FREEDOM TO TRAIN : Marathoner Leaves His South African Home to Try to Forge a New Beginning in America

Times Staff Writer

In the Republic of South Africa, where sport often appears to lack a human face, this strange society is at once a birthplace of achingly talented athletes and the burial ground for their dreams.

There is a road there and it is a true path for only those whose skin color gains them entrance. For the remaining--for the many--there is only a chance to run alongside the path, never on it.

Unless they choose to run away.

Mark Plaatjes brought the woman who now is his wife and their child to America last year to find if there was another path. What he has found is that everyone is allowed access to the path here, but there is a cost. In this year away from his country, the rest of his family and much of his heart, Mark Plaatjes, another hopeful citizen-to-be, believes he has paid the price.


Plaatjes, 27, formerly of Johannesburg, is now stateless. When he runs Sunday, as one of the favorites in the Los Angeles Marathon, his new life will have come full circle from the time a year ago that he stepped off a plane with two suitcases, money enough for three weeks and dreams enough to fill this new land.

Imagine that you have a back yard in which to play and it is large and beautiful. Imagine also, though, that never, ever are you allowed to leave your yard to play with anyone else.

At some point it was not enough for Plaatjes, South Africa’s best marathoner, to be only that. He longed to run outside of South Africa and that was not possible for him.

So he tried something. He went with some other track athletes to Swaziland to establish residency and become citizens. Then, after some time, they could run anywhere in the world.


That did not work out. Plaatjes went home to his country, the outcast of the world community. Not since 1960 has South Africa been welcome in the Olympics. Since 1976, that ban has extended to virtually every other international sporting event. Nor will most of the world come to South Africa to play, because of the country’s policy of racial separation or apartheid.

If you are a South African athlete and you are possessed of rare ability, this is an unhappy circumstance. If you are a nonwhite athlete, living in a nation that has an official policy that declares you are somehow less a citizen than whites, this is what drives you to boldness.

“Being competitive is an innate response of any human being,” said Plaatjes said, whose family is temporarily settled in Boulder while he prepares for Sunday’s L.A. Marathon.

“Being an athlete in South Africa is very frustrating. You compete against the same people all the time. You compare times with a person (not in South Africa) but it is not the same as when you run against that person. You can’t call yourself the best or know how good you are when you can’t compete against the rest of the world.”

Plaatjes had a special problem in this sporting equation. Because he was successful, he was accepted to an unusual degree by white South Africans, who classify people as white, black or colored, those who are neither. But there were some who did not like this man winning so much. Because he was colored--half black and half white--he was beloved by the nonwhites in South Africa. But there were some who did not like this man winning so much white money.

He was living on both sides and there were people on each side who objected. Plaatjes was doing well and he was winning, but when he left the country there was still talk that he left to make quick money overseas. They thought he would return.

This makes Plaatjes angry. Why, if he wanted to get rich, would he have left South Africa? He had a big shoe-company contract. He owned a five-bedroom house in the colored suburb of Fleurhof. He supported an extended family, paid his medical school tuition and bought a car, all on the money he made from running.

Money wasn’t his motivation for leaving his yard.


“It was simple things, like being able to look in a real estate book and be able to choose a house from all the houses in the book and say, ‘What a nice house.’ And not worry, if we are allowed to live in this neighborhood,” he said.

“That doesn’t even exist for black people in South Africa. You are told where to live. You can’t choose. I think it was the determining factor--I felt my family needed to have choices for determining its own future.”

If he left, Plaatjes would certainly sacrifice his family’s financial future. But life was growing so unbearable in South Africa that the prospect of leaving behind family, friends and security didn’t seem a difficult choice.

“People started giving me honorary white status because I was the sole non-pure black winning major national events,” he said.

“This treatment really bothered me. To give you an example, in 1986, when they had independence celebrations, they asked me to carry the flag and give a speech. That bothered me. I could never do that. But as soon as the word filtered out that they had made this offer, my family started getting phone calls, threatening that they would find me dead in the street when I went for my run. They threatened my mom that they would burn down the house and kill me.”

