“Hey Ray, a few of us are heading to Soweto tonight for a run if you’re not doing anything?” Norrie Williamson, the man behind the invite. If I’m honest my first thoughts where along the lines of, “Are you crazy? At night? Is it safe?”

I’m up for anything that involves running so of course I wasn’t doing anything. I drove home after work, removed my wallet and other items that are hard to replace if they get stolen and waited with that excitement you feel when you’re looking forward to something but not sure what to expect. I grew up in the dorp area of Kinross, Evander and Secunda in apartheid South Africa and although I was too young to know what was going on around me politically, apartheid had it’s impact on my young mind. In my primary school days we used to go skate boarding in the empty parking lot of the Checkers centre on a Saturday afternoon and I can still picture the signs on the doors of the public toilets, “Net Blankes” or “Whites Only”, at the age of 11 or 12 that was just how it was, nothing was questioned. White people never mingled with black people, in the mind of a young child, they became the enemy, they were the thieves.

Sadly, I matriculated in 1994, just before schools officially became multi-race so I never had the opportunity to share at a close personal level with people of other races. I don’t consider myself racist, although I would be lying (I think all of us would be) if I said I haven’t and don’t struggles with prejudice. Through the years I have had opportunity to work and mix with different races, albeit in a small, insignificant way.

So, with those thoughts in mind, here was this “mlungu” (white person) driving into Soweto at 19h00 at night.

I met the 6 other runners at Nambitha in Vilakazi street Soweto and the wonderful experience began. As we got out of the car a local ran up to us, extended a hand and proceeded to sing us a song he had put together. Shortly after that a very excited mother came running up to us, literally screaming with joy, “White people! White people! Hello, white people!” Again it was hand shakes and hugs and smiles, like we had come across a long lost friend. In the next moment she was shouting across the road, calling her child (who was on her husband’s shoulders) to come and see the white people. This young child, I would guess around 4 or 5 years old, had never seen a white person in his life. He stared at us as though we had just landed in a space ship from some remote planet (then again, looking back at the photo’s I’m not surprised, most of us where wearing tights with some very bright reflective clothing and two members of our group even had headlamps on like we were going mining or something.)

It was time to get going, we start up Vilakazi street and turned right and then left into the road which saw the multitude of protestors marching in the opposite direction on June 16th 1976 (the year of my birth), despite the heavy traffic at this time of the evening, running down this street had a feeling of history in it.

From there it was a turn here, a turn there, some streets well lit up, others dark, past the bewildered and bemused locals who must have wondered to themselves, “what the hell is going on?”

Just about everyone we ran past would flash a smile, wave a hand or even join us for a few strides. The attitude of the locals is friendly and welcoming, even when a car turned into the road not seeing us we got a quick apology (very different to the areas I normally run in, there you get the middle finger and plenty of verbal abuse regardless of whether you’re in the wrong or right.)

Just past the halfway mark of our run we stopped off at Wandie’s pub. This is a pub owned by a man called Wandie and what a wonderful man at that, after buying a beer Norrie asked him (joking of course) why the beer was so expensive, Wandie’s response, “How else am I going to get rich?!”

From Wandie’s we stopped at Morris Isaacson High School, where the Soweto uprising began as students, teachers and others (between 3,000 and 10,000) led by Tsietsi Mashinini began their march against the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 which forced all black schools to be taught in Afrikaans as a primary language.

Our run was coming to an end, but not before stopping at the Hector Pietersen memorial which has a grass line from the memorial pointing to place where he was shot. Hector Pietersen, a 13 year old student was shot by police on June 16th 1976 when police opened fire on protesting students.

We finished off our run by coming up Vilakazi street passing the family houses of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

The truth is, I felt safer running in Soweto then do I running in some of the white residential areas, I never gave my car a single thought during the run, there was never a moment when I feared being attacked or mugged.

Quite simply, people live in Soweto, people who love people, people who love this country, people who get up early in the morning and return late at evening in order to put food on the table. People who just like everyone else have been created by a God who loves them and has a purpose and plan for their lives.

Like that little boy we met in the beginning who had never seen a white person before, on this evening barriers where brought down for both him and myself.

I will definitely be going back to Soweto, for warm meal at Wandie’s, for another jog in the area and simply to enjoy some great company.

– Ray Orchison

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