'Running is a good vehicle for Unity' - The Blanche Moila story
While most of the focus will be at the sharp end of the field, expect a roaring round of virtual applause when three icons of South African distance running cross the finish line at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon on Sunday. Elana Meyer, Zola Budd and Blanche Moila are expected to complete the 42,2km course in around four hours as they take a leisurely run around The Mother City. Although much slower than an Olympic medalist (Meyer) and former world record holder (Budd) would have run in their heyday a generation ago, this weekend's run will be no less memorable for the trio who will have the opportunity to reflect on just how far we have come. Especially when one considers that as the first black woman to receive Springbok colours, Moila's journey has not been without its hurdles. This is her story.
Had Blanche Moila decided to skip the annual hospital sports day in the spring of 1980, then her considerable running talent may have gone undiscovered. In the final year of her training towards becoming a psychiatric nurse, the 24-year old was invited to take part in a fun day at the Fort Napier Psychiatric Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. Looking on as a young Blanche floated through the egg and spoon race and made short work of the sack race, was Dr. Mahomed Moolla. As a keen runner and Comrades Marathon finisher himself, what impressed Moolla most was Moila’s effortless running style as she breasted the tape in the 400m dash. Dr Shorty as he was known to everyone in Durban, had found his gem and he was amazed to learn that she had never run competitively before.
“I didn’t run much in school,” she explains forty years later. “I ran when I went to the shop or because I was late.” Of mixed ancestry with Somalian blood coursing through her veins, Moila grew up in the old Northern Transvaal in what is today Polokwane. That she calls the Legodi’s and Ledwaba’s kin will come as little surprise to scholars of South African long distance running for those are the surnames of the BaPedi. Also known as the Northern Sotho, this is a tribe that has produced some of the nation’s foremost middle and long distance champions including athletics’ first black Springbok Titus Mamabolo, 2004 New York Marathon winner Hendrick Ramaala and more recently double Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya.
Blanche clearly chose her parents well but her talent lay fallow until she moved to KwaZulu Natal to pursue a career in nursing. That her abilities were discovered there almost 900km from her birthplace is completely normal for this trailblazing woman. She hadn’t lived at home since she was six years old. First she was sent to boarding school at the St John’s Mission in Barberton, then later enrolled at Goedehoop College in Cape Town before completing her basic training at Groote Schuur Hospital in The Mother City.
Her decision to go into the medical field was no doubt inspired by her mother who was the first black female to own a nursing home in what is now South Africa’s Limpopo province. Georgie’s Nursing and Maternity Home which was just a jaunt away from the Moila household in the village of Sengatane on the outskirts of Pietersburg, was the only registered healthcare facility for miles. Georgina Nelly (Legodi) Moila’s pioneering spirit left an indelible mark on her daughter who counts one of the home’s old towels as a dear possession which she has cherished for over half her life.
Blanche would show her own fearless spirit when she started competing in races just a few months after Dr. Shorty convinced her to join the famed Savages Athletic Club to give this running thing a go. “He introduced me to Savages because he belonged to Savages. He took me out on 7km runs and 5km runs and that was painful. He encouraged me even when I complained about this muscle and that muscle,” Moila recalls fondly of her mentor who was an all-round sports fanatic and one of a handful of the early South African specialist sports physicians. Dr. Moolla even served as the chief medical doctor at the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations for all the Durban matches.
Under his guidance and armed with that quintessentially quiet courage of hers, Blanche soon began to trouble the top runners. “My progress was unusually quick. My very first year I finished third in a 21km in Durban in 1981. I was running against my club mate Colleen de Reuck and Sue van Onselen who finished ahead of me. And then not too long after that, I was third again in a 10km race in a time of 39 minutes,” she says. The 25-year old had been running for barely six months.
Until she broke forty minutes over 10km, her performances came second to the enjoyment of being part of this amazing new adventure called running. “I was just running because I was enjoying the running scene. I had no clue of times. My first few races was just about can you finish the race and Dr. Shorty always said I should just run as hard as I could,” she remembers. But after finishing on the podium with a sub 40 clocking, Moila realised she had some talent and started to invest more in her training.
