South African attitudes in the 1920’s
The modern Olympic Games were little more than a quarter of a century old in 1920. They too reflected prevailing attitudes founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s vision was of young people competing purely for the love of it, unsullied by money – an attitude that survived until the 1960s. But not all young people were welcome, although women had competed in the Olympic golf and tennis tournaments in 1912, they would only be allowed into the athletics events in 1928. This makes it all the more remarkable that the first female participant in the Comrades ran in 1923 – unofficially, of course.
That was the same decade in which white women got the vote in South Africa – which, it is easy to forget, was still a fragile political entity, haunted by the bitterness of the Anglo-Boer War and the rebellion over support for Britain in the 1914-18 world war. The amalgamation of the two former Boer republics and the two British colonies into one country had taken place only in 1910. For the founders of the Comrades, the Union of South Africa must have seemed as recent as the release from jail of Mandela did to us in 2000. So the great race began very much as a Natal event rather than a South African one – an identity which it has happily retained.
In the 1920s, when there was reference to relations between the ‘races’, it could only mean the two main white groups, English-speakers and Afrikaners. When the Springboks beat the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 1928, the Administrator of the Transvaal hailed the event as a great source of unification of these ‘races.’ Black people, or Natives as they were called by more polite whites, were seen mainly as a source of labour and certainly not as citizens in the political sense.
Indians and Coloured people occupied a twilight zone, generally more prosperous than most blacks but just as impotent politically. The leading lights of the early Comrades did allow the unofficial presence of a woman runner, but it would have been simply unthinkable to extend the same tolerance to non-whites of either gender. In this, unsurprisingly, the Comrades was simply a reflection of the broader society at the time. In the 1920s racism, far from eroding under the pressures of a modernising society, was in fact pushing the white elite towards even greater political consolidation of its economic privilege.
Blacks pushed to the edges of society
As whites in the 1920s and 1930s dealt with the effects of war, political uncertainty and then economic depression, blacks were pushed further and further to the margins of society. In the rural areas, life was made increasingly difficult for economically active blacks such as small tenant farmers and sharecroppers. In the cities, little social provision was made for blacks. They were seen as migrant labourers who were· not the responsibility of the white city councillors. A combination of social prejudice and economic self-interest saw to it that the growth of a black middle class was stifled at birth.
It was not that all whites were rich. One of the political preoccupations of the 1930s was to make the many thousands of poor whites feel secure. State organisations such as the South African Railways were used as a vast employment agency for them. For men of my father’s generation, a steam engine driver was a respected man; an apprentice’s ticket in a trade – any trade – was highly prized (the 1930s Comrades runner Johnny Coleman was a guard on the railways) A matric certificate was not common; the chief educational aspiration was ‘to get your JC, or Junior Certificate, which meant you had passed Standard eight. Whites may have been much better off than blacks, but life was nevertheless perceived as a constant and insecure struggle for betterment.
So it is not surprising that the entries in the Comrades in the 1930s were so few. Men were generally too busy for such demanding recreation – but not so busy that they could not take an enthusiastic interest as spectators. Sport, then as now, is a distraction from the daily grind, so great duels caught the imagination, as did the rise to prominence of individuals such as Arthur Newton and Hardy Ballington. But the shadow of war fell again over the country and the race, and less than two dozen men started the 1940 Comrades Marathon.
Modern politicians probably understand better the need to use sport as a distraction in times of national stress. Rugby and cricket certainly performed this function for insecure South African whites in the 1970s and 1980s. During the Rhodesian bush war the national rugby side’s performances in the Currie Cup were a source of great comfort – and this was keenly understood by the authorities, who ensured that the star players would be taken out of the war. Short-back- and-sides and all, for the Saturday fixtures.
But during the war years, in South Africa as in England, it was apparently regarded as unpatriotic to allow official organised sports events. This seems strange now: an event such as the Comrades, with its origins in military sacrifice, could have been used as a morale-booster. But there were no races between 1941 and 1945.
Comrades Marathon survives World War Two
Clearly the Comrades tradition was strong enough to survive the war. But it does seem surprising that, after another gruelling conflict which affected many more families in South Africa than did the 1914-18 war, only 22 men lined up at the start in 1946. Perhaps that era of the Comrades was less illustrious than it seems to us over 70 years later, but one of the aims of history is see the past as the past saw itself.
Two things are striking about the Comrades, as we examine its progression into the late 1940s and 1950s. First, there was hardly any growth in the number of entries, yet there was great continuity. The same dedicated band of men seemed to keep entering, even those who were already veteran participants in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, the race was successively dominated by a few remarkable individuals, with Wally Hayward taking the baton in the 1950s from the likes of Arthur Newton and Hardy Ballington. One wonders if the Comrades would have survived without the regular appearance of a dominant star.
Individual winners were world-class, but was it otherwise a great race in those days, given the low number of entries? The Comrades in the 1950s remained a race for ‘the ordinary man.’ Among the top runners were Wally Hayward the building inspector, Don Spencer (insurance agent). Trevor Allen (traffic policeman), Frans Mare (mining assayer) and Jackie Mekler (printer.)
Reflecting the post-war stability and optimism in South Africa, the race grew steadily in appeal during the 1950s. The 20 medals won in 1950 were more than tripled by the end of the decade and, in 1959, saw the first field of more than 100 entrants. There was increasing interest from overseas runners and the organisers themselves tried to encourage an international flavour. Politically, however, the policy of apartheid, applied by the National Party government with great ideological zeal, began to undermine the advances made in sport.
The 1960s represented, on the surface, a period of great prosperity, and it was true that economic growth was high and unemployment low. The Comrades reflected this sense of optimism and growth. By 1969 the entries had passed 500, which at the time seemed an unmanageable number: a nice problem to have, you might say. But it remained a parochial race, very much a Natal event.
But that decade was also a time of ever more rigid enforcement of evil laws: the Group Areas Act, race classification, certain notorious sections of the Immorality Act, the pass laws. In 1960 the Springbok cricketers, on tour in England, experienced the first anti-apartheid demonstrations. Such ‘demos’ were to steadily increase in frequency and intensity until, a decade later, foreign tours by South African teams had become all but impossible. In 1965 Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd made it clear that Maori rugby players would still not be welcome with a touring All Back team. Some white sportsmen protested against apartheid in sport but generally the white community was far too comfortable and conservative to rock the boat. The Comrades itself remained lily-white.