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First black athlete and national champion: Legacy of Titus Mambabolo

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Picture: Supplied: Titus Mamabolo with Hand Peter.

By Matshelane Mamabolo

For a man who was the first black athlete to become a national champion, a pathfinder for his oppressed nation, Titus Mamabolo’s attitude towards apartheid and its impact on black South Africans is surprising. Unlike most South Africans, Mamabolo harbours no anger or hatred towards the perpetrators who denied him a chance to be a world superstar.

“Sometimes, when I hear young politicians complain about apartheid, I laugh because they didn’t experience it. We did. It is us who should be complaining, not them. But I suppose they are crying for us, their parents and grandparents.”

For Mamabolo, he says, it was just how things were: “I grew up knowing that we don’t mix with white people, and that’s just how it was. We lived very far from the white people where I come from (a village called gaMolepo some 35 km away from the city of Polokwane in Limpopo) … My first time properly mixing with them was when I was already a star athlete who just wanted to run.”

Early on in his adult life, he worked for a white family whose treatment of him was typical of the time – shameful.

“Back then, we did everything as houseboys – from the garden to housework, and the madam of the house would always scream at me should she see me resting during any form of work. I remember she used to give me porridge that was literally still raw, and expected me to eat it. But I used to give it to the dog instead of eating it, and even the dog would not have it. I chose to rather sleep hungry than eat that nonsense.”

Like most kids of his day, he participated in races at school during the running season and did well. But he never thought of taking up the sport seriously.

The Beginning

Mamabolo has a vivid recollection of how he got to start running seriously, having made the trek up to Pretoria in his early 20s.

“One day in 1964, while in Tembisa, I saw a guy (called Msomi) running. I asked to run with him, and afterwards, he invited me to a time trial that was happening in Irene, Pretoria, with a group of white runners sometime later in the week. I ran that day, and I beat everyone … He then invited me to join him at the Northern Transvaal Championships in Mamelodi. I finished second in the mile behind champion Edward Setshedi, who told me I could be very good if I trained properly.”

No sooner had he heeded Setshedi’s advice than he was beating him in races and earning a reputation among black runners as a potential great of the mile and three miles.

Such was his talent that he would have shone brightly at the Olympic Games. And he would have had it not been for apartheid that ensured the country was shunned the world over.

“There had been some overseas trips … But then they said the Olympics were coming up in 1968, and we ran races to book places in the team. I trained very hard, and I beat Daniel in the three-mile, and they said I’d qualified for the 1968 Olympics. Unfortunately, when we were supposed to go, South Africa got banned from going.”

You would think Mamabolo would have been gutted by this sudden turn of events. But looking back, he says, “it was just one of those things”.

It was only later when he saw some clips of the Games and later when South Africa went to Barcelona 92, that he got a sense of what could have been.

“But I look back at it all now and feel that it just wasn’t meant for me.”

After the 1968 Olympic ban, South Africa made efforts to change and from 1969 “we started hearing rumours that we could compete with the whites”.

Racing With Racists

The first multiracial games were held in 1971, and Mamabolo won a bronze medal. The memory cracks him up.

“I could have won that race, but we saw the white people as being superior to us. So, when we ran and a white man bumped me, I would say ‘sorry baas (Afrikaans for boss as blacks were made to call whites)’. I even made way for one white guy to pass me because it felt wrong to be in the way of the baas. That’s why I finished third,” Mamabolo laughs.

That year, no doubt keen to show the IOC that they were doing away with segregation, South Africa sent a team on tour to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Malawi. But, apartheid remained.

“We went to Rhodesia and Malawi as one South Africa, but the travel arrangements told a different story. We (blacks) travelled by train and went via Botswana to Salisbury (now Harare), a trip that took us days. The whites, on the other hand, flew there directly by airplane, an hour or so’s trip. When we got there, they’d long rested, and it was not surprising that they beat us in the races. Of course, looking back – it was not right how things happened. We didn’t even complain. We were just there to run.”

In their maiden tour of Europe (Belgium, Greece, Italy and West Germany) in 1973, Mamabolo remembers how the team manager made an effort to rid the team of the apartheid mentality prevalent then.

“We had a farewell function at the airport, and when everyone had left, and it was just the team, the manager said to us: ‘from today, there is no baas, and there is no k*ff*r (derogatory term for blacks). No one calls anyone a boy. We call each other by our names. It was his way to make us feel like a team.”

And Mamabolo found himself developing good relations with his white teammates, and the ugly spectre of apartheid was somewhat removed.

“John Van Rheenen, who specialised in discus and hammer-throwing, asked to share a room with me, and he was a bit different from the other whites because he had grown up on the farms and could speak Setswana. We called him Big John … We developed a lasting friendship.”

Then in April of 1974 he became the first black man to win a national championship when he beat reigning champ and record holder Ewald Bonzet in the 5,000m in Cape Town – the feat he continues to be revered for because it was through his victory that black South Africa suddenly began to believe they could be better than their white counterparts.