She immediately found that cross country was her best discipline and threw herself into it. The undulating courses over varying terrain built her muscles and it was not long before the girl in the distinctive white turban began to turn heads. Although she hardly experienced racism when competing in her adopted hometown, Blanche does admit that things were sometimes different upcountry. In the then Oranje Vry Staat and Transvaal some whites weren’t happy to see a black girl running and she would get heckled on occasion. But this didn’t bother her and soon enough she caught the eye of the national selectors.
In 1984 Moila was chosen to represent Natal at the SA National Cross Country Championships where she finished second behind the Cape’s Tanya Peckham. “Some months later we were invited and we were presented with the blazers and our tracksuits,” she shares. The girl from Sengatane village had just become the first black woman to receive Springbok colours for athletics. “And then we ran against a second team in SA made up of juniors and a third sponsored team,” she explains. The national team had to run against a junior team because South Africa was barred from international competition as a result of the Apartheid government’s policy of racial segregation.
This was especially difficult for South African women to accept because 1984 was also an Olympic year to remember for women’s athletics in particular. Zola Budd who had raced against Blanche on the tracks, roads and cross country courses from Boland to Bloemfontein escaped the sports boycott by way of British ancestry only to infamously clash with Mary Decker over 800m at the Los Angeles Games, while Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first ever women’s Olympic Marathon on home soil sparking a worldwide boom in women’s running.
Sadly neither Blanche nor any South African women was in Los Angeles to experience the feat. Although she did get the chance to run internationally when she represented the new South Africa at the 1993 World Marathon Championships in Spain, her best years were behind her. At almost 40 years old, the best that Moila could manage was a 2:47 finish which was good enough for 42nd place out of 51 athletes.
But Blanche has no regrets. “I think things happen for a reason. I would have loved to be in the Olympics, anybody would. But I got into sport because I enjoyed the liberation of running. That has always been my focus. In hindsight I’m really content in my journey. ” In fact if anything she still treasures that Springbok blazer for the doors it opened. “I used the colours to go to schools to motivate the youth to take their education seriously and embrace healthier lifestyles,” she explains.
This is a message that the 65-year old still carries today, most notable through her continued involvement with the SPAR Women's 10km Grand Prix series. “We know the plight of women and children. There are also so many teenage pregnancies. If these young girls were more involved in sport, they would not be so vulnerable to social ills. I want to use this vehicle to change people’s lives,” she says emphatically. And that tireless work has not gone unnoticed. In 2001, she was the recipient of Nelson Mandela’s State President’s Award for lifetime achievements, and then took home the Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year Award for Sport a year later. These are but two in a long list of honours that include several accolades she won during her decades of services as a registered psychiatric nurse.
Although Blanche has now retired from the profession she loves, she has no plans to stop running. These days the Grand Master is a regular sight at the Comrades Marathon, a race which she uses to raise funds for children’s charities such as The Starfish Greathearts Foundation. Since first completing the world’s most loved ultra marathon in the year 2000, the Durbanite has earned a whopping seventeen medals. She says she keeps coming back to run the gruelling 90km course for the same reason she started running in the first place. She loves the camaraderie. “What also keeps me going, when I walk the streets and run is that I get so much encouragement from ordinary people. There are people out there that enjoy what I am doing and enjoy what I am enjoying, especially at Comrades. The camaraderie is second to none. Running is a good vehicle for unity, it’s brought so many people together,” she smiles.
A decade before millions stood in peaceful queues in order for Madiba to walk into The Union Buildings, running had been bringing people together. Blanche pioneered that early road, but she did not run it alone. “Dr Shorty Moolla would say I was at the right place at the right time to see her,” she reflects. And to think, it almost didn’t happen. “I still have goosebumps when I think about it, I could have been lost if I hadn’t been discovered.”