SI Vault
Leigh Montville
October 21, 1996
When Josia Thugwane went home to South Africa after winning the Olympic marathon in Atlanta, he did not find fame and fortune, but threats and uncertainty
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October 21, 1996

Run For Your Life

When Josia Thugwane went home to South Africa after winning the Olympic marathon in Atlanta, he did not find fame and fortune, but threats and uncertainty

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"We may go," Thugwane says, "but first we must get a security guard."

Take his trip with him, see the unique route he has followed. Take the security guard, too. Thugwane still fears that someone is out there, waiting with a gun.


The rolling plains of grass are brown now. This is early spring. The rainy season will come at the end of November, and the veld will turn green for the start of summer in December. Somewhere in the middle of all this grass, about 120 miles east of Johannesburg, is where Thugwane lived as a boy. If you squint you can see little clusters of shacks or huts, sometimes indicated by a curl of smoke stretching from an open fire to the blue sky. Thugwane lived in one of those shacks, growing up the Ndebele way, untouched by state-run schools or much of modern life. Subsistence.

"The Afrikaners still own the lands," the security man, Faro Makhubedu, says. "A black man can live on the land, but he must work for the Afrikaner for food to feed his family. The black man not only must work, but he must provide a son to work. If the black man becomes sick or if he dies, a son must replace him. Even if the man has worked 30 or 40 years, if there is no one to replace him, the family must leave the land. It is not good, that rule. How can people be made to leave like that? If their grandfathers already have been buried in the land? It is something we are trying to change now. It is not fair."

Makhubedu is a black man, a Christian. He wears sunglasses and a narrow-brimmed hat. His 38-caliber revolver is stuffed inconspicuously in his brown pants, underneath his white shirt. He and Thugwane both work for Koornfontein, the mining company located maybe 30 miles to the north.

The mines—coal here, then gold and then diamonds as you travel south and west from the province of Mpumalanga—have been for blacks the traditional alternative to laboring for Afrikaner farmers. The choice has been a grim toss-up, with low wages, dangerous working conditions and lowered life expectancy in the mines matched against the insecurities of life on the veld. There have been gradual improvements in mine work with the rise of labor unions and with concessions made by the companies since the end of apartheid, but the mines are still not a great place to punch a time clock. Thugwane was making approximately $330 a month before the Olympics.

The traditional black alternative to living on the veld has been living in townships, the legislated, segregated holding pens of apartheid. Another grim choice. Makhubedu stands in Thugwane's front yard as he looks at the plains in the distance. If he shifts his focus, looks directly across the dusty street, he can see five cows eating from a garbage dump. Thugwane's house is a four-room shack of corrugated tin at the edge of a grid of shacks. Thousands of shacks. There is no electricity, no running water in this part of Mzinoni Township, though Thugwane has added his own electricity with a small generator. The only permanent structures in sight are the concrete outhouses behind every shack. There are no street names, only numbers for each plot of land. Thugwane's is number 7037.

"You call this a stand, the plot of land," the security man says. "If you want to live here, you request a stand from the township. Your name goes on a list. You wait. And then you are called. The township carves out a boundary and builds an outhouse. The township will service the outhouse and clean the road—that is it. Everything else you must do yourself. Do they have places such as this in America?"

Thugwane says, "I built the house myself, with help from another guy, when I decided to get married. It took us four, maybe five days."

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