“They” never identified themselves, Plaatjes said, but black groups exist in South Africa to punish those seen as collaborators with the white government. To some, Plaatjes, who had white friends as well as nonwhite, who was well off, who was more quiet and scholarly than radical, was in league with the government. Another aspect of apartheid’s damage has been to make combatants out of the victims of the policy.

Plaatjes was being watched. After he had run a marathon in 2 hours 8 minutes 58 seconds, it was worse. He was even more popular and had even more endorsements. There was even more pressure to speak out. He was criticized for even competing, because the competition, although integrated, was organized by the South African Amateur Athletic Union.

“What these people don’t understand is that for a lot of guys, especially the black athlete in South Africa, it’s a way out of the situation they are in. If you want to compete, there is no alternative. These groups don’t provide an alternative. If they were to put up races, have meetings, start clubs and things like that, then you’ve got an alternative. But now if you don’t compete for the SAAAU, you don’t compete.


“They don’t want people to make their own decisions. They draw a line and if you take one step off that line, they condemn you.”

Sometimes they try to kill you.

Plaatjes and a friend were running in a grassy meadow between Fleurhof and Soweto. They were returning to Plaatjes’ home when they began to hear chanting.

“It happened to be Labor Day and on Labor Day you had to stay home from work,” he said. “We heard this noise and we looked across this little stream and there were maybe 10,000 people standing there chanting.

“I said to my friend, ‘I wonder what they are chanting at. They’re probably watching a soccer game.’

“He said, ‘It doesn’t look like that to me.’

“They were all facing our direction. We took a corner and it was like maybe 2,000-3,000 of them coming straight at us. They were throwing bricks. Have you ever heard of necklacing? (To be necklaced is to have a tire hung around your neck and then set afire.) They had tires and they had gasoline. They obviously had something planned for us.”

They escaped that time, but it was during that period, June to December 1987, that three of the top black athletes in South Africa died under mysterious circumstances. One, who had been a soldier, supposedly shot himself in the leg while running. Another was stabbed to death by his politically-radical brother. A third was run down by a truck on a sidewalk while he was jogging.

Plaatjes says he had a similar close call. He was running with Bruce Fordyce, who is white, and some other runners on the sidewalk of a broad, four-lane road in Johannesburg.

“This guy was driving a van with tinted windows,” Plaatjes said. “We were running on the sidewalk and he was riding in the outside lane. The next minute he was right behind us on the sidewalk, coming straight at us. If Bruce hadn’t turned around and looked, the guy would have wiped us out.”

Plaatjes was getting close to the emotional end of his rope. He believed that he was doing good in his own way, talking with black athletes and encouraging them to seek endorsements and a better education. But it was clear that he would have to cave in to the racial separation that some powerful people on both sides advocated.

“I’m the type of person who believes that if you want to solve the next person’s problem, there has to be a line of communication,” he said. “I have to be able to come to you and say, ‘Look, what is wrong?’ Then you and I can agree or not agree. But if you turn your back on me and I turn my back to you, how are we going to ever solve anything?

“I don’t think that by never talking to whites and never associating with them and never competing with them is ever going to solve anything. I have to compete against the best, whether they are black, white, or whatever.”

Mark Plaatjes and Shirley, who would soon be married, and their 4-year-old daughter Gene arrived in the United States for a three-week vacation in January, 1988. Mark intended to have a job interview in Chicago and perhaps try to get into a race.

This country was not new to Plaatjes. He had already spent two years at the University of Georgia on athletic scholarship. He flourished as a pre-med student, but had to return to South Africa because of his father’s illness. Now he was back, for a short visit.

Plaatjes found out that if he wanted to compete he would have to renounce his citizenship. Glenn Latimer, his adviser, arranged a meeting in Chicago with an administrator of The Athletics Congress, the national governing body for track. They contacted an immigration attorney in Philadelphia. Suddenly they were setting something very serious in motion. Something they had never considered.