Beating Bonzet

The race against Bonzet is what defines Mamabolo, and many remember him more for that than his other major achievements. On that day, many young South African men – black and white – wanted to become Titus Mamabolo. The likes of Sydney Mare, the late Matthews Motshwarateu, Matthews Temane, Thulani Sibisi, and John Hamlett – all greats of SA running – have spoken of how they were inspired to take up the sport because of that run.

And what a run it was, fraught as it was with its racial undertones and controversy that ended up with Bonzet being disqualified.

Mamabolo takes up the story: “There’d been multiracial races in Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, but at all those, Bonzet always avoided running against me. I won the 5,000m races in both cities, and during the Cape Town leg of the event, they forced Bonzet to run. He was the national champion and record holder in the distance.”

In earlier races, Mamabolo and his fellow black men noticed a worrying pattern developing in the heats.

“The white runners were blocking the blacks to stop them from winning. And we noticed that the officials were doing nothing about it. So, a lot of those races were such that the finals were going to be contested by white people mainly. Along with the other runners, I threatened not to compete if these white fellows continued to block our brothers.”

It was only officially announced on the day of the race that Bonzet would be running the 5,000m against Mamabolo. It became a black and white race.

Richard Mayer captures that historic day and the controversial race perfectly in his quintessential book about the golden age of South African distance running – “Three Men Named Matthews”.

“With 300 metres remaining, Mamabolo moved into the second lane to retake the lead for the umpteenth time. Bonzet now responded by moving into the second lane, blocking Mamabolo’s path.When Mamabolo moved further out to pass him, Bonzet, in turn, moved into the third lane to block him. Exasperated by Bonzet’s last-ditch effort to thwart him, Mamabolo gave him a shove and cut inside Bonzet and sprinted away onto the final bend and into the finishing straight to win the race,” Mayer writes.

Mamabolo laughs as I read this out to him. “It wasn’t a shove. I punched him in the back,” he cracks up.

Bonzet was rightly disqualified and Mamabolo says his adversary’s coach came to him and apologised on behalf of his athlete.

Bonzet never apologised.

While he was retrospectively given national colours much later (in 1977 when the South African Amateur Athletics Union’s constitution was de-racialised), Titus Mamabolo was the de facto maiden black Springbok due to that victory – the first non-white to become a national champion.

Mamabolo could probably have broken the 13:31.04 record. Still, his 14:09:12 winning time was indication good enough that, given an equal chance, black South Africans could be just as good as their white counterparts.

After the great success over Bonzet in 1974, Mamabolo was top of the South African rankings list in 1975 for his fantastic 13.32.2 in the 5,000m.

Later that year, Mamabolo and Bonzet travelled overseas to represent South Africa.

Bonzet was South Africa’s 3,000m champion, and in the final leg of the South Africans’ tour of Europe in Stuttgart, Germany, there was a 3,000m race. Mamabolo’s specialist 5,000m was not part of the programme.

“But I felt very fit and decided to run the 3,000m.”

Incredibly, Mamabolo showed him a clean pair of heels to run a neck-and-neck race with Mighty Lagori of the United States that saw the two finishing in a dead-heat. Bonzet came in at a distant fifth.


Mamabolo starred on the South African track and cross-country circles for two more years until 1976, when he decided to retire.

“I quit not knowing that there would be changes that would see runners earning money from running in the early 80s. But I had no regrets because I was tired.”

Here’s how Mayer remembers it in his book: “Such was Mamabolo’s popularity that when he announced his retirement from competitive running in early 1977, 20,000 people turned out for his farewell race in Welkom.”

Such had been his impact, though, that he received a special award on the same night that motor racing superstar Nikki Lauda was awarded the Victoria Sporting Club International Award of Valour in London in 1978.

Mamabolo’s award was for having had “the courage of a pathfinder” in becoming the first black to win a national title and in overcoming ‘hostility from racial extremists’.

Nearly a decade later, he returned to running, but this time on the road as a veteran and later a master – he dominated just as he’d done on the track and in cross country.

Titus Mamabolo crosses the finish line in the Om Die Dam Race in 1996.Picture: Supplied

World Record Marathon

His biggest achievement was to set a world-best time in the Marathon for masters (runners aged 50 to 59) when he ran a time of 2:19:29 back on July 19, 1991. Three decades later, that record still stands.

It is a record he believes will outlive even him: “No one’s ever going to break that record,” he laughs. “I’m sure it will still be standing when I die.”

It probably will.

Mamabolo was confident that he would run faster than the then nine-year-old mark set by New Zealand’s Jack Foster, and he did.

In 1991, the late Nelson Mandela had already been released, and talks toward democracy were taking place between the oppressive apartheid regime of the National Party and the African National Congress. There was already some unity in sport, and South Africa was getting ready for its return to the Olympics to be hosted in Barcelona the following year.

He watched as his fellow countrymen competed on sport’s greatest stage without a hint of regret that he missed out. Rather he was filled with pride that he had done his bit.

A decade after setting that great marathon time, Titus Mamabolo retired from the sport for good – leaving behind an inspirational legacy that is unlikely to ever be matched.

A pathfinder, a trailblazer, and a pioneer par excellence. Titus Mamabolo.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.