In 1999, twin brothers in South Africa cheated in the Comrades, an ultra-marathon. They did it by swapping clothes in a portable toilet halfway through the race. Their actions stunned the country, and their names became synonymous with deceit. But why did they do it?
It’s hard, sometimes, not to read everything that happens in South Africa as a metaphor. This is a country where the jailers handed the keys to the inmates, and everyone was told to forgive. While the whole world watched, Nelson Mandela shook hands with apartheid’s last president, FW de Klerk, and told him, What is past, is past — “Wat is verby, is verby!”
The story of two young men, born into one of the most unequal societies on earth, trying — imperfectly, deceitfully — to find their way out of it also feels like something bigger than itself. It’s a version of what South Africans have been doing for a generation now since the end of apartheid. As Sergio tells me, “Nobody wants to be poor forever.”
For Sergio and Arnold, the past was something they believed they could, quite literally, outrun. It didn’t turn out like that, but it didn’t turn out like that for most Black South Africans either. In the generation since the end of apartheid, inequality has remained stubbornly persistent. The wealthiest 3,500 South Africans own more than the poorest 32 million. Much of the country’s elite is now Black, but so too are nearly all its poorest people.
When Sergio and Arnold cheated, it felt to many like it was saying something not just about them, but about the moral character of Black South Africans generally. Look, they said, this is who you’ve handed our country to. As I sat speaking to Sergio, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was fighting for his political life after revelations that wads of cash, potentially ill-gotten, had been stolen from inside his sofa.
Of course corruption isn’t limited to Black leaders, in South Africa or anywhere else. The apartheid regime was shot through with graft. Its first Black government inherited a state that was nearly bankrupt. And a generation, like Sergio and Arnold, came of age promised a world that was, for most of them, never going to materialize.
“You have to be Zola Budd level to get out of here,” Eugene remarked to me, referring to the bare-footed white South African teenager who became a record-breaking runner for England in the 1980s. “People steal millions, and yet this [Sergio] is the guy they want to go after.”