“Shirley and I started speaking about it,” Plaatjes said. “We were so isolated. (They were living in Lake Villa, Ill. with Latimer and his wife.) At night, when everyone was asleep, Shirley would wake me up and we would talk.”

Shirley mostly remembers crying in the dark.

“I’d cry, thinking about the family,” she said.

But they did decide.

“We thought it was good for a number of reasons,” Plaatjes said. “We both are young, we have our whole futures ahead of us. Gene would be able to grow up in a society other than South Africa. We wanted to give her the choices we didn’t have.

“Running really wasn’t part of my decision. After I made the decision (to give up the passports) and if TAC would have said no, we still would have stayed.”

They sent their passports to their attorney, who sent them to the South African embassy in Washington.

“I felt like I lost something, like something was missing,” Shirley said.

They knew that if their asylum was denied, they would become stateless persons, citizens of no country. The attorney had advised them to expect the interim period to be difficult. The uncertainty lingered in the weeks before the 1988 Los Angeles Marathon. What if they were not welcomed by the U.S. State Department?

Each turned to the other and burst out laughing at the memory. It was both a nervous and relieved laugh.

“We’re laughing because it was just . . . " Plaatjes said. “People will never understand how horrendous that period before L.A. was. I don’t know how I ran at L.A., really.”

They were granted asylum, based on Plaatjes’ occupation, physical therapist, was on a priority list. Political asylum would have been granted, based on the death threats Plaatjes faced in South Africa, but that waiting list was two years long.

Plaatjes came to run in last year’s Los Angeles Marathon. He was a stateless person and, therefore not a South African, so he was issued a TAC card. It was the first time Plaatjes had ever run outside South Africa. It was an overwhelmingly emotional time and the running was only part of it.

“We felt extremely frightened,” Plaatjes said. “Shirley was frightened and nervous. We were thinking of our own futures and our families in South Africa. What would happen to them now? Would we ever see them again?”

Plaatjes finished third in 2:10:41 and was happy. He had finally run free.

The Plaatjes family was moving again. In the 13 months they have been in this country, they have been shuttling between Boulder and various Chicago-area suburbs. Now there was 5-month-old Luz, their second daughter. The money was tight, and this last summer was the worst.

“We had absolutely no idea how much this was going to cost,” Plaatjes said of the ever-escalating legal fees for citizenship. “Shirley was pregnant. We had to pay $1,000 a month for the attorney and try to put away some money for the baby. Everything I would make would go to doctors, attorneys, Gene was growing, she had to have clothes.”

The family had been living with various people, camping out on floors and trying not to be in the way. It was not wearing well. Finally, this winter, they settled in Lake Villa for four months, the family record for living in one U.S. city. Mark was working in Lake Forest as a physical therapist at a school for handicapped children. Life was hectic.

“Our life style this last year has had an effect on all of us, especially Gene,” Plaatjes said. “Every time we go to a new place she would start making friends. In Waukegan, she was going to school and she got to know all the kids in the neighborhood. She could visit and establish her own social pattern with kids.

“With the moving, every time we pack bags, Gene says, ‘Where are we moving now?’ The minute she gets to know somebody we leave. She’s not really attached to anything. I think she needs that. You can see in her behavior, she behaves like a big person, not a child. I think that’s due to the fact that she’s always in the company of adults and she’s always hearing adult conversations.”

For Shirley, who had never been to the U.S., it was the isolation. She was at home without transportation and no one to talk to. Also, she was used to working but now stayed home all day.

“I just didn’t have friends or people to talk to,” she said. “We were staying so far from everything, we couldn’t go out, really. There was no privacy. We have been living with people (so long) I got to a stage where I couldn’t bear it. When you have a child, you must have a home. You must have privacy and be free to do what you want.”

And with all of that, Plaatjes was injured and not running well. He was depressed and not sure what was wrong with him. Finally, he went through a series of tests and it was discovered that his iron stores were almost totally depleted and that he had an allergy that made him feel sluggish.

