Man who carries a nation's hopes in his rucksack

Week in the Life: Roger Russell - Walker
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The Independent Online
ROGER RUSSELL bears a heavy burden - 18kg in his rucksack and the expectations of 42 million fellow South Africans who are living with apartheid's worst legacy, crime.

Thirteen days ago, he set out from Cape Town on a 4,200km walk aimed at bridging the confidence gap between the public and the police. Forty- five minutes into his second day and barely out of Cape Town, in the Crossroads township, the 54-year-old former miner was robbed at gunpoint.

"No one had taken much interest in the walk until then,'' he said as he set off again this week. "Suddenly, I had sponsors on the phone with offers of equipment, a hotel chain saying they would put me up along the way and hundreds of individuals ringing to encourage me,'' said Roger, who is a survivor of lung cancer.

His walk, which is expected to last for seven months, will lead him on a "long loop" around South Africa and will take him to Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Kimberley.

ON MONDAY it was time to set off again - with a new route agreed with the Western Cape police, new sponsored kit and a pair of women's tights for when the chafing gets bad.

"The day started with a press conference and I made the point that this is still my walk. The police have offered me protection, for which I am grateful, but the message I want to send is that the public and law enforcers must work together." Roger was rarely alone as he walked his first 16km to Goodwood.

"I never had fewer than four or five people with me, either police officers or individuals who stopped their cars.'' By 4pm, Roger, who has worked as a motivational speaker since leaving the mines five years ago, had visited four police stations. "I tell the police that they are appreciated by the public but that there is a lot of damage to repair because of all those [apartheid] years when they were seen as the enemy.''

By nightfall, Roger has "a blister the size of a dinner plate" which he treats by bursting it and applying Savlon. He is a seasoned walker who, after his wife died from breast cancer in 1993 and he, against all expectations, survived lung cancer, has walked across South Africa and California.

"My previous walks were to raise awareness of cancer hospice care. Now, the fight against crime in our nation seems the greatest priority,'' he said.

ON TUESDAY he set off for Bellville and Kuilsrivier. "By noon there were 72 messages on my cellphone - companies offering assistance and individuals asking for my bank details. I tell most callers that I appreciate their support but that they should make a donation to a local neighbourhood watch scheme. It is heartening that I am getting many calls from townships, which shows how crime is a concern across the racial boundaries.''

WEDNESDAY WAS a "good day" as Roger left the Cape Flats behind and entered open countryside. After two overcast days it was brighter and every quarter of an hour or so, someone in a car hooted or waved.

"I was joined by Corona, a policewoman who told me about the problems in the force. She said racial integration was hard for everyone. She is an Afrikaaner and always afraid that things she says will be taken the wrong way,'' he said. By late on Wednesday, Roger had walked a further 16km to Faure. He spent the evening with his family - "a last chance to say goodbye" - and slept at his son Brian's place.

ON THURSDAY morning, after getting a lift back to Faure, it was time to head for Somerset West. "I was met by eight women from a police walking team. Their pace nearly killed me. They took me on a tour which added about 5km to my route, including Somerset West mall where I did an interview at Radio Helderberg. They asked me about the mugging and I got a chance to repeat my motivation. Media interest has been enormous and The Cape Times is going to run a weekly update of my progress.''

YESTERDAY ROGER set out for the Atlantic Ocean coast at Gordon's Bay. "I got an anonymous phone call from someone indicating where the stuff which was stolen from me last week had turned up.

"No sooner had I ended that call than I was phoned by a woman who wanted to tell me about a bad experience she had had with the cops. When I told the police, they gave me a number to pass on for complaints. The police are delighted with the added contact it is giving them with the public. In that respect, the initiative is already a huge success but I continue to be aware of the danger that the public might see this as a police thing, which it isn't.''

TODAY, ROGER will set out from Gordon's Bay for possibly the toughest day so far. "Radio Helderberg have put out an appeal for people to walk with me up the mountain, through Sir Lowry's Pass. I hope there will be a good turn-out because it will be a hard walk.

"After the mountain, I expect the walk to be different because I'll be in much less densely populated area. In a way I am looking forward to the open road and a little less attention,'' said Roger.