Wayde van Niekerk coloured debate is a load of tosh

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By  Mark Jacobs


WHY the debate about Coloured or Not Coloured? This surely demeans the achievement of Wayde van Niekerk and deflects from his persona as an athlete – a South African athlete – competing on a world stage? Clearly, what the debate is showing us, is that there is still a long way to go before all of us born here in South Africa, or naturalised, can call ourselves South African first, and ethnicity second (and only as an ethnic reference – not a racial one).

The author of this article, Mark Jacobs, is a former South African 400m athlete, coach, administrator and teacher.
The author of this article, Mark Jacobs, is a former South African 400m athlete, coach, administrator and teacher.

Yes, we come from a time when we were labelled by an apartheid government for political purposes – a divide and rule tactic as old as politics, as old as power, and as old as conquest. The term Coloured (or Colored, in its American spelling) has been used variously throughout the colonial world to signify the Other, the oppressed, the Conquered, the second class citizen in the modern society. There are numerous studies to show that those who became labelled in the apartheid days as Coloured were actually made up of a number of peoples from various parts of the world, including indigenous South Africans.

Genetic studies and pure myth

Slaves brought to the Cape by the Dutch and the English from as far afield as Malaysia, Batavia, Madagascar, Mozambique and Angola all slowly merged over time into this amorphous group, marked out as different from the Bantu tribes and the Europeans. Genetic studies can show quite conclusively that such exclusivity is pure myth and serves only to further divide and control. Modern people have come about through integration long before colonial exploitation, despite apartheid’s worse excesses to artificially manufacture such a separation.

Who has not heard stories or experienced in their own families the overlaps between so-called whites, coloureds and blacks? People did not categorise themselves as white, black or coloured before colonialism – it is purely a result of social engineering and, as we can see by these ongoing debates, seemingly successful social engineering!

The apartheid days

What concerns me, is that the media perpetuates and glorifies such artificial, inherently discriminatory practices as if it is the natural truth.

Like Wayde’s mom, Odessa Swarts (née Krause) I, too, along with many other South Africans, competed under the Sacos banner in the apartheid days (South African Council on Sport – an anti-apartheid sport’s body whose ideology was non-racialism, not multi-racialism). For a time, I had made the 400m at club level (I was even jokingly called Mark the 400 by my mates in the Western Province teams). My club times were not staggering by today’s standards but I did once break the Sacos-controlled South African record. And a number of our Sacos-affiliated sports persons showed their talent when they were able to compete against the rest of South Africa at a later stage and remained champions in that bigger pool. So, someone like Wayde has a history which precedes him. But that is the past.

Western Province team mates Edwin Roems, Mark Jacobs and Jantjie Marthinus in the early 1980s.
Western Province team mates Edwin Roems, Mark Jacobs and Jantjie Marthinus in the early 1980s.

We have come a long way since then. We have a new constitution; we have a Bill of Rights which is the envy of many in the world; we have free and fair elections; those who are eligible to vote can do so (with common, internationally acceptable exceptions); we have free and open political expression, and so much more (yes we have corruption and we express our anger against it and have shown by our votes or lack of voting what we feel about it). And we compete internationally against the rest of the world, in events like the Olympics (since 1992 in Barcelona).

And so, we who have the bigger view must raise it in debates like these, to encourage those who take the easy way out to think again, to question afresh their assumptions about the identities they assume, the mantle they wear, the division they help to perpetuate and widen by clinging to essentially outmoded thinking. Not knowing is no excuse for it – in the climate of social media, the internet, studies in genealogy and so on, we cannot be complacent and accept the status quo if it is built on prejudice and ignorance.

Mark Jacobs
The night in Paarl, in 1983, when Mark Jacobs broke the SAAAB senior men’s 400m record on the clay track of the Daljosafat Stadium, setting a time of 48,6 seconds.

What then to do about the feeling that Wayde van Niekerk feels so much like you, looks so like people around you, perhaps talks so like you, have perhaps shared experiences so like yours?

My suggestion: Embrace it, feel it with pride in your heart, smile widely in that knowledge, while at the same time accepting that he is part of a wider identity (just like you): he is a South African; he is as much a South African as the kid in the township down the road where the home language is isiXhosa, and the other one up the road who speaks your home language but with an accent which is unlike yours (whatever!). Embrace who we are, where we come from, without excluding others, or excluding ourselves from the wider South Africa. And equally embrace all South African athletes in Rio, as part of our South African Identity. This is the only way to move forward – together, to a future which we must make our own. Staying in the apartheid boxes is no solution.

