On the 18th of January 2018, Zanele Hlatshwayo (33) from Orlando West, Soweto founded, non-profit initiative, Rise18, a movement aimed at creating a dialogue around mental illness and suicide prevention.
At only 24 years old, Zanele faced a world of unanswered questions, when her father, Phillip Hlatshwayo, took his own life at the age of 47. To cope with the weight of her grief and the unbearable loss she experienced in losing her ‘hero’, Zanele found comfort in running.
“At first, I was running away from my pain. I couldn’t understand why my father had to leave me. I was angry, broken and ashamed that the strongest man I’ve ever known took his own life. But eventually, running became a coping mechanism for me. Now it has become my sacred space where I get to heal, clear my head, but most of all where I get to conquer” – says Zanele
According to SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group), there are at least 23 recorded suicides and 230 attempted suicides in South Africa on a daily basis. The organization also mentions that 9.5% all teenage deaths in South Africa are suicide related.
To redefine her father’s suicide and draw attention to these troubling statistics, Zanele setup a BackaBuddy crowdfunding campaign to break the silence around the ‘taboo’ topic and pledged to complete 18 marathons, totaling over 648km to continue SADAG’s national suicide toll free hotline. The campaign went live on the 17th of January 2018 has thus far generated R66 633.78 towards the target of R180 000 with contributions from over 117 donors from different parts of the world.
“I decided to rise and raise awareness about depression and suicide: silent killers that are scourging our beautiful country. I want to demystify mental illness and create a dialogue so that people no longer have to suffer in silence. If my BackaBuddy campaign saves one life, my purpose on this earth would have been fulfilled.” – says Zanele.
Zanele has thus far completed 15 races totaling 389km. Asked about the most challenging leg of her journey, Zanele made mention of the Kosmos 3 in 1 (73km), a race she completed despite sustaining a back injury.
“I was worried that I wasn’t going to finish the race, but with the support of the crowds of spectators running along side of me every step of the way I was able to pull through. I was once again reminded that as much as this is my personal journey, this is also about the hundreds of families like mine who have lost a loved one due to suicide.” – says Zanele
In a few days, Zanele will take on the 89 km Comrades marathon , A 10 km send off race on the 8th of July, and finally the mammoth Washie Miller, a distance of 160 km.
“This will be my third time running the Comrades and this year will be particularly special. It was the race that made me realize that anything is possible if you have an ounce of passion and that has given me the confidence to take on the Washie!” – says Zanele
With her last marathon, Zanele would have run a total of 648km, not including the vigorous amount of training it has taken to have come this far.
“This journey has been a physical and emotional rollercoaster, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It has been a healing experience in the way I didn’t expect. I found strength in my vulnerability and found a way to deal with my father’s tragedy through those who have shared their pain with me. I believe with Rise18, we have just scratched the surface, there is still so much that needs to be done”
To support Zanele, donate to her campaign here
Zanele is currently a video specialist at Google and holds a Masters of Management degree in Strategic Marketing from Wits Business school.
Nkini Phasa, SADAG‘s spokesperson, addresses challenges faced by the organisation.
If you, or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please contact SADAG’s Suicide Helpline (0800 567 567)