There is a unique vibe running in South Africa’s townships, it’s a special experience you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Nowhere is this truer than in the Eastern Cape where the original township running club, The Real Gijimas, make their distinctive maroon mark seen – and their characteristic choruses heard – all across the province.
The Real Gijimas Athletic Club was founded in Mdantsane, just outside East London, in 1982 during the height of South Africa’s political turmoil. “Gijimas” means “Run” in isiZulu and the “Real” was added to distinguish themselves from other Gijimas* running clubs, as well as to include some English into the title since they felt this would help them integrate into what was then a predominately white sport.
* An example is the Eskom Gijimas who burn fake coal while struggling to provide real electricity.
Nearly four decades later they are the one of the ‘big three’ running clubs in the Border region, host four fantastic races and dominate post-race festivities with their cheerful singing and dancing.
Finding their voice
The Real Gijimas started with just 20 members and immediately became known as fierce competitors in the province, taking line honours and podium positions at many races. They quickly expanded into developing the rich supply of schoolboy talent from the township. However, they lost many of their top runners to more affluent clubs (who were able to pay incentives and retainers beyond the budget of Real Gijimas).
Gijimas viewed this philosophically, having their top runners snapped up by suburban clubs was a subtle way of of breaking down racial barriers and helped to integrate the sport of road running. Interestingly, Oxford Striders was one of the major beneficiaries of Gijimas township talent and had themselves formed as a breakaway from Old Selbornians out of frustration with the racial policies at the club.
South Africa achieved democracy in the mid-1990s and with it came a resurgence in the stature of The Real Gijimas, who once again dominated local podiums and were the top performing Border club at Two Oceans and Comrades.
But it was in 2010 that the club truly found its voice. The whole country was whipped-up into a frenzied feeling of euphoria as the Soccer World Cup approached. The Real Gijimas wanted to make their excitement for Africa’s first hosting of the event seen and heard. To this end they donned special headgear, accessorised their normal running gear with football-related paraphernalia and filled the streets with exuberant singing, dancing and chanting. There were few things louder than a vuvuzela in 2010 but the large herds of maroon Gijimas roaming the streets of Buffalo City was one of them.
Improving Race Relations
In 2006, the Real Gijimas organised their first race, the Mdantsane Kasi 10km, and it quickly became a popular fixture on the calendar. In 2016 they decided to launch a second race, the Bridle Drift Half Marathon. Well known journalist and running aficionado, Bob Norris, describes this route very simply as, “From the depths of hell to heaven and back.” Gauteng runners benchmark the Pirates Half Marathon in Northcliff as the standard by which tough 21s are judged – those who’ve run both races will tell you that you don’t need a magic mirror to reveal that Pirates is no longer the toughest of them all.
A December 15km was added as the third prong to their suite of races but their ultimate goal was to host an ultra-marathon. Realising that there was a gap in the local running program, The Real Gijimas wanted a tough, challenging route that would prepare runners for the Two Oceans and Comrades Marathons. The dream was realised in 2018 when they eventually got the go ahead from the provincial body to host a 50-kilometre event.
This was a club that was born in the struggle – and they ensure that their route profiles are true to their heritage. I recently ran the Real Gijimas Ultra and can confirm that it is the toughest 50-kilometre race on the South Africa calendar (and the last 11 kilometres are probably the toughest finish of any road race in the country). When I asked race director and long-standing club chairman, Alex Kambule, about the torturous final kilometres he replied with a malevolent, “Ha ha ha, unfortunately it’s the way the route script ends – All four of our races have equally tough finishes.”
The Real Gijimas Ultra is a brilliant run, offering a unique glimpse into rural Eastern Cape township and village life. It also has great community involvement and tremendous growth potential – the 2019 field size increased by about 50% to 400 runners. However, practically the whole field was from the Border region (I don’t recall seeing another upcountry runner during the event). Once the rest of South Africa gets wind of the race it could become a major drawcard.
Where are the sponsors?
