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).
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.
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.
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.
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.