Not many South Africans know that Zanele Situ — the disabled athlete who last night won bronze for the javelin event at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro — was the country’s first Black woman world champion.
Despite winning the gold medal in the javelin at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics — the first Olympic gold for a Black South African athlete — Situ never received the adulation she so authentically deserved.
Situ is a successful Paralympic champion, a professional sportswoman who trains daily and competes in events both in the country and internationally. But she does not earn a professional salary or endorsements to adequately sustain her full-time career.
Since her Sydney debut, Situ has participated in four successive Paralympics and her Rio appearance makes it a record-breaking fifth Paralympics for a black South African disabled sportswoman.
Wheelchair-bound, Situ was Team South Africa’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony. She was assisted with wheeling into the stadium on the opening night because she doesn’t have a motor wheelchair.
Situ is known and recognised in disabled sports structures and competitions and within able-bodied sports forums. She has received national honours for her sports prowess. But she’s never been celebrated with the intensity, passion and honour which should have been hers — or given the same recognition that white disabled sports champions have.
Her sports feats are not only admirable; they are remarkable. Her achievements demand recognition.
But South African corporates, media and sports fans haven’t given her the respect her sports achievements are due.
It’s not difficult to see why 45-year-old Situ hasn’t been celebrated to the level she deserves in a country that plays and consumes sport at the levels South Africa does: Situ is a black woman. She is disabled. She hasn’t grown up in a wealthy social environment. She is not white and privileged.
Why was serial Paralympic white woman athletes like Natalie du Toit celebrated and honoured and sponsored, yet amazing Paralympic black woman achievers like Situ has not recognised or sponsored to the same levels?
Black sportswomen in South Africa participate in chains. They are mostly ignored for national team selection in various codes because this is not seen as “merited”. White sportswomen are “merit” selections, Blacks are not. The latter struggle for sponsorship. They are not viewed as ‘pretty’ and ‘sexy’ by the white lens when it does decide to profile women in sport.
Although she’s an achieving black woman athlete, Situ plays her sport in chains. Her wheelchair is the least of her chains; its society’s non-celebration and payment to her for her athletics prowess, that chains her.
The Rio Paralympics will be her fifth Paralympics, yet no family member has ever accompanied her to any of these games, to watch her attain another medal. Her family, living in Kokstad, where she was born and raised, until she became wheelchair-bound at 12 years-old, don’t have the money to travel internationally. Situ doesn’t have the money to help pay them to get there. The sponsors have ignored them.
I’m not suggesting that Situ lives in poverty and has no support. I’m saying that as a Paralympic champion that had won three medals before last night’s bronze in Rio, Situ should have been a millionaire and had sponsors, just like Paralympians, Du Toit and Oscar Pistorius.
Situ has over the years been assisted in her sports participation since she went to school in Mthatha, after becoming disabled. There she enjoyed athletics and began competing in provincial and national competitions. Her talent was noticed and nurtured, with a little financial help — but not to the same extent as Pistorius.
It was 16 years ago, when Situ was in her late 20s, that she made it to her first Paralympics. She won the gold medal for the javelin event and bronze medal for the discus. She defended her gold medal at the 2004 Paralympics. Unluckily, she was just off the medals podium at both the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics. My interviews with her suggest someone desperate to garner medals for herself, her family, and the Kokstad community — who have supported and believed in her. She wanted to win a medal for her 10-year-old daughter Amazie.
Situ’s Paralympic preparation has been partially assisted by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) with a nominal monthly grant to help her training programme. She’s based in Stellenbosch at a supportive disabled sports centre.
She’s the friendly, soft-talking sportswoman who is not tainted by bitterness. She says its “All in God’s hands”, when asked why she didn’t get sponsors after her Paralympic medals. Situ is happy with what she has, always grateful to those who have supported and encouraged her in sport.
As she celebrates and feels the pride of a South Africa revelling in Caster Semenya euphoria, she too is happy for a Black sportswoman Olympic champion.
But 16 years ago she had already achieved world champion status and an Olympic gold — a national first. Last night she attained an Olympic bronze. She is a world-class athlete. Yet, she will not be honoured and celebrated as such. Her daughter, Amazie, also an athlete, was not there to see her perform, either.
Main Image: from the book, Zanele Situ: My Story