Despite all these achievements and the massive impact that The Real Gijimas have had on road running in the Border-Kei region, there is one thing they’ve never managed to do: Attract a title sponsor.
Not one of their four races has a major sponsor. That a township running club with a successful track record of ‘doing it for themselves’ cannot attract a major sponsor is a sad indictment on where our corporates spend their marketing money and the perceived status of road running (even more surprising when one consider that running is the most inclusive, easily accessible and demographic-busting sport in the country).
Aside: How Much Does It Cost to Host a Great Ultra Marathon?
Title sponsorship of one of a ‘major’ road races (like Two Oceans or Comrades) is likely to be in the region of R10-20 million. For a large race in Gauteng (like the Jeppe Marathon) you are probably looking somewhere between R1-2 million.
As a point of comparison, I asked Alex how much it cost to put on the Real Gijimas Ultra this year.
Traffic control – R10,000
Medals – R25,000
Ambulance – R2,000
Race timing system & results R28,000
Water & refreshments – R6,000
Prize Money – R50,000
Total Major Expenses – R121,000
Rough Entry Fee Income (400 runners at R150) – R60,000
Total Shortfall – R61,000
The race does receive some sponsorship from local businesses, much of which is “in kind” (like transport and security services).
The internationally recognised Soweto Marathon is one of the highlights on the running calendar. If they sell all 40,000 entries for this year’s event, Soweto will be the biggest running event in Africa. After Soweto, Mdantsane is South Africa’s second largest township.
Potential sponsors, imagine being able to get involved with a race that has the potential to grow to the same scale as Soweto? What a fantastic opportunity to come in at grassroots level just after the seeds have been planted!
Undeterred, the Real Gijimas just keep ploughing ahead, putting one proverbial foot in front of the other and focussing on factors they can control. Whereas most clubs look to host races to boost their bank balance, the Real Gijimas normally dig deep into their own pockets for their races.
They focus on arranging well organised events, keeping costs as low as possible and putting as much money into the pockets of athletes as possible. Gijimas races are known for offering the best prize money available for club organised races in the region. Alex Kambule explains, “We’re not interested in profit. Our attitude and focus is to give back to deserving athletes instead of making any profits from our events.”
This philanthropic approach is rather unique in road running circles as Bob Norris elaborates, “One of the outstanding attributes of Gijimas is that they don’t organise races to ‘feed themselves’. They tend to have amongst the best prize money of club races, thus rewarding the athletes. This is directly opposite to the trend of the ‘established’ city clubs who tend to pay a pittance in prize money and instead sit on huge bank balances.”
The Real Gijimas have spent almost four decades steadily adding their maroon threads to the rich tapestry of South African road running. Ironically, ‘getting marooned’, is the last thing that will happen to a Real Gijima. When you join The Real Gijimas you’ll never run alone – faster and more experienced runners help the juniors and novices through major milestone races and the faster runners will often run back along the course to join up with their clubmates and then finish in one massive maroon tide.
But what does it mean to be a Real Gijima? Shavalah Zimbini Maz’khali enthuses, “Being a Real Gijima means being a warrior as you get trained to tackle different terrains whether you’re a competitive or a social runner; which I find relevant to our everyday life experiences and challenges. The training sessions and teachings we get from our Coach Alex Kambule prepare us to be ready to run any terrain/route – and face all life’s challenges. It means family and love; we cheer, laugh, cry, sing and dance as one; even though we come from different backgrounds we have one vision, one mission, we run and stay as one to achieve our goal…That is family love!”
Keeping it real
When the founding 20 members decided to add the “Real” to their club name back in 1982, they had no idea how prophetic this title would become. You won’t find a more authentic running club or genuine bunch of people in the country. If you want to ‘keep it real’ yourself, look out for the bright maroon Real Gijimas strip and run a mile with some of their members or, better yet, take part in one of their races and experience the unique Mdantsane vibe.
NOTE: If you would like to contact Real Gijimas about sponsorship opportunities, club chairman Alex Kambule can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and the club’s activities can be followed on Facebook here.Follow Running Mann: