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Running For A Hero

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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.

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The People’s President

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Liberia president George Weah

It’s been quite an ascent for George Weah – from international football star to president of his country, Liberia. He was sworn in on January 22 to a crowd of adoring supporters who voted for a change, as well as heads of states and football stars, including Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o.

From one of Monrovia’s poorest slums, Weah made a name for himself as a talented footballer at Monaco at the age of 21, and went on to play for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, such as Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan. He won the prestigious Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year awards in 1995. During his illustrious career that ended in 2003 he also led Liberia’s national team. Musa Shannon, a Liberian businessman and former teammate with Liberia’s national team says Weah’s temperament on and off the field was unparalleled.

“He was inspirational and expected nothing but excellence from all his teammates. He was able to get the best out of everyone. He never took shortcuts.”

Considered the choice of the masses, Weah’s humble beginnings combined with his international celebrity status earned him tremendous support from the mostly youthful Liberian population, especially the poor. In the December run-off elections, Weah easily earned 61.5% of the votes over then Vice-President Joseph Boakai.

“He is the people’s president, he is the one they have chosen,” says Shannon.

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Weah’s win marks the first peaceful transition in decades for the Liberian people. “We have arrived at this transition neither by violence, nor by force of arms. Not a single life was lost in the process… this transition was achieved by the free and democratic will of the Liberian people,” said Weah in his inauguration speech.

Although he moved from sport to politics, the transition hasn’t been sudden, nor without struggle. In 2005, Weah ran unsuccessfully against Noble Laureate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who made history as the first democratically-elected female African president. Through his party, the Congress for Democratic Change, Weah ran again in 2011 as running-mate to Winston Tubman, losing again to Johnson Sirleaf.

Citing inexperience and a lack of formal education as the main reason for his losses, Weah earned a degree in business and took a seat on the senate in 2014.

“People speak of George Weah as though he doesn’t have a political history, so that if he doesn’t succeed they will say he was new to the game,” says Ezekiel Pajibo, political analyst and human rights activist. “He has been in politics for 12 years and there is no evidence of anything he has done for the Liberian people.”

Expectations are high. Weah promised jobs for the youth and poverty alleviation. Of Liberia’s 4.6 million inhabitants, over 60% are under 25, many of whom voted for him in the hopes of a quick reduction in unemployment.

He inherits a country that has survived two bloody civil wars between 1989 and 2003, a fledgling economy and a young population that is largely unemployed. The Ebola epidemic, which killed over 5,000 people, also showed cracks in the healthcare system. The country still does not have adequate running water or electricity since the civil war, and properly staffed schools remain a problem.

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In his inauguration speech, he made a series of promises.

Firstly, he would stamp out corruption. Secondly, he would assist the private sector. Weah says he wants Liberians to stop being “spectators” in their economy while foreigners control the majority of their resources. Thirdly, he will focus on vocational training for the youth.

Promises must be followed by action. His party has been criticized by the opposition for not clearly outlining how these goals will be achieved.

There are also doubts about Weah garnering the same amount of respect from the international community as his predecessor. “He has to exude leadership capability and have presence in front of the international community. Johnson Sirleaf, as the first female president in Africa, brought international goodwill towards Liberia. She also had a history of working in development structures. President George Weah has none of that,” says Pajibo.

Weah achieved more than was expected of him as a footballer. Liberians will be hoping he can do the same as their country’s president. – Written by Lamelle Shaw

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