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  • Writer's pictureMosibodi Whitehead

'I wanted to do it for Hoseah Tjale' - The Sam Tshabalala story

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

For the change that swept across the globe, 1989 is a year that will be remembered long into the future. In Europe, Communism came to end in the Eastern Bloc culminating in the opening of the Berlin Wall in November. Closer to home, FW de Klerk was elected the last president of an Apartheid South Africa as march towards democracy started to quicken. But even faster was Frith van der Merwe's performance at the Comrades Marathon where she ran an astonishing 5:54:43 to finish 15th overall and set a new Down Run record which still stands today. And as if that wasn't special enough - Sam Tshabalala became the race's first black winner.

Tshabalala celebrates after being the first person to complete the 90km race from Pitermaritzburg to Durban on 31 May 1989. Photo Credit: Comrades Marathon Association Media.

"My coach told me that if I could win the race then I would get a car like Bruce Fordyce. But I told him that I didn't want a car - I wanted a house," he revealed to #TheTopRunner. Born in 1957 in the northern Free State, Tshabalala grew up as a shepherd herding cattle and sheep in the lands around the town of Frankfort. He always had a keen interest in sport, athletics in particular, and recalled watching The Comrades Marathon on TV from when it was first televised by the SABC in the late 1970's.

"I started running long distances race in Frankfort. The first race I ever won was the Wilge Half Marathon. What used to motivate me during those days was the fact that I didn't like to get beaten by a white person. I used to feel for Hoseah Tjale because he would always finish second behind Bruce Fordyce. That's why I entered Comrades - to do it for Hoseah Tjale," he explained.

Tshabalala running the 1990 Pieter Korkie 50km Ultramarathon which was hosted by Germiston Callies. Photo Credit: Supplied.

At the first time of asking, Tshabalala produced an impressive 6:10:40 in his very first Comrades in 1987. He continued to improve with a 5:54:34 the following year. Now coached by Manie Saayman who he met when he moved to the Vaal south of Johannesburg, Tshabalala took it up a notch by training 2400km between January and June of 1989. "What gave me confidence ahead of Comrades was the Pieter Korkie Ultramarathon. I won that 50km race from Pretoria to Germiston and beat Fordyce. So I said to myself that I will beat him here and again in Durban."

Tshabalala's words were spoken during an era that saw Comrades King Fordyce amass nine titles leading some to question whether black South Africans, for all the success they enjoyed over the standard marathon and shorter distances were capable of dominating let alone winning the The Ultimate Human Race. In the absence of Fordyce who withdrew from Comrades after winning an invitational 100km race held in Stellenbosch a few months earlier (March 1989), Tshabalala raced to a 5:35:31 victory with Willie Mtolo taking second place. His achievement not only got him his house, but wrote him into the history books and inspired a generation of future Comrades Marathon champions including 2015 Gift Kelehe.

CMA Chairperson Mqondisi Ngcobo is flanked by multiple Comrades Marathon gold medalist Willie Mtolo and 1992 Berlin Marathon Champion Xolile Yawa. Photo Credit: Gift Kelehe.

Kelehe along with Mtolo and Comrades Marathon Association Chairperson Mqondisi Ngcobo were all in attendance when Tshabalala was laid to rest in the township of Zamdela outside Sasolburg last weekend. Although Tshabalala was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Discovery Sports Industry Awards, Kelehe feels that more should be done to celebrate the life of a man who showed so many that it is possible. "The message was delivered straight to CMA and the local and Provincial and National government that they need to do something they should have done long time ago to give this man the recognition he deserves," he said.

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