'Not a good place for an athlete to live'
One of the Cape Peninsula’s most talented runners lives in a wooden shack in Masiphumelele with his mother and four siblings.
His name is Inga Ngwenduana; he is 18 years old. He is short and slight but muscular, with sinewy knots in his biceps and legs. He has small scars on his face and an embossed ridge from an old soccer injury stretching down his left arm. He no longer plays soccer and has recently devoted himself to distance running, which he sees as an escape from poverty. Since his first competitive race last October he has achieved podium positions in seven out of eight events.
His bedroom has a thick black plastic sheet nailed over the planks for rainproofing. It billows inwards from the wall when the wind picks up. On the floor are large buckets filled with water from a nearby communal tap. Three mattresses are piled on Inga’s bed; at night, his brothers, aged 10 and 11, take them down to sleep on the floor. Inga’s mother, a domestic worker, shares the second room with her young infant. Inga’s 19-year-old sister sleeps on a couch in the kitchen. At her feet the front door latches shut with a bent nail. Against the opposite wall are shelves with a television set, cooking pots, several porcelain ornaments, and Inga’s collection of medals. “This isn’t a good place for an athlete to live,” Inga said.
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He competes as a junior for Satori Athletics Club, a small running club in Noordhoek. The club sponsors his membership, event registration fees, and kit, in addition to arranging transport to races. “We’re giving him the means and tools,” said club chairman Stephen Sharwood, a banker at FNB. “We’ve created an environment for underprivileged guys to participate.”
Including Inga, Satori currently has nine sponsored runners. Eight come from Masiphumelele; until recently the ninth lived in Ocean View. Last year, the club spent roughly R26,000 assisting them, Sharwood said. “We’re doing more than many of the bigger clubs. We’re providing opportunities these runners wouldn’t have had. But we’re not here to coach them — they must do their own thing.”
Informally, Inga has been trained and mentored by an older sponsored runner, Gimo Matusso. Matusso, 38, moved to South Africa from Mozambique 18 years ago and has been running competitively since 2007. He was identified as a promising marathon runner by Western Province Athletics two years ago and has completed two Comrades ultra marathons. “Many youngsters ask me to teach them about running, but then they disappear,” Matusso told me. “The first time I saw Inga, I knew: this is the one.”
Ngwenduana in his neighbourhood in Masiphumelele. Photo: Kimon de Greef
Matusso shares this excitement with many others at Satori, where Inga has quickly become a star performer. “We might have a new champion runner on our hands,” Sharwood posted on the club’s Facebook page after Inga’s first podium finish last October. After Inga took silver in his second most recent race, a 15km event in Constantia this March, Sharwood wrote: “Booooom … here he is again flying our colors high. Mr Inga is doing us proud.”
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This month, Inga is running the Two Oceans half marathon, aiming for another medal. His quickest 21 km time to date, 1:22:29, falls within the top six junior positions of every Two Oceans race since 2012. Although comparing speeds over different courses and under different weather conditions is an imprecise measure of ability, these records suggest that Inga has a reasonable chance of success.
But according to Kathleen Shuttleworth, a Cape Town coach who specialises in training young endurance athletes, Inga’s early wins reflect perverse incentives in South African distance running and may end up compromising his career. “Most really talented juniors don’t race anything longer than 10 km,” she said. “[Entering half marathons] is the worst thing you can do with a junior runner. That’s where a lot of the talent goes missing.”
In the last six months Inga has won around R2,500 in prize money. “It’s good money for a kid from Masiphumelele,” Sharwood said. He told me that Inga had given this cash straight to his mother, who earns less than R5,000 a month cleaning homes in Noordhoek and Kommetjie, but Inga later said that he’d spent it on clothes. (When I visited Inga at home recently he was wearing a black t-shirt with the message: ‘Live the day, own the night.’)
