South Africa, Life, etc, Media

Run Jozi: SA runs for its life, finds its soul in Hillbrow

By Simon Allison 22 March 2012

Thousands of Jozi’s runners took to the streets of Hillbrow on Wednesday night, pounding the pavements in what for many was a first visit to the city’s dark, dangerous heart. SIMON ALLISON ran with them, and marvelled at how a mass marketing exercise turned into something genuinely special – and important for the future of our country.

I was something of a sceptic coming into the Run Jozi race on Tuesday night. Along with 10,000 others (or 15,000 – estimates vary), I was entranced by the thought of running through deepest, darkest Hillbrow at night, but there were a few things that bothered me.

First up, the organisers. I’m sure it was very kind of Nike to give a free T-shirt to every participant, but their instruction that you had to wear it to be allowed to race was just a little draconian. Coupled with the Nike wristband and the Nike shoelaces in the race pack, by the time I was ready to go I looked like something out of a Nike advert (just without the star athlete’s body or salary).

Photo: The runners were encouraged to “Take back the streets”.

This was, of course, the point, and I was too excited by all the free stuff in the goodie bag to care too much. I happily donned my fluorescent yellow top with a big picture of a shoe on it – made in Sri Lanka – and blended in effortlessly with all the other participants, who also rocked the “car guard chic” look.

Then there was the advertising, which was premised on a simple slogan. “Take back the streets” they told us, without answering the obvious question: from who? Playing right into decades-old white neuroses about Hillbrow – anywhere in the CBD, really – the tagline emphasised that town is really a no-go area for many people (at least the race’s target market), but that with a couple of hours’ exercise and a yellow T-shirt we could change all that. Never mind that tens of thousands of people live in Hillbrow, and many more transit through it every day. Unfortunately, none of these people buy much from the Nike store in Sandton. But for the people that can shop there, the slogan touched an emotional chord – in much the same way that Julius Malema touches an emotional chord when he shouts “take back the farms”.

Photo: Enthusiasm ran high.

This brings us to the people themselves, the ones in those yellow T-shirts. The excitable presenter before the race got quite worked up about the “sea of yellow” he saw on the road before him, but he could just as easily have said “sea of white”. Our sports minister would not have been impressed because this was not a racially proportionate event, or even close to it – a completely un-scientific survey I conducted at the start and finish lines found 80% of the runners were white. Hardly the best way to celebrate Human Rights Day nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid.

Yes, I’ll admit it – I was the cynic in the enthusiastic crowd waiting for the starting gun. In my defence, as a journalist it’s something of a professional hazard. We’re paid to pick holes in things. Also in my defence, my cynicism is not so deeply entrenched not to recognise when I’ve got something wrong – and on Run Jozi, I was very wrong indeed.

It was the excitement that finally pushed my guard down. I looked around me and all I saw were young, energetic South Africans who couldn’t wait to get into Hillbrow. These are the people who have committed to South Africa, who haven’t run off to Australia or the UK, part of South Africa’s future and this race was for many of them a genuine attempt to bridge racial boundaries, in a most literal way.

Most white South Africans are raised to know there are certain places in their country that they just shouldn’t go – townships, the Transkei, Hillbrow. All kinds of bad things might happen there. It takes a lot to break down these mental barriers and who cares if it took a multinational corporation to land the first blow? Nike managed to get thousands of people to go way out of their comfort zones, and for that they must be lauded.

But what was truly magical, and transformative, was the reaction of Hillbrow’s residents. They could easily have taken offence at the insensitive advertising, or been annoyed by the inconvenience of having all their roads closed so that a bunch of white people could take an urban safari through their neighbourhood. But along the route I only saw one man who was visibly irritated by the procession of runners, and I could hardly blame him – he’d just bought a hot dog, and couldn’t get across the road to go home and eat it. He was the single exception in 10km of road lined with cheering men, women and children, all shouting jokes and encouragement and high-fiving the passing runners. Others leaned over their balconies to watch, laughing at the silly things people wrote on their shirts. Is this the place that was meant to be so scary? Are these the people we were afraid of?

Photo: Run Jozi was just the beginning of bridging the gaps.

Well I’m not scared any more. And neither are thousands of other white South Africans. And that is a good thing. It’s better than good. The divisions that exist in our heads have persisted long after apartheid laws were abolished, as have the geographic divisions. Run Jozi went some way to bridging these gaps, an impressive feat for what was essentially a massive marketing exercise. The future is bright – even if a disturbing shade of fluorescent yellow. DM

Photo: Runners thronged the streets of Hillbrow.


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