Comrades: Its all about community

2012-05-07 00:00

THIRTY or so children from Makaphutu Children’s Village at Botha’s Hill will be at a roadside picnic to watch next month’s Comrades Marathon, as they are every year.

“It’s always an exciting thing,” says social worker Nombuso Dimba-Ndaleni.

“They can’t get enough of it. They cheer the runners who are tired.”

The children’s home is down a steep road from the Comrades route, into the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

Unlike most other people I have interviewed in this series, Nic Addison, who runs Makaphutu, is not someone I ran into for the first time while walking. We probably met before either of us could even walk, and we grew up together in Empangeni.

In the more than 30 years since we left school, Nic’s life has taken him from Chapel Hill to Botha’s Hill, the former being a university in the United States. In-between, he’s done outreach work in Zululand, farmed in the Western Cape and been in the corporate world in the U.S.

Now, he and his South African-American family play a parent role to wards of the state, assisted by house mothers who each care for eight children in each of Makaphutu’s cottages. The children go to Makaphutu on the instructions of the courts.

The U.S. ministry to which the Addisons are linked calls KwaZulu-Natal “the epicentre of Aids in the world”.

“We’re a very damaged society,” he laments.

“We need to create a new culture  — both in the lives of our children and in the surrounding community. Our Christian faith still remains the greatest instrument for change and healing.”

Makaphutu’s role as a community service hub, distributing food and clothing in communities, particularly their vulnerable children, also keeps Nic busy.

“But it’s wonderful,” he says, comparing it with the corporate world.

“This is for the love of people. The corporate world has its selfish personal rewards but they’re not fulfilling in the same ways as this is.”

Through his blending with American life, Nic hasn’t lost his local accent, except that when talking of the Comrades route, he says “rout”, not “root”.

Further along the rout/root, still in Botha’s Hill, is Kearsney College, whose pupils’ support the runners often talk about and appreciate.

“We make it a closed weekend,” deputy headmaster Rod de Villiers tells me. He has run Comrades and founded the Kearsney Striders running club on the school grounds.

“The boarders stay in so that they can cheer like anything, dressed in their [maroon] uniforms.”

Any runner associated with Kearsney is entitled to a maroon balloon.

The test of whether they qualify for this “old school balloon” lies in being able to answer a certain question about the school.

On June 3, six of the staff will be running. Four of them — Cindi Polzi, Wayne Sudding, Matt Laskey and Cameron Buys — will do so to raise money for the Sunflower Fund, which helps people with leukaemia. Last year, Kearsney lost a matric boy, Luke Norris, to the disease.

Rod is recently back from Nepal, having been part of a group of 30 boys and parents on a trek to Everest Base Camp.

A highlight was meeting British mountaineer David Hamilton on his sixth ascent, who shared his experiences with them.

“He says it’s all about planning and sticking to the rules. “He said his one attempt failed 200 metres from the top when the weather closed in and he gave the order to turn around, much to his people’s dismay.”

Other groups didn’t and their expedition members died.

“We met with the real McCoy.”

Kearsney is the same age as the Comrades Marathon. In nine years’ time, both institutions will celebrate their centenaries. The school plans to mark the milestone by building a heritage centre.

Hillcrest follows Botha’s Hill with a dip in-between. Young erythrina trees grow on traffic islands in the middle of Old Main Road. Perhaps their red blossom will be out in a month’s time.

A purr interrupts the sound of ordinary traffic. Up the road comes a fleet of Harley-Davidson motorbikes, no doubt heading home from the Africa Bike Week down at Margate.

Then along comes Ntokoza Omega Bhengu, the postman.

“I’d love to run the Comrades, but maybe only in 2014,” he tells me.

“Why only then?” I ask.

“Well, I’m still smoking now,” he explains.

“Whenever I run I feel it in my chest, but I shall give it up.”

Ntokoza says he trains to some degree every day, walking 21 kilometres delivering letters and running two to three kilometres after hours.

A woman clutching a water bottle and looking very focused jogs past.

“Comrades?” I ask in a one-word interview.

She turns her head around and nods, then carries on.

Hillcrest High School pupils Collin Conradie and Sthembile Mdunge come strolling along from the direction of Winston Park.

Collin says that at every Comrades Marathon he helps his grandfather, who is part of a citizen-band (CB) radio club, to forewarn emergency stations about tired-looking runners.

“Once I was sitting by myself in the car with the CB and a man had a heart attack across the road.”

Collin says he and his grandfather were the only people around who could help. They called a helicopter.

“The man survived.”

He expects they’ll be doing it again this year at their usual spot, between Drummond and Monteseel.

“Doing it gives you a sense of doing something for the community,” says Collin.

“It’s gratifying. It gives you the pride of doing a job well done.”

Sthembile recalls watching the race with her sister who shouted “don’t give up” at a tired runner.

“He kept running, smiling at us.”

In the leafy suburb of Gillitts there are fewer and fewer people in the streets with whom to confirm that I am on the Comrades route. I hit a familiar problem: going off course.

When I spot the Kloof Gorge I know I must do an about turn. By the time I hit Kloof’s Old Main Road and the top of Field’s Hill, I’m running out of day and I must return to my car.

Passers-by advise me that to flag down a minibus taxi headed towards Botha’s Hill, I must hold my hand out and point my finger downwards. It works.

• Duncan Guy is editor of the education publication www.learn thenews.com and newsroom coach at ‘The Witness’.

• duncan.guy@witness.co.za

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