Running For A Hero

Published 7 years ago

Sabalele village, in Cofimvaba, a town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, boasts a brand new tar road off the N6 between Queenstown and East London. On the side lies an unoccupied house on a hill with peeling cream paint. The small brick house has a yard half the size of a football field; a huge family gravestone stands next to the wire fence. A pita toilet is on the one side and a disused kraal on the other; the sun-dried grass reaches your knees.

Statue of Chris Hani outside the community centre

Inside, the only remnants that show people once lived here are a coffee table draped in white cloth, old broken red sofas, and two photographs hanging on opposite walls of the dining room. One is of martyr Chris Hani and the other of his parents Gilbert and Nomayise. It’s an understated memorial for one of the best known names in African politics. Often, it doesn’t see a soul for six months at a time.


Lungile Gongqa

This was the home Hani and his five siblings grew up in. His father died in 1994 and mother in 2000; both were buried by the wire fence and eventually the entire family moved out.

On this cold Saturday morning in April, the month Hani was gunned down 24 years ago on the driveway of his house in Boksburg, Johannesburg, hundreds of people gathered in Sabalele village to commemorate him; not with a rally or church service but with sweat and striving in the annual Chris Hani Freedom Marathon.

This five-year-old race, a community hall with a bronze statue, and a district municipality named after him are a few things the municipality has to keep Hani’s name from oblivion. The old and young, who never got a chance to know Hani, came to walk and run the path to his Catholic school.


“You must be very strong to run this one, this is a tough course, it’s gravel. Can you imagine a young Chris Hani walking here every day of his schooling,” says Enoch Skosana, the race official and marathon winner.

Skosana says the run is symbolic of how Hani carried his country on his shoulders in later life. With the African National Congress’ (ANC) armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe, Hani commanded thousands of soldiers with the same zest, he says. The retired Skosana won several half marathons before forming a development club supported by his former team, Nedbank Running Club, in Gauteng.

“To me, as a councillor and politician, this event is a milestone. Chris Hani himself never entered the Canaan he fought before he died in the hands of apartheid defenders. Chris Hani District Municipality is proud of the whole commemoration of its son. In my view I would like to have a running club established here, so that we can have more long distance runners who are putting this district on the map,” says Wanda Vani, a ward councillor for 23 villages around Sabalele.

Vani says despite a small development in the Sabalele, many villages do not have tar, nor running water. He also laments high unemployment of youth – the race only provides jobs for a few.


The 25-kilometer marathon honoring Hani may be among the smallest on the calendar of Athletics South Africa (ASA) but it has been growing in stature and created at least one Olympic athlete. Lungile Gongqa was the 2017 Two Oceans Marathon winner in Cape Town. He came through the ranks of this dusty village, near where he grew up in Ngcobo. When it started in 2012, Gongqa was the first winner. He went on to represent his country at the 2016 Rio Olympics but didn’t finish because of a hamstring injury.

Athletes before the 25 kilometer race

“In my first running competition I was excited to take home a t-shirt and a roll-on as my prize. I was only 18 years old at the time. I knew my parents would be grateful for that. But things got better when I won this Chris Hani race in 2012, the prize was R7,500 (around $550). I was not a member of any club, so that meant I had to train by myself and pay my own transport. This is one of the reasons I have approached the municipality with the idea to coach the up-and-coming runners in the district. I didn’t finish school but I can make a living from the sport,” says Gongqa.

Gongqa, who runs for Nedbank Running Club in Cape Town and travels between there and the Eastern Cape, won R250,000 ($18,500) at the Two Oceans Marathon.  Gongqa, who flew from Cape Town to support the race in Sabalele village, believes there are many more Olympians to unearth here.


Inspiration could be taken from Lusapho April, a long distance runner from Uitenhage, Eastern Cape, who was a new entrant in the Hani race. He represented his country at the 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics, and finished third in the New York City Marathon in 2013. April holds the record of winning the Hannover Marathon, in Germany, for three consecutive years between 2011 and 2013.

Small brick house,Sabalele village, in Cofimvaba

“Being here is just to honor the man for what he did for the country. And also I never run in these conditions in the village, I just wanted to partake to encourage the future athletes from around here. It’s not every day you see someone who has been to the Olympic Games coming back to run here. I was humbled to see some local boys running with torn shoes and soccer boots, they showed me that there’s so much hunger to achieve their dreams,” he says after finishing the race in second spot and with a limp.

Both April and Gongqa were chuffed to see hundreds of school children running alongside their parents. Just like young Gongqa, the unlikely young competitors were ecstatic to walk home with their new oversized white-shirts and medals, even if there was no roll-on.


Hani would have been proud.