Shuttleworth, the running coach, told me that it was relatively easy for juniors to win prize money in longer races. “A lot of disadvantaged runners want to put some bread on the table. They’re excited to win a few hundred rand, but they’re breaking their bodies down too soon.”
Instead of competing in road races, athletes Inga’s age should focus on speed training, she said. “Only around age 23 should they begin running half marathons. It takes years for runners to develop properly. The guys that want to get somewhere really need their coaches — or clubs — to hold them back. But clubs often contribute to the problem. They get publicity when their runners perform well, which makes the sponsors happy. At the end of the day it’s not always about the athletes. They’re getting them to the races, not necessarily helping them build careers.”
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When I asked Sharwood about this he said, “I’m not a coach; what I know is probably a dangerous thing. But if Inga is comfortable running 21 km that’s great. I wouldn’t want him to run any further, but I don’t think we’re going to burn him out running four or five half marathons a year.”
Inga happened to be busy with speed exercises around the time I spoke to Shuttleworth. On weekday afternoons through March and April, Matusso, his mentor, led him through a rigorous training program at the Noordhoek sports fields, 5km walk from Masiphumelele High School, where Inga is in Grade 11. “He needs to work on his strength and speed,” Matusso said. On 28 March, Inga ran two 3km intervals followed by ten 400m laps. The next evening, a Wednesday, Satori held its weekly 5km time trial. Showing no signs of fatigue, Inga finished second in 17:52.
According to Shuttleworth, truly fast junior males can run 21 km in 1h12 — ten minutes faster than Inga is currently capable of. (The junior category includes runners aged 16 to 19.) But Shuttleworth said that Inga’s 5 km times were “quite quick.” This year he has run faster than 17:30 on at least one occasion. “That shows potential,” Shuttleworth told me. “A good time for his age is 17:00. But with the right training these guys can drop a minute within a year.”
Time trials at Satori have an easy, sociable air. The clubhouse lies at the edge of Noordhoek’s wetlands, beneath the wide southern arc of Chapman’s Peak. On 29 March, most of the cars in the parking lot were expensive: BMWs, Volvos, Citroens. Members in bright kit stood in front of the building, joking with one another and stretching their legs. Smoke from a braai fire spilled across the patio. I found Inga, Matusso and two other black sponsored runners sitting apart from the group inside the changing rooms. The lights were out and the air smelled stale.
Around the men, Inga’s voice was deeper than when I’d spoken to him alone. He rolled on his back and tugged at his hamstrings before the runners walked outside for their 6pm start. Around 20 members lined up and waited for Sharwood to send them off. (Despite being chairman, Sharwood is not himself a runner. “I just love the club environment,” he told me.) Matusso was recovering from a knee injury and didn’t participate. “My body is telling me to rest,” he said once the runners had left.
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Matusso grew up in Beira, in central Mozambique. As a child he ran, swam, cycled, and played soccer, but the civil war interrupted his sporting development. “After school we had to go straight home,” he said. “There was no time for training.” It was only after moving to South Africa in 1999 that he began thinking of running again, but his first job, packing meat in a Johannesburg factory from 5am till late, left him too exhausted for further exercise. He resettled in Cape Town in 2006 and resumed training. Today, he works as a gardener seven days a week, earning R150 to R200 per day; he runs at dawn or in the evenings unless the labour has been too taxing. “It makes me feel good,” he said. “Your body is under control — the way you walk, the way you act and think. When you run it sharpens your mind.”
Sharing this experience with Inga has given Matusso great satisfaction, affirming his desire to be a coach. “I’ve learned about running from many different people, and I feel I must share knowledge with whoever wants to receive it,” he told me. “Inga is the first person to follow my advice. He’s disciplined and dedicated. I have to open my hands and give him everything that I have.”
But training a township teenager is difficult. Many of Inga’s peers have begun drinking or using drugs. Youth gangs fight violent battles in the streets; last year, one of Inga’s childhood friends died after being stabbed outside the school gates. At home, loud music from shebeens interrupts his sleep. His mother cannot afford nutritious food for sustaining high performance. “The situation is not good for a runner,” Matusso said.
