Mhlengi Gwala before his brutal attack. Photo: Pierre Tostee/MRP Foundation
The trees, the sun, the warmth, the openness and the sumptuous splendour.

It’s why so many of us run or cycle or walk; our environment demands that we do so.

On a recent visit to Durban, I was struck by how many people were jogging along the magnificent Umhlanga promenade at 5.30am, clearly a popular ritual for many locals.

It’s a scene that plays out daily throughout South Africa where trails and tracks are more popular than ever, especially with local towns and cities increasingly doing their civic duty by creating these spots. We love the outdoors and now that we have a president who is evidently health conscious and promotes the virtues of being fit, many are drawn to the possibilities and benefits of being more active.

And yet ...

Recent events have sullied this enjoyment, most obviously the horror attack on triathlete Mhlengi Gwala, an act of unspeakable cruelty. Gwala was minding his own business while on a training ride in KZN, only to be set upon by a merciless bunch of thugs who tried to saw off his legs.

The only redeeming part of this ghoulish story is how South Africans have rallied behind Gwala and raised money to help pay his medical expenses. The collective wish is that he recovers enough to get back onto his bike before long.

A similar horror was visited on the Cape this week when an elderly cyclist was stabbed to death while riding through a trail in Fish Hoek. The thieves took his bike, no doubt nonplussed about having thrust the man’s family into utter devastation.

Cape Town is awash with such stories with Table Mountain a hotspot for thieves looking to separate mountain bike riders from their bikes and valuables. Two months ago, a hiker was stabbed and killed in Table Mountain National Park, presumably for the contents of his pockets. Ironically, the victim had started a support group after a teenage girl had been killed in Tokai forest while jogging there in 2016.

It goes on.

In Pretoria, the brother-in-law of a colleague was shot at close range and killed while on a ride through bucolic Irene four months ago. His pockets were emptied out and his bike taken.

The local cycling scene is full of stories about cyclists being attacked and robbed. Runners, too, often share such accounts, as Bruce Fordyce did early last year when he was set upon by thieves who pulled out revolvers and demanded his running shoes.

(Given the price of such apparel, this was perhaps an unsurprising target).

There are other occupational hazards, as we saw last weekend with two cyclists dying during the Cape Town Cycling Tour, one of whom was involved in a 20-person pile-up and the other believed to be the victim of a heart attack. A marshal was killed during the same race, an extraordinary ratio of deaths for a one-day event.

The truth is that for all the obvious enjoyment to be found on the roads and trails around SA, these are high-risk activities that require participants to be constantly switched on. Indeed, mountain biking is so popular precisely because public roads are deadly with cyclists frequently bumped off their bikes, or worse, by careless drivers.

The other reality is that unless you’re a participant yourself, you’re largely indifferent to a runner or cyclist’s ecosystem. If you drive a car and don’t pound the pavements, you have little idea of how frightening it can be to venture out as a jogger or cyclist. Even without the health nuts, our roads are death traps.

Laws are seldom enforced and drivers consequently do as they please. There are no easy answers for the quandary facing those eager to get out, stretch their legs and suck in the fresh air. Mindfulness and awareness are critical faculties, so too the benefit of getting training partners to look out for each other.

Sadly, the situation is endemic of a broader disregard for the law. It’s not as if joggers and cyclists are being specially picked on. They are merely swept up by the endemic madness that constitutes daily life in SA. Whatever you do, be careful out there.


Sunday Tribune

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