Stellenbosch meeting

As I watched Wayde run blind from the front, in that awful lane 8, not knowing what was going on behind him, I wondered  what was going through his mind – agonising on his behalf. ‘Would they catch him early, before the last bend,’ he must have thought. ‘Or would they catch him near the end?’ (he said as much afterwards). We all know what happened in the home straight: even as the British commentators were dooming him to be overtaken, he accelerated and in that moment of elation I suddenly saw a flash of him in Stellenbosch at the recent South African Championships, where he gave the field the first 200m and then powered through to the line without breaking into a sweat. At that meet, to which I had gone to catch a glimpse of this new sensation in my old event, I was very pleasantly surprised when school kids rushed up to the fence  to get closer to him as he lined up at the start: these kids will be bursting with pride in the knowledge that they saw Wayde in Stellenbosch, they saw the new gold medallist and world record holder in the flesh. That is exactly how I feel. Colour? What colour?

*Mark Jacobs is a former South African 400m athlete, coach, administrator and teacher. He holds a PhD in Mathematics Education.

14 thoughts on “Wayde van Niekerk coloured debate is a load of tosh

  • August 23, 2016 at 9:57 am
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    Wow! A very insightful article, it has indeed made many walk down memory lane, I was not part of the old South African apartheid era, but heard many stories from my folks. We, as South Africans, should embrace our unique diversity and always remember we are all made in the image of our Creator and should not label beings according to colour or creed.

    Great article once again Doc. 

    Keep It Up!

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  • August 20, 2016 at 8:11 am
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    In a context of discrimination, inferiority and superiority, exploration, alienation, and the struggle against negativity for affirmation of human dignity, one is bound to remember where you come from. ‘Those who forget history, are bound to repeat the same mistakes’. I grew up in Cape Town, Vasco (before the Group Areas Act), Bishop Lavis thereafter. Participated in life under and struggle against apartheid. Fortunate to presently experience liberation.

    Your article Mark Jacobs, I found to be ‘spot on’, and I thank you for being yourself within the wider context of community, country, and globally.

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  • August 19, 2016 at 12:33 pm
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    Thanks Mark for once again reminding some of us to break out of that silo mentality. For whatever the reason, some of us simply do not want to let go of that mindset, may it be for political, economical or ethnically motivated reasons. We had this hope that post-1994 this thinking would fade, but 22 years later our government simply have not (or will not ) assist in this regard. The Wayde van Niekerk’s story has challenged us once again to continue to break down these silos.

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  • August 18, 2016 at 6:11 pm
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    Thanks very much for the reminder, much needed, that back in the bad old days of apartheid most of those opposed to apartheid were not looking for a multiracial society but a nonracial society. Many seem to have forgotten that now, and people talk about a “coloured community” and a “white community” and a “black community” as if there really are such “communities”. What kind of “community” did people classified as “Other Coloured” belong to?

    Wayde’s gold medal was given to him as a member of the South African team, and he represented the South African community. Only in the apartheid milieu and consciousness could be be seen as anything less.

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  • August 18, 2016 at 4:51 pm
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    My hope is that people will look beyond the colour line irrespective of a community’ strengths and weaknesses. I also believe we need healthy role models especially in areas infested with gangsterism and drugs (serious reality check) Have a look at the community papers almost on a daily basis young boys lose their lives, kids dying through stray bullets. Sadly there’s a lot of negative role modeling happening in our communities. The more positive role models the better.

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  • August 18, 2016 at 4:03 pm
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    Thanks Dr Mark Jacobs, PhD, for your incisive article.

    I felt similarly uneasy when similar tribal sentiments slightly less audible swirled around in our country when Frankie Fredericks (from Namibia, no less) won Silver during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. One memorable aspect of those Games was of course the recognition given by the IOC that during the opening ceremony Catalonians followed Spain with their respective flags, subsequent to a massive international campaign by activists prior to the Games explaining to the world and claiming their identity as Catalonians which they argued were being subsumed into an all embracing Spanish identity and nationality. The roar which erupted when the Catalonian team was announced and entered the stadium that evening will be remembered for a long time. In this case a sports event was used to drive home a political point. My partner from Barcelona at the time always insisted that she’s not Spanish but Catalan! It was only in later years that I came to understand Spanish identity politics, and the Basque seperatist movement, better.

    Back to our situation: our athletes run their hearts out “vir volk en vaderland” and the entire nation scream their lungs out for every athlete on the team. They represent our nation as a whole, listen to our national anthem when they stand on the podium underneath our national South African flag. Wayde, reportedly, said in a CNN interview that he felt proudly South African and never Coloured.

    The issue clearly is not with our athletes (I’m yet to hear of a sportsperson claiming to represent an ethnic group on the international stage), but with sections of their supporters who want to approppriate them as “theirs” as if they are some form of ethnic possessions. The outpouring of tribalist sentiment around the victory of Wayde demonstrates, to me at least, that we might just have under-rated the ethnic factor in our national life which extends to the arena of sport. It does take a bit of shine off the achievement of our Golden boy, a real South African hero.