After the time trial, I gave Inga a lift back to Masiphumelele with two older runners, Malusi Judase and Madoda Feni. Minibus taxis idled at the entrance to the settlement after ejecting their commuters. Gospel churches and dancehalls fought for volume on the crowded streets. Judase, one of Satori’s fastest runners, watched the spazas and curbside shacks roll past his window. “When you wake early to train before work there are skollies who try and rob you,” he said. “When there are service delivery protests you can’t go running. If you don’t join the protests you must stay at home.”
In March, Masiphumelele residents attempted to disrupt the Cape Town Cycle Tour, blocking the route with rubble. Living in the community can be a source of tension for athletes hoping to compete in similar events. “I understand why people get angry with the government, but I don’t always want to be involved,” Judase continued. “To focus on running, you need to get out.”
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I dropped the men and parked near Inga’s house. A dirt track led to a concrete bridge over a trash-strewn canal, which doubles as an open sewer. A young woman in pyjamas stood filling a bucket from a plastic tap. The homes, built from planks and tin, pressed tightly together, traversed by a narrow, zigzagging alleyway. Open doorways gave sudden, intimate glimpses of lit interiors: television sets, vases on tables. We brushed past people moving in the opposite direction and ducked beneath several clotheslines, then stepped onto an uneven boardwalk assembled from salvaged wooden beams.
“This is the wetland,” said Inga. The northern fringe of Masiphumelele extends into Noordhoek’s largest water body and is elevated, in places, on stilts. The City of Cape Town regularly demolishes shacks in the wetland but hundreds remain. We reached Inga’s house, a low, pink structure, but he wanted to take me further. The homes at the end of the walkway were flanked by tall reeds. Inga stood on his toes and pointed to the tip of a large brick house, a unit in the Lake Michelle luxuary eco-estate. “See, we’re in Noordhoek,” he said, laughing as if pleased to surprise me.
On Sunday 9 April, a week before the Two Oceans, Inga ran a 10km race in Newlands. Bridget Farham, a Satori member from Noordhoek, collected him and three other runners from Masiphumelele at 5:20am. Inga placed fourth in 37 minutes, his fastest 10 km time yet. Farham was merely providing a lift and didn’t compete in the race. This Saturday, she will repeat the process, fetching the runners an hour earlier to reach Newlands in time for their 6am start. “Satori strives to put back into the community. Helping these guys excel is part of that effort,” she told me. “This is their time to shine in an environment where they have so little.”
At home, Inga sat on the couch, glancing occasionally at the television. Footage from Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral was airing on the evening news. A damp chill had settled over the wetland; cold air pressed in through the doorway when Inga’s younger brothers returned from playing in the dark. Inga’s mother latched the door shut again. “I’m proud of my son,” she said. “I wish that he can keep running well. Bad things happen in Masiphumelele. Running can keep him away from that.”
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In a city with hundreds of shops selling running gear to leisure athletes, Inga, equipped with second-hand shoes from Satori, intends to keep winning races — particularly half-marathons. “I want to become a top runner,” he said. When he turns 19 this September he will join the open category and begin competing against older men. “A handful of South Africans earn decent money from running,” Shuttleworth, the endurance coach, told me. “But with the right training and support it’s possible to have a normal job and keep performing well.”
It was difficult to see the path on the way back to the car. Walking in front of me, Inga stumbled several times. We crossed the bridge again and Inga rode with me to the entrance, showing me the way out. The streets were jammed with people and vehicles. Dogs nosed through heaps of uncollected rubbish. “When I run I can ignore things that I don’t like,” Inga said as we drove back towards his home. He sat in silence, then added: “When I’m a successful runner I’ll only return here to visit my family.”
Originally published in GroundUp.