Originally printed in 'The City' magazine, April 1997.
On Monday 10th February 1997 ten members of the Corporation of London staff left the Guildhall en-route to East London, S.A. for the Surfers Marathon. The trip came about following the visit to the Corporation of President Mandela last year, and a subsequent invitation from Alderman Carl Burger of East London who has brought a team over to compete in the London Marathon for the last three years.
The team had been selected to run the Surfers Marathon to raise money for the East London Childrens Home, a multi-racial home for children under 18 who are in need of comprehensive residential care. We all left the UK not really knowing what was expected of us from the week, apart from the race itself.
The ten Corporation employees who were welcomed at East London airport on the afternoon of Tuesday 11th March were Terry Rogers (Director of Housing), David Gillin (Sports Development Officer), Alison Elam (Town Clerk's), Ann Taylor (Central Criminal Court), Tim Harvey (Records Office), Tony Dowden (Internal Audit), Ted Rayment (Planning), Chris Howell (Planing), Paul Kennedy (Engineers), and Brian New (IT).
Whilst in East London we were guests of Fred and Laura Burchell, friends of Carl Burgers. We were all put up in his house at Gonubie beach and were all treated extremely well by them. We were told to make ourselves as 'at home' as possible, which because of their friendliness was very easy. The ideal thing about the location of their house was that it was right on the beach so it was perfect for all our training runs at 6am in the morning, followed by a quick swim in the sea. We all kept one eye on the horizon after being told before we came that East London was in the top three locations worldwide for shark attacks. This was only backed up on the second day when we met two men walking along the beach who were in their sixties but were originally from Liverpool. The had been in the Merchant Navy, had settled in S.A. and said that they had never swam in the sea since a friend of theirs had been killed by a shark over thirty years ago!!
On the evening of the day of our arrival we attended a dinner hosted by the East London Childrens Home patrons where Terry Rogers presented a cheque for 14,000 RAND (about £2,500) which was the amount we'd already raised through sponsorship. He also presented a cash amount of 1,500 RAND which we collected amongst ourselves o the bus on the way to the meal. This was warmly received as one of the directors told us that it cost 415 RAND per month to keep each child.
During the following week we were kept very busy carrying out many visits and so on, and also trying to fit in traning for the race - which became a bit of a challenge. As the week progressed the race itself took on less importance after some of the things we saw. We visited three of the childrens homes where house parents look after between seven and 10 children each. THe homes varied in their location and condition, but at all three we were made to feel extremely welcome and we got the opportunity to talk to the children for a considerable time. As many of the team have children of our own, it was quite disturbing to hear about the cases of many of these children.
We also visited two schools, both mixed-race establishments of about 800 pupils. At the first school, Crewe Primary, we divided into groups and visited the classrooms. We told the children why we were there, what life in London is like, and then answered questions (these ranged form Manchester United to how much is a bag of sugar in the UK).
At the second school, Cambridge High School, we sat on the stage in front of all of the pupils at their assembly. Terry Rogers addressed the school on the work of the Corporation and what life is like in London, compared to South Africa. His talk was really well received....and they even understood some of his jokes!
I think that the most moving point of the whole week for everybody came when we visited the township of Lingalitcha in the Province of Bisho (the former homeland area of Ciskei). We were told that we were the first "official" white people ever to have visited the township - and that there had been a riot and massacre of 28 people there five years previously - so our presence caused considerable excitement amongst the 200 children there....and a little trepidation amongst ourselves.
We visited the village school which was a derelict building with broken windows, no doors, holes in the floor, hardly any ceilings, and an open cess pit at the back of the building - a bit different from the schools that our children attend. We were taken on a tour of the township and shown arond one of the 'homes' - it was a corrugated iron and wood structure about 15 x 8 feet. It had a bed at one end and cooking and eating space at the other. The man who showed us around - very proudly - lived there with his wife and three children.
Many of the children in the township have Aids and to see such poverty, yet still see such smiling faces and enthusiasm, is a VERY humbling experience. It makes you realise that back in England we are a lot luckier than we think.
By the time the race came around we all felt like we had been on a roller coaster for the week. We had seen so much and visited so many different places. The enormity of the problems still facing S.A. had not yet really sunk in, but we were now going to run the race that we came for. It was now hard to take the race as seriously as we had in the weeks before our departure form the UK.
Race day was very hot (in the 90's). We were told that the course was between 18-20k over sand, rocks and also swimming two rivers. About 1280 people took part and we were the first overseas team to ever enter the race. So again, we were made to feel more than welcome - and we stood out like a sore thumb in our red Corporation vests and shorts....not to mention our extremely white bodies!!
The race was different to anything any of us had ever done before. We were running on an extremly difficult surface, yet the scenery was beautiful. We all had to make sure that we drank enogh on the course. The race had a 2 hours 30 mins cut-off and we all made it to the end in time, which obviously contributed to the success of the trip. I was the first of our team home in a time of 1 hour 24 mins....just in front of Paul Kennedy of the Engineers. I came 107th, Paul 126th. We were followed by Ted Rayment, Alsion Elam, Tim Harvey, Tony Dowden, Chris Howell and Ann Taylor.
At the after-race party on Nahoon Beach we were all presented with a t-shirt, a medal and I received a crate of 'Castle' lager for being the first "London Whitey" to finish - which I thought it rude to refuse as they were the race sponsors. Terry Rogers gave a speech and many people came over to talk to us....we even appeared on the local news being interviewed that evening.
The day after the race we went on an early morning visit to Mpongo Game Park where we saw many animals and had breakfast in the bush. In the afternoon we departed East London for Johannesburg, then Heathrow, where we arrived on Monday 17th February at about 8am.
It was only once we were on the plane - and had the time to ourselves to reflect on what we had just seen and done - that we all began to appreciate what a beautiful country S.A is. The people are friendly but there are still many problems and issues even though Apartheid is supposedly abolished. There is still a great deal of tension in the country and it is going to take a long time for many of these problems and attitudes to be changed for the better.
I feel that after seeing news stories about S.A. on the television, actually seeing it first hand, you realise how the reporting is very limited....and sometimes distorted. I feel that we were all extremely lucky to be given this opportunity to see South Africa in this way.
My two lasting impressions are quite contrasting:
A RACE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE!!