they lost all their seats. But, in terms of philosophical consistency, they were absolutely right. Apartheid had been founded on the concept of complete and utter separation of the races in all spheres of life; only on that basis could it be sustained. The moral defence of apartheid was that different races were ‘separate but equal.’ This was why such importance was placed on the granting of political rights to black Africans through the ‘homelands’ or Bantustans. The National Party took this so seriously that it was to grant constitutional independence to several homelands, the first being the Transkei in 1976.

Foster/Fourie fight in 1973 – test case for multiracial sport

After the precedent of the Maoris, the first black-white professional boxing match took place in December 1973, at the Rand Stadium in Johannesburg. It was a light-heavyweight bout between the challenger Pierre Fourie, and the world champion, the black African-American Bob Foster. And for the first time in decades, the crowd would be racially mixed, which meant that the Separate Amenities Act would have to be bent. The Foster/Fourie bout was seen as nothing less than a test case for multiracial sport. This may seem absurd now, almost half a century later, but at the time it was a very serious matter indeed. In the event, the fight went off without any problems, even though the white home-town favourite narrowly lost on points to the black champion.

Although boxing seemed to have cleared the way for multiracial sport in general, the National Party’s policy of ‘separate but equal’ remained in place. For several years cabinet ministers performed various logical and linguistic contortions, trying to make sense of a policy that was collapsing around them. Sports Minister Piet Koornhof came up with the tortuous concept of ‘multinational’ sport, which meant that people of different races could play together in South Africa as long as they were from different countries. The pretence, of course, was that South African whites and blacks were in fact members of different ‘nations.’ As were the Indians and coloured, although the National Party never did get around to working out how to give them territories comparable to the tribal Bantustans.

Absurdities of apartheid sport

So we had incongruities like cricket’s multinational double-wicket competition. Two black South Africans, Edward Habane and Edmund Ntikinca, played against teams from white South Africa (Graeme Pollock and Eddie Barlow), England, New Zealand and so on. More popular, but no less embarrassing, was the multinational soccer tournament. There were four teams – blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds – and the Rand Stadium seating was divided equally between black and white spectators. The teams all played one another in a little league and the top two teams – inevitably the blacks and the whites – played in a final which the whites won 3-1. Afterwards, there was excited discussion in the car park, ‘imagine if the blacks and whites could play together. We’d get the organisation of the whites and the flair of the blacks and we’d be able to take on Brazil.’ Perhaps surprisingly there was no visible racial tension at the games. The bitterness and radicalisation engendered by the 1976 Soweto uprising and the 1980s States of Emergency lay in the future.

During these turbulent years, athletics and road-running saw comparable confusion for a time. It would be nice to discover that the Comrades had led the way for sport in South Africa by throwing open the event to all races without qualification, but that did not happen. Some strange remarks were made about it being undesirable to allow blacks to run simply because they would make the numbers unmanageable. But for a couple of years black runners competed unofficially. Vincent Rakabele came 42nd in 1974, and there was little the authorities could do about that. Finally, the race was thrown open to blacks and women in 1975.

Changes made by Comrades

By then the Comrades had changed in other ways. Foreign runners seemed to be entering in greater numbers and many of them did well, which seemed to legitimise the status of the Comrades as one of the world’s great races. Local entrants seemed increasingly to come from beyond the ranks of the ‘ordinary working men’ who had established the Comrades tradition. Now there were many more students, led by the likes of Dave Levick of UCT, and company types, as road-running became fashionable among the business and professional classes. It was as if the challenge presented by the Comrades was proving irresistible, a benchmark of character against which anyone, regardless of origin, could measure himself or herself. That included black runners, whose trail had been blazed by Rakabele, and three of them finished in the top twenty in 1976.

Television was introduced in 1976

Sponsorship made an appearance in the Comrades in the mid-1970s and it was probably more than coincidence that television in South Africa was launched by the SABC in the same year. In combination, sponsorship and television were to radically change the face of the Comrades, making commercialisation inevitable and even raising the hitherto taboo question of prize money. As in other sports, organisation of the Comrades would have to be professionalised. If there was still a place for the blazered club officials who worked long hours for the sport they loved, it was no longer one of exclusive and often dictatorial power. Amateurish hitches still occurred, though, as in 1976 when Alan Robb – the latest in a line of outstanding Comrades champions — went the wrong way because of a lack of signage. There was also a clumsy attempt to place an upper age limit on entries, which seemed to go against the spirit of Comrades.

In 1977, for the first time, there were more than 2 000 entrants. One of them was Bruce Fordyce, an archaeology student whose profile at Wits, before he won Comrades, was minimal in comparison with that of his sister Oonagh, who was elected Rag Queen. Continue reading