Still, he entered the Columbus Marathon in November.

“The race was very important to me for a number of reasons,” he said. “I had to prove to myself, first of all, that I could still do it. After seven months of running like a dog, I started getting worried.”

He felt great before the race, but the conditions on the day of the race did were not conducive to great times. The last half of the race was run into a 28-m.p.h. head wind. On no part of the course was the wind less than 15 m.p.h. Plaatjes, and the rest of the elite field, backed off the pace. He won, in 2:12, and was satisfied.

For Plaatjes, it was a kind of vindication. He had been snubbed by race directors and shoe companies. Many of them wondered if he was going to go back to South Africa. Some were just doing business in a manner to which Plaatjes was unaccustomed.

“That’s one of the big problems I had in this first year,” he said. “I learned that when you talk to people over here and they say they are going to do something or they intend to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to do it or that they intend to do it.

“I come from a society at home where if I sit down with somebody and we are discussing a contract and they say, ‘We’d like to have a two-year contract and this is how we would like to structure it,’ and then I would say, ‘I’m happy with that.’

“Then we go away from that meeting and we assume that that is what both parties agreed upon. Over here, they agree to things and they don’t really mean it. You phone the next day and they have forgot completely about it.”

Plaatjes figures he needs the contracts if he is to finance medical school. When he quit Georgia and returned to South Africa, school was put on hold. His father died and Plaatjes stepped forward to care for his family of nine brothers and sisters, as well as Shirley and Gene.

He eventually did return to school, and was accepted as one of four nonwhites admitted to the medical school at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He went through three years and, discouraged with the power South African pharmaceutical companies held over the school, Plaatjes changed to physical therapy. But he never gave up his dream of being a doctor.

“Since I was 12, I wanted to be a doctor,” he said. “Just being in our community where one hospital served one-half million people. You see what kind of care they get. My father was treated so badly there, at the nonwhite hospital. That contributed to his death. My brother died from neglect at the hospital.

“When I was young, I did volunteer work there. The main reason I wanted to become a doctor at home was because I wanted to help the people there.”

Plaatjes has applied to several schools, including Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Howard and Duke. He expects to hear about school acceptance in the next two weeks. It will mean at least one more move for the family, but it is important, for the future. Running may take a secondary role for Plaatjes.

Primary for the family is U.S. citizenship. On April 22, they will become permanent residents and the clock starts running on the citizenship. Plaatjes, if he continues competing at this level, will become the top American marathoner. Last year he ran two minutes faster than any other American. Also in April he will be able to represent the U.S. in international competition.

With citizenship a real dream now, Plaatjes is able to talk about his political beliefs. During the last year, he was advised not to speak out in case it affected his asylum case. Now, when he does speak out, it’s with an awareness that some people in South Africa are angered at his stance against sporting and economic boycotts.

“If you speak to the everyday black in South Africa, you will find that they disagree with boycotts because they are the first people it will affect,” he said. “Then you get the radicals, or the people who have been driven to become radicals by the government, and they will always be for the boycotts because they say they are already treated like dirt, and if they lose a job because of a boycott, they can’t get any poorer.

“That is the view the radicals take. I don’t agree with that. Boycotts have their place. I believe that companies that do business in South Africa and don’t pay equally for equal qualifications, and treat blacks poorly, they are there because they can make a huge profit by paying less for labor--they should be boycotted.

“I don’t believe in total disinvestment from all companies that are doing business in South Africa. You are just making it worse. A lot of companies are selling out, and who is buying? It’s definitely not blacks that are buying.”

If that makes Plaatjes unpopular in South Africa, look at the irony. He has renounced citizenship in a country that denied him the rights of white citizens. He’s attacked by both blacks and whites. He’s struggling to support a family in a new land where he’s not a citizen, either. What else is there?

He has escaped from the big, beautiful yard. A lovely prison. Now Plaatjes is free to run on his own path.