Communities not by choice

In the billowing clouds that are the creation of space and time, we began. The Genesis of cooperative human interaction lies in the clumps of matter we call communities.  In that void, made up of two thirds oxygcommunity1en, just under one fifth carbon and a tenth hydrogen, along with a sprinkling of nitrogen, we exist. I know I do exist, because I am aware that I do. And so I look around in this vast emptiness to find out just who my fellow travellers are. Are there any entities such as me? Are there any who would travel with me? Any who would love me?

There are human communities I am part of, not by choice but by birth right. I am part of the community of men because I was born so. About half of all the people that have ever existed are from this community, the other half are women. None of us had much choice in this matter, it was Fate. I am Caucasian, and not much different from my other brothers and sisters who are either Negroid or Mongoloid. That too was my Fate, not my choice. I happened to be born in the mid-1950’s on the southern tip of Africa. That was another hand dealt by Providence. An old English-speaking white guy from South Africa, pleased to meet you. Oh, did I mention my parents were English-speaking?

Even though I did not elect to be thus, it is still my responsibility to make the best of these unchosen circumstances. Therefore as a man, let me be manly and fulfil, as best as I can, the duties of a son, a brother, a husband and father, as Fate demands. As part of this vast community, let me be not proud of my manhood, rather humble. Let me extend my will, my goodwill to the other community, which is not that dissimilar from mine. We are made of the same stuff and we breathe the same air, we tread on the same earth. Let me extend my respect, my help and my love to woman. For in truth, in this vast universe we are equals. We blaze our path around the same sun together.

As an aging English-speaking white South African, may I be mindful of my country’s painful past. Let me be of help, not hindrance

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in building a broken nation. I acknowledge the white privileges I enjoy in as much as I acknowledge my Fate. It is my birth right therefore to be an instrument of healing and building. These are things thrust on me by Fate, I did not for ask them. Therefore let me glad of it because I have no other choice. Let me rejoice in this and let me make my contribution in my own way to the communities I did not choose.

And you, dear reader, what does Fate make of you? What communities chose you?

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Red Sock Friday

“If we make it out of this war alive.” Sidney Feinson’s eyes shone in the dark with intent “I swear I will wear red socks every Friday to remember what happened at Tobruk.” He spoke softly as two fellow POW’s listened. They nodded in agreement. “We definitely should try and escape,” said Dick. The tightly knit group met often and spoke in the Italian camp called Laterena.

Their chance came when, unexpectedly in the autumn of 1943, the Italian government capitulated and changed sides. Good news perhaps for the Allies, but bad news for Feinson and his mates. Sidney and his compatriots were to be moved by rail to a prisoner camp deep inside Germany. It was during this long train trip that Sydney, Dick Osborne*, Jock Lobbon, Butch Kilpatrick and a few others decided to put their haphazard plan into action. They made their move. Each dived into the dark, each committed themselves to their own fate and freedom as the POW train steamed toward the Reich.

How such stories make their way into the imaginations of mortals is unexplained. Like a dye slowly poured into a clear glass, the colour soon spreads and before long fills it. Just how that promise made by Sidney to wear red socks on Fridays spread is lost. But that does not matter.

Many years later a young South African, John McInroy came upon the story. “I had read about Sidney Feinson, a South African soldier and his pact with a few friends in an Italian prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, where they promised each other that should they make it back from the war alive, they would wear red socks to remember each other. So my friend Ian Symons and I started wearing red socks too, as a mark of our friendship. We decided to always do it on Fridays – because it seemed a good day to do it. Soon our colleagues and friends also picked up on the idea, and because times were economically tough the red socks seemed to brighten up people’s lives. It just spread from there.”

We leave the ghost of Sydney Feinstein for a moment and go in search of another legend. That of Phil Masterton-Smith, known as Unogwaja – Zulu for The Hare. The Comrades Marathon was a small affair back in 1930, with only 29 finishers. There were two remarkable things about that event. One – it heralded the remarkable if patchy career of the great Wally Heyward, who narrowly won the race. The other foreshadowed the beginnings of the legend of second placed Masterson-Smith.Unogwa 3

When the gun started the 1931 event, second placed Masterson-Smith from the previous year was every bit a contender but alas, the winner Hayward would only make his formidable presence felt many years later. That day, however, was thrilling by all accounts, for it belonged to the Unogwaja who beat his close rival Noel Burree by a mere two yards. At 19 he remains the youngest winner of the Comrades Marathon. His running future looked bright and the defense of his title seemed inevitable.

Life was hard for the young Capetonian and in 1933 Masterton-Smith couldn’t afford the train fare from Cape Town. The Old Durban Road and the Valley of a Thousand Hills beckoned the young competitor, but his obstacles were great. Undaunted he decided to cycle the 1500 kilometer distance from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg anyway. It is difficult to imagine how he peddled all the way across South Africa just to get to the start of the Comrades Marathon. The journey took him over ten days and on the 11th day he ran the race to finish 10th. This then is the story of the Unogwaja, a story where great difficulties are overcome, where you do whatever it takes. If your dream is clear enough, if the call strong enough – you follow – no matter what.

For the young idealist there is a tragic postscript to the story, for Phil Masterson-Smith was killed in action on 5th June 1942 by a mortar bomb while defending the Gazala line during the siege of Tobruk.

So the ghosts of Sidney Feinson and Phil Masterson Smith smiled benevolently when a small but hardy crew undertook the Unogwaja Challenge for the first time in 2011, and followed in the wake of a great fallen hero. The Unogwaja Challenge today has become annual event and aims at bettering the lives of many South Africans. Red socks on Friday shows support for the Challenge and celebrates the spirit of the Unogwaja.Unogwa 4

As for me, I am an older man now, and such challenges lie outside my physical reach but not my spiritual grasp nor outside my imagination. Each Friday I am sure to wear a pair of red socks. For on Friday morning as I dress, in my mind I hear the call of a growing number of runners as they call out with a boisterous “ShoOops!” as they merrily make their way down the road or trail. These are the proud members of the ‘I Wear Red Socks on Fridays’ social movement, which has developed into an unofficial global running club of sorts, all from a simple gesture of friendship by a POW so long ago. “ShoOops!”

*Dick Osborne was my uncle.

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