I haven't blogged about this issue yet, although it's been topical and debated in online circles for most of this year so far. It's time to break the silence and tell you what really happened, what the situation is right now and what is expected to happen from here on forward.

Late last year, myself and a couple of friends decided to combine our love for running with our activism activities, especially after I saw someone running with a Palestinian flag when I was out on a run one day. We wanted to do something fresh and different.

Rewinding the clock for some background...
So why the change from the usual, traditional activities that we used to do? I think the answer is frustration mainly. For example...back in Dec 2008/Jan 2009, during the "Operation Cast Lead" attack on Gaza, we hosted a movie screening of The Iron Wall that would double up as a fundraiser and awareness activity. Even though we had less than 2 weeks to plan everything from idea conception to screening, it was a huge success as we completely sold out the BMW Pavillion Theatre, and everything ran as smoothly as a well-oiled machine on the night. It was amazing! Everyone was impressed, and cried out for more such events. A few months later, we hosted another movie (Occupation 101) at the Bellville Theatre, which to this day is the most comprehensive account of the occupation that I've ever seen. For this event we had 3 months to plan, market and execute the event. We did extensive and consistent marketing, yet we struggled to fill the theatre. Just because there was no brutal attack happening in Gaza at the time, the world seemed to have forgotten that Palestine still bleeds, that Gaza is still under siege and that the occupation is still in force and has been for more than 60 years. So I was tired of doing the same type of awareness activities that we have been doing for years and people only reacting when there is some kind of attack in the territory. We all wanted to do something that would be different, fresh, effective, yet peaceful and non-violent.

The idea of running with the Palestinian flag was born.

We connected with some people that have already been doing it for some time. Some people did the Cape Town marathon 10km in September 2012 with the flag and Safoudien, one of the founders of "Runners for the Freedom of Palestine" ran the Soweto Marathon 42km with the flag in November 2012.

My sister, Fadeelah, and I ran the Reconciliation Day 10km with the flag on 16 December 2012. We thought it the perfect race to do as a first time with the flag because it was a 10km, and we would do the race slowly anyway, as a fun run through the township handing out some treats to the kids. Before the gun went, we were approached very abruptly by a senior Western Province Athletics official whose name and position I shall not disclose here. This was the first time that referees came to us and told us to put it away and that we were not allowed to run with the flag, and that we would be disqualified. They couldn't provide us with the rule that we are breaking, except for saying that it counts as political advertising and that was not allowed under the rules of WPA. We didn't put it away and ran the race with the flags anyway. Our argument was that there are athletes that run with banners for causes all the time, and they are never disqualified.

At the end of the race, before crossing the finish line, another WPA official (the identity of whom I shall not disclose here either) asked us to put the flag away again. I asked him why, because it was not against the rules. His answer was: "Yes, I know it's not against the rules, but we're getting complaints from the other camp". Hmm, ok...interesting.

We weren't disqualified from the race. I emailed WPA immediately to ask for the rules governing races run under their rules. I didn't receive any response. Luckily it wasn't too difficult to find the documentation on the internet. We did some research and studied the rules of WPA and ASA (Athletics South Africa). We couldn't find any rule that would make it illegal, but decided that maybe because the flag had the slogan "Free Palestine" on it, that could be considered a political statement, which would not be allowed. So for subsequent races we used the flag alone, with no slogans of any sort on it.

The next race I ran with the flag was the Constantia Village 15km on 9 March 2013. My sister couldn't join me so another friend ran it with me, and he in fact carried the flag for most of the way. I started and finished with it, and ran just a very small part in the middle of the race with it. They threatened me with disqualification again at the finish, and took my number down. When the results came out, it indicated that I was disqualified. The friend who had run the race with me with the flag was not disqualified.

I queried my disqualification via email, and asked the WPA officials what rule I am actually breaking. They said I am breaking a IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) rule 2.3.5 that states:
Political/Religious Advertising: Both political (i.e. the promotion of any political parties, associations, movements, ideas or any other political cause) and religious advertising are prohibited in respect of Competitions.

