Behind Wayde van Niekerk’s world title is the story of his mother’s anti-apartheid sports sacrifice, says Cheryl Roberts.
Cape Town - When he won the world athletics 400m championship in Beijing on Wednesday, Wayde van Niekerk gave his mother, Odessa the most humane respect and praise for her sacrifices as an oppressed, but very talented athlete in apartheid-era South Africa.
An amazing life story lies within the world championship winning feat of the South African at the 2015 world athletic championship being staged in Beijing, especially when one knows that Wayde’s mother is Odessa Swarts, herself a champion athlete.
Odessa was a talented athlete from primary school days and blossomed into a schoolgirl champion and national senior athlete with awesome prowess in the sprints.
She chose to participate in non-racial, anti-apartheid sport under the non-racial sports organisation, South African Council on Sport (SACOS). Back in the day, if you were a member of SACOS, you chose to play sport for freedom from oppression and apartheid. The international sports boycott of South Africa was strictly adhered to and respected. Although Odessa longed to know her international capabilities, she stood diligently and unselfishly with anti-apartheid sport.
Today, Odessa sees her son Wayde, born when oppressed South Africans like his mother couldn’t vote in her country, become a world athletics champion in a democratic South Africa.
At the top of her athletics prowess, Odessa Swarts competed in inter-provincial athletics events and the annual national championship on grass, gravel and uneven tracks; athletics tracks in Cape Town’s disadvantaged communities such as Green Point track, Athlone and Vygieskraal stadiums, Dal Josafat stadium in Paarl and Curries Fountain in Durban
It was difficult to play sport in disadvantaged and under-resourced communities during the white privileged era of apartheid. You had to make do with scarce resources. Paramount to our participation in non-racial, anti-apartheid was our principles of not supporting apartheid and not helping to make the system work, thereby further ensuring and consolidation our oppression. We chipped at and chiselled away as much of apartheid as we could, through our powerful and fierce sports structures.
Many, many talented sports people emerged in several sports; sports people who could have gone on to represent South Africa internationally and achieve world-class standards. But playing anti-apartheid sport meant that we sacrificed our sports talent for freedom from oppression. Parents yearned for a free South Africa where children could compete and participate in sport on a level terrain, where communities throughout South Africa were not discriminated against in provision of resources.
Odessa Swarts recorded fast times and phenomenal performances on the athletics tracks used by the oppressed sports people.
While South Africa tried to play international sport by getting around and out of the sports moratorium; oppressed athletes continued to play sport for freedom.
This narrative about the oppressed mother that is Odessa, and the free athletics son that is Wayde is not only touching; it is reward for the years of sacrifice which his mother adhered to so a democratic South Africa could be born and children could be free to participate in sport and know they could also dream realistically of representing their country.
There is something special when a black sports person achieves internationally. Because of the burden of race, especially if you are not white, there are much more hurdles to overcome to achieve.
It’s why we are so much more ecstatic and filled with pride when black athletes excel in rugby, football, cricket, athletics, whatever sport.
Additionally, our applause is deafening when the athlete has a mother who sacrificed her sports life and athletics prowess for freedom for future generations of SA’s children, like her own children.
This athletics feat of an oppressed athlete’s son achieving a world title and gold medal is something you think can only be scripted in Hollywood and performed on the movie screen.
We must never forget what life stories our apartheid past and democratic society throws up. They are human to the core, phenomenal in spirit and fantastic in achievement.
Don’t dare tell us we must move on from the past or that we are still living in the past. The pain, hurt and disappointment of never being able to represent a democratic country lives on in all who ever played sport for freedom.
But, when we see the children of the oppressed who gave their lives for freedom achieving, we know that the sacrifice and fight was not a lost cause.
The sports success of Wayde van Niekerk, who was not born into wealth and privilege, demonstrates the talent that exists and should be nurtured, looked after and supported.
It’s a fabulous way for a son to thank his mother for sacrificing her sports talent for him to be given a country to represent with recognition, pride, passion and enthusiasm.
But we must also remember that talent and prowess such as Wayde’s is plentiful in disadvantaged schools and communities, and we must not allow the working class children to be deprived in sport.
Apartheid took away from the oppressed by strangling them with oppression; the democratic South Africa must never allow talent to go wasted.
* Cheryl Roberts is a Cape Town-based writer.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.