When Luvuyo Manyonga was asked what the Olympic silver medal that he won in long jump in the Rio Olympics meant, he responded that “it reaffirms that there’s only one Luvuyo Manyonga in the whole world”, as he grinned into the camera. Behind that smile was a young man who had to overcome insurmountable demons to be on the plane to Rio. And he now has a silver medal to show for it. That he missed gold by one centimetre is neither here nor there, it’s what his triumph means to people like him back home. To kids who seem to have fallen into the poverty trap through which substance addiction seems inevitable, Luvuyo becomes a beacon of hope to those.
Not everyone sees it that way though. When the word ‘transformation’ is mentioned with regard to sports, a lot of people get hot under the collar.
On the day following Wayde Van Niekerk’s gold medal heroics, it was saddening to hear a caller into a radio talk show lament how “the imbecilic minister of sports has made the decision to deprive certain sporting codes of the right to bid for and host international sporting events”. The bitterness in his voice was unmistakable. In the midst of all the joy, all the euphoria that one of us had taken on the world and beaten it, this person was hanging on to the only strand of doom and gloom threatening his future joy.
That got me thinking of how sport has become the glue that keeps the South African rainbow dream together. South Africa’s greatest moments (and worst) are intertwined with her greatest sporting achievements. So much so that we become more passionate about the right of grown men and women to chase after a ball on a field than we are of who governs us. I’m not complaining, I’d rather watch reruns of Van Niekerk’s triumph than spend hours waiting to hear why we can have a properly constituted municipality in Johannesburg.
Wayde reminds us of what is possible, of what we can achieve despite our history. For 43 seconds, Wayde made every South African (with the exception of that radio caller) believe in the dream of a nation that is always capable of punching above its weight. He sent my mind scuttling back into our glorious sporting past that defined us as a budding nation.
When the international community finally turned its back on South Africa in the 1970s, the surest way to ensure that humiliation was guaranteed was by taking away the right of South Africans to compete in international competition. It was as if to say, as a nation we cannot do serious economic deals with you but to make sure you know how bad your policies are, we won’t even play with you. You’re on your own.
Fast-forward 20 years or so into the 1990s. Mandela and his comrades have been released. The Convention for a Democratic SA has been set up, but nothing concrete is in place. The very first concessions Mandela and the ANC made were to allow the South African sports federations to reapply for admission back into the fold of international sports.
Before a negotiated settlement that brought about the new South Africa, Bafana Bafana played Cameroon in 1992, South African cricketers were sneaked back into the Cricked World Cup via a special vote, and, after a miracle run in the cup, they undertook a tour of the mighty but fading West Indies. The other kids had allowed South Africa back on to the global playground.
My memories of South Africa’s greatest political moments are interspersed with those of triumphs on the sports field. Codesa was constituted in 1991 and this was soon followed by the South African team punching well above its weight in the Cricket World Cup in Australia in 1992. Only the sometimes incomprehensible Duckworth-Lewis method deprived the country of a place in the finals. When the Constituent Assembly was busy putting together the constitution in 1995, Nelson Mandela provided one of the most iconic (if not most iconic) moments in all of sport by appearing in a Springbok jersey to hand Franscois Pienaar the Webb Ellis trophy at Ellis Park.
Similarly in 1996, when South Africa was on the verge of adopting its new ground-breaking constitution, we hosted and won the Africa Cup of Nations. The elderly statesman was on hand again to hand over the trophy to our winning captain, Neil Tovey. Penny Heyns gave us double gold in the pool In Atlanta 1996. She gave Nelson Mandela more glue to keep his rainbow dream together.
It is very sad when a section of South Africa feels only it is entitled to be a part of those moments that have come to define us. By moaning when the minister insists on tangible goals for transformation, these people do not realise that they are saying the past must continue to define us.
A friend once quipped that, the way things are, South Africa’s best fast bowler could be sitting somewhere in a rural village herding goats because the powers that be are not setting up programmes to give all South Africans a goal at achieving their dreams. And when they do, one section of the population thinks it’s about depriving them of opportunities instead of giving a previously deprived section of our population a chance at being a Van Niekerk or an Elton Jaantjies.
Besides inspiring the very funny hashtag #HowAreYouRelatedToWaydeVanNiekerk on Twitter, his win has done wonders for our social fabric.
Like Manyonga, when my kid looks in the mirror, he not only sees his own image, he sees a Wayde staring back at him, and a Luvo leaping well above that silver medal. That’s why transformation is a non-negotiable. It gives hope to the hopeless.