When asked about my constitutional right to freedom of expression, the response was that if participating in a event governed by an international body like IAAF, certain constitutional rights such as freedom of expression is allowed to be suppressed. We also fail to see how carrying the Palestinian flag (with no slogans on it) violates rule 2.3.5, whereas running with the flag of any other country not only doesn't violate it, but is actually encouraged at big races like the Comrades and Two Oceans marathons.

The story was also covered by eNCA news later in March. The video of this news broadcast can be seen by clicking here.

At this point you might be wondering how the running club whose colours I run in are involved in all of this. I have approached my club, Itheko AC, for assistance in approaching the case and trying to sort it out within the running fraternity, before having to go 'outside'. We wanted to exhaust all internal channels before making it a public issue. The club's management responded by saying that they would not assist, and also that if I want to continue running with the Palestinian flag, I should not do so in Itheko AC colours. Their view was that I was causing unnecessary trouble, and that they would have no part in it. We were therefore forced to resort to other channels outside the running fraternity in order to address the issue. I will in future not be running in Itheko running club's colours any longer.

At the Two Oceans 21km, another runner and part of our group, Uwais, was also disqualified for running with a Palestinian flag, although none of the other runners crossing the finish line with other national flags were disqualified. The response from WPA when Uwais queried his disqualification was that it was because he ran with a 'political flag' and that it's against the Two Oceans rules. Note that there were countless runners crossing the finish line with flags, banners and other items showing their support for causes. They were not disqualified.

I must state at this point that even though Uwais was disqualified, we consider his incident to be a great victory for the cause. He ran the entire 21km half marathon carrying the flag and crossed the finish line with it. There was lots of support on the road for the flag from other runners and spectators alike, and the visibility and awareness is what our aim is after all.

Subsequently, we as "Runners for the Freedom of Palestine" have written an official letter to Western Province Athletics outlining the situation and pointing out, amongst other things, the following points:
  • The IAAF rule 2.3.5 states that there is no political advertising allowed in races. However, the DA (which is a political party) is allowed to have official water points on races such as Two Oceans, governed under IAAF
  • Running with the Palestinian flag does not violate IAAF rule 2.3.5, and the rule is being used to discriminate unfairly and arbitrarily
  • Athletes run for causes in all races, and none of them have been disqualified for carrying banners or slogans.
  • Runners running official races with flags of other nationalities are not disqualified.
  • The government of the Republic of South Africa overtly recognises and acknowledges a state of Palestine, so we see no reason to distinguish between it and flags of other countries.
  • The IAAF themselves recognises the flag of the Palestinian territory and permits athletes to participate in the Olympic Games and other athletic meets under the banner of the Palestinian flag

We have given WPA a clear and specific time period in which to respond and give us clarity on the matter, and to give us a clear mandate on what their official position is with regards to running with the flag. We have received confirmation of the receipt of the letter, but have not received any response yet. There is just over a week to go until their deadline. If they do not respond to this within the specified time frame, we will be taking further legal action to resolve the matter.

In a country that has a past like South Africa does, it is a tragedy for us to react with such disdain to oppression. We owe our freedom to people who stood up for us around the world, and voiced their dissatisfaction at the Apartheid regime in events, including sporting meets, in their own countries. Who are we to have an attitude of "We are free, so to hell with you who are suffering. You're in another country and it has nothing to do with us"? Along with the protest action that was happening inside SA, international pressure, divestment and sanctions is what hit the final nail in the coffin of Apartheid and toppled it for good. Is our memory span so short that we have already forgotten that? Or do we not want to remember for convenience sake? Or are there other reasons why we choose to ignore this fact? How do we sleep at night??

Whatever the outcome of of this, the Palestinian flag will fly in the hands of runners in Cape Town and everywhere around South Africa. We will run, whether it be in races, on Sea Point promenade, in normal training runs, on bridges or in the streets. The world must not forget, and we will not be silenced. The occupation is illegal under international law, Gaza is an open-air prison with a population of 1.6 million people in a space of 41km long x 6-12km wide that has been blockaded for years. Palestine is a humanitarian catastrophe. 

I will post another update in due time when more developments come to light.
Until then, see you on the road!