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By Sholain Govender
Citizens whose efforts and achievements best served the country, here and abroad, received honours at the Union Buildings on Wednesday.
President Thabo Mbeki presented the highest orders to twenty-seven citizens from all walks of life who were deemed deserving of awards for bravery and achievement.
Among those were Olympic gold medallist Ryk Neethling, disabled athletics world champion Oscar Pistorius and Marcel Christian van Rossum, a real-life hero who saved two drowning children five years ago while on honeymoon in St Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal.
"When I received the nomination a few weeks ago I was knocked off my chair," said Van Rossum, who received the Order of Mendi for bravery in bronze. "I thought it was a mistake and had to call the Office of the Presidency to ask if it was true."
He and his wife were walking along the beach on December 28 2001 when they heard people calling for help.
They came across Jabulani Thela and his wife, who were watching helplessly as their two children - Sipho, 16, and Sibongiseni, 13 - were swept further into the rough sea.
Without hesitation Van Rossum ran into the water and swam towards the children, rescuing both. After 72 hours of touch and go for the children, who were resuscitated but remained comatose and developed pneumonia, the family and the Van Rossums were told they would survive.
Van Rossum, 40, who now lives in Queenswood with his wife and four-year-old daughter, said he only wanted to be his daughter's hero, but if placed in a position where he could save another person's life again, he would do it.
Van Rossum said he was still in touch with the family, who now live in Piet Retief, and received regular calls from Thela.
He plans on visiting the family in the near future to share the award with them.
"Receiving this award makes me very proud to be a South African," Van Rossum said.
Other proud South Africans present were 25-year-old swimming champion Neethling, who said the only other awards that compared to his receiving the Order of Ikhamanga in silver for excellent achievements in swimming, were his gold medals.
"It's an unbelievable honour for me to transcend the swimming pool and be honoured by my country and President," Neethling said.
His swimming mate, Pretoria-born Roland Schoeman, has also been awarded national orders but will have the award conferred on him next year because he is ill in Tucson and could not travel.
His mother, Geraldine Schoeman, who was at the ceremony on his behalf, said she felt gratified to see her son honoured for his achievements and looked forward to Roland receiving the Order of Ikhamanga in silver next year.
The youngest awardee was Pistorius, 20, a double-amputee, who is the world record holder in the 100m, 200m and 400m events for athletics. He said he was very humbled by the award.
"It means so much to me and I can't believe that I'm getting an award alongside all the other people here who have done so much for the country," said Pistorius, who is currently a first-year University of Pretoria business management student.
He said he would continue his humanitarian work as an ambassador for Soul of Africa, a Mozambique-based project, and try his best to be a good role model to fellow South Africans.
Other well-known South Africans who were honoured included divas Thandi Klaasen, Abigail Kubeka and Dorothy Masuka, who all showed their star quality with elegant outfits and hats.
Writers Andre Brink and Don Mattera were also present and struggle heroes, artists and writers such as "Drum Boy" Can Themba and Cry the Beloved Country author Alan Paton were represented by proud family members.
The oldest recipient present was 87-year-old Herbert Woodhouse, who was rewarded for outstanding achievements in and contributions to the field of rock art.
Chancellor of the National Orders Reverend Frank Chikane said it was time to accord those awarded their dues for having made South Africa what it is today.
"They are the men and women who dared to act outside the boundaries of the ordinary," said Mbeki, "taking upon themselves the skill and daring of the majestic bird on our Coat of Arms which stands on permanent guard to protect the nation.
"They are our symbols of human creative talent, our guardians of ubuntu who manifest the national gift of courage that rises with danger, our touchstones for our collective accomplishments as a nation, and stalwarts of human solidarity."
All the winners
Order of Mapungubwe - Awarded to South African citizens for achievements that have impacted internationally and served the interest of the Republic of South Africa.
Order of Ikhamanga - Awarded to citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts and culture, literature, journalism and sport.
Mendi Decoration for Bravery - awarded to South Africans who have performed acts of bravery who, in the process, would have lost their lives or may have placed their lives in great danger in their efforts to save others.
THE ORDER OF MENDI FOR BRAVERY IN BRONZE
Elizabeth Gumede - awarded for bravely contributing to the struggle against apartheid.
Marcel Christian van Rossum - awarded for displaying an act of bravery and courage by putting his life at risk to save the lives of drowning children.
THE ORDER OF MENDI IN SILVER
Adolphus Mvemve (posthumous) - awarded for displaying acts of bravery during the struggle against apartheid.
George Phela (posthumous) - awarded for displaying acts of bravery and valour by sacrificing his own life to save the lives of a drowning mother and her child.
THE ORDER OF MENDI FOR BRAVERY IN GOLD
Benson Tsele (posthumous) - awarded for his bravery in engaging the Rhodesian army in military battle for the cause of freedom.
Bhambatha Ka Mancinza Zondi (posthumous) - awarded for bravery in leading a rebellion against the repressive laws of the colonialist government and for laying down his life for the cause of justice.
THE ORDER OF IKHAMANGA IN BRONZE
Christian Ashley-Botha - awarded for outstanding contribution in the field of choral music in South Africa.
Matlhaela Michael Masote - awarded for outstanding contribution to the development of youth orchestras and choral music in the classical genre in South Africa.
Oscar Pistorius - awarded for inspiring achievements in the field of athletics and contributing to the well-being of disabled people in Africa.
Sibusiso Vilane - awarded for inspiring and excellent achievement in the field of mountaineering.
Herbert Woodhouse - awarded for outstanding achievement in and contribution to the field of rock art.
THE ORDER OF IKHAMANGA IN SILVER
Willie Bester - awarded for excellent contribution to the art of mixed media paintings, canvas assemblages and metal sculptures.
André Brink - awarded for excellent contribution to literature and fighting for a just and democratic society.
Yvonne Bryceland (posthumous) - awarded for excellent achievement in the field of dramatic art.
Thandi Klaasen - awarded for excellent achievement in and contribution to the art of music.
Abigail Kubeka - awarded for excellent achievement in and contribution to the art of music.
Esther Mahlangu - awarded for excellent contribution to the development of the indigenous Ndebele arts.
Dorothy Masuka - awarded for excellent achievement in and contribution to music composition and performance.
Donato Francisco Mattera - awarded for excellent contribution to literature, achievement in the field of journalism and striving for democracy and justice in South Africa.
Ryk Neethling - awarded for excellent achievements in the field of swimming.
George Singh (posthumous) - awarded for excellent contribution to soccer and to non-racism, non-sexism and justice in sport and society.
Canodoise Daniel Themba (posthumous) - awarded for excellent achievement in literature, contributing to the field of journalism and striving for a just and democratic South Africa.
Alan Stewart Paton (posthumous) - awarded for exceptional contribution to literature, exposing the apartheid oppression through his work and fighting for a just and democratic society.
Tiyo Soga (posthumous) - awarded for exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change.
THE ORDER OF MAPUNGUBWE IN SILVER
Selig Percy Amoils - awarded for excellence in the field of ophthalmology and for inspiring his colleagues in the field of science.
Patricia Berjak - awarded for excellent achievements in and contributions to the understanding of seed science.
Lionel Opie - awarded for excellent contribution to the knowledge of and achievement in the field of cardiology.