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  • August 18, 2016 at 9:05 am
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    Hi Mark,
    Yes, well put, but it is not a binary issue. To outsiders, he is ‘South African’, to people in SA or those expats that originate from SA, there is a recognition of ethnicity. Ethnicity is everywhere, despite the best intentions of governments to encourage assimilation, even within Australia people are known by their ethnicity and some areas are even dominated by certain more ‘cohesive’ diasporas. The more cohesive they are the more successful they appear to be.

    So yes, it exists…and therefore, yes, people who feel that they come from a similar background do relate more to certain individuals.
    The lump in the throat that came when I looked at his family who ‘look like us’ (your words), is an involuntary emotional recognition (attachment) that comes from knowing people who were denied opportunity, can succeed, (and that we could have too back then) and in so doing be role models for those still feeling disenfranchised by the new SA …as people ‘formerly known as coloured’ certainly still are under the new regime.
    This involuntary attachment would not have occurred if he was ‘white’.

    I certainly don’t dwell on that he ‘comes from’ a ‘coloured background’, but at the same time I do not have a problem when asked over here (we often get asked because as I say above, you are ‘identified’ as ‘different’)…to answer that “in SA we were known as coloured’. I do not have a problem with that identity when it’s relevant.
    In a conversation about Wayde too, I would not gratuitously raise his ‘ethnicity’ (which I assume is what the media is doing), but at the same time would not hesitate to speak of his background when asked.

    Cheers
    Colin Jeftha …(ran for WP and placed 3rd in 1985 SA XC Champs)

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  • August 18, 2016 at 7:24 am
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    Very well articulated, Mark.

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  • August 17, 2016 at 11:50 pm
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    What a superb reply to those who claim to have fought segregation and all its inherent evil, but yet put themselves back into the in the days of apartheids ‘whites only’; “No
    Non-Europeans allowed” era without being forced to do so.
    Well done, Mark

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  • August 17, 2016 at 9:16 pm
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    Mark Jacobs, this article has articulated exactly what I wanted to pen immediately after this hogwash of “Coloured Identity” all of a sudden surfaced. Our government has most certainly failed us in perpetuating the very segregation ideology of the previous regime.
    We are all South Africans and we should all celebrate Wade van Niekerk’s monumental achievement as just that; A South African that has created history and woken up the word to who we are.
    We must stop this nonsense of trying to claim his achievement of representing just a certain “section” of South Africa.
    Again, a very well written and articulated article. Thank you for this and hopefully, it will lead to some introspection of those still clearly influenced by the previous government’s racial ideology.

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  • August 17, 2016 at 7:33 pm
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    Guys, thanks so much for capturing that important history of Non Racial sport in our country. I stumbled across this site by accident through following Wayde’s success story on Social media. I read with nostalgia some of the names and the clips that I came across and its with sadness that I learnt about BA’s death. What an icon of our time. Another I recall was Hennie Moses.I am brimming with pride at Wayde’s achievement because I know what it represents for the SACOS family. Lets embrace and celebrate his success for all South Africans and thats the only way we can strengthen our nation if we unshackle ourselves from our unsavoury racial identities of the past.

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  • August 17, 2016 at 2:23 pm
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    Well communicated.

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  • August 17, 2016 at 12:45 pm
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    This post (thanks, Clement) was written in haste after I saw a post in the IOL which immediately attached a Coloured tag to Wayde’s achievement. As I indicated in a tweet, I do understand where people expressing those emotions are coming from. After all, I grew up in District Six and Hanover Park. But my view remains. We cannot perpetuate a Coloured mentality, even if our experiences are based within a context artificially created by an apartheid government. Our governments down the line since 1994 have failed in part to deal with the conundrum of keeping the Apartheid categories for record purposes ( to monitor our progress) while at the same time building a one nation mentality.

    IOL issued an apology the next day, stating that their original article was in poor taste – and I tweeted that I was happy that they did so.

    Wayde van Niekerk is an enormous hero, not just to ethnically Coloured people (so called by the Apartheid government), not just to the formerly oppressed, but to ALL South Africans, to all Africans (the continent) and too many many people throughout the world! Salute!

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    • August 17, 2016 at 7:45 pm
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      Guys, thanks for taking us down the track of such an important journey and history of non-racial sport in our country. I felt very nostalgic when I was scanning through the articles and filled with sadness when I read about BA’s passing. What an icon. I am beaming with pride at Wayde’s achievement because I know what it represents for the SACOS family. Let’s embrace and celebrate his victory as South Africans because he is the son of the soil and let us not reduce this colossal achievement to a racial identity because that just undermines everything that Wayde represents. Keep sharing.

      Reply

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