If you live in South Africa, race matters

Faith Daniels

What an awesome few days we've had. Everyone I know is walking around with red eyes because the Rio Olympics will show you flames if you don't PVR and insist on watching events live. Thank goodness for Catch Up as well. Poor Wayde van Niekerk has run the 400 metre race hundreds of times in my house already.

But the early hours have been well worth it because our athletes are making us proud.

What a pity though that we as South Africans can sometimes be our own downers when it comes to these successes. Really, we don’t need anyone else to burst our bubble or belittle us. We do a pretty good job of that ourselves.

Because when King Wayde brought us a world record and an awesome performance, we just had to drag the debate down to an unpleasant level. And, don’t get me wrong, at times these debates can be quite critical because it shows how far we must still go in order to understand each other and the different perspectives out there. But you don’t have to be downright rude and offensive and border on being racist, as some comments at times suggested. The rational voices emerged though. And it made for interesting reading.

It showed that we have issues with how we choose to identify ourselves, with labels of race placed on us and what we generally think about celebrating success.

The hashtag #ColouredExcellence on Twitter started it all. Some of the comments questioned why it can’t just be a case of South African excellence or just plain excellence.

One Twitter user then pointed out that the hashtag #BlackExcellence was constantly used without any questions being raised, so why should this one be any different? The mere mention of the fact that Wayde Van Niekerk was a coloured athlete didn’t sit well with everyone. Why can’t he just be South African?

Well, because he is not just a South African. The long and painful history of this country makes it quite necessary to point out these obvious things at all times. Because, you see, these success stories are not the norm where I come from. It’s not the norm where Wayde comes from – not success stories involving people who look like us. These stories are few and far between – as are all the success stories of marginalised and disadvantaged communities and people who’ve beaten the odds at various stages of their lives in this country.

Of course, the counter-argument is that it’s been more than 20 years of democracy. Can you not just get over your issues? Well, no. After decades of oppression, we are now saddled with legacy issues, in our education system, our communities, every single aspect of our being.

No matter the strides we’ve made, you cannot expect an entire group of people to simply subscribe to your view of a rainbow nation. We live in a society that doesn’t treat us the same all of the time.

So when people claim the label coloured and claim Wayde as one of their own – what is wrong with that? It’s not like that classification has been taken out of our South African context. It lives on in the employment equity forms we have to fill in, it lived in the registry at my old high school. And I’m sure it lives on wherever else people deem it necessary to make the seperation or distinction among the race groups.

So, when people want to own the label, let them. Consider this for one moment – if you were lucky enough to grow up in a society where people who look like you excelled on a regular basis, if you could switch on the TV and see stars and sportsmen who look like you, and that was your norm – be thankful for your privilege. Because not many South Africans can say the same. So when a Wayde van Niekerk makes waves and an entire coloured community of people claim him, allow them that. It takes away none of your existing privilege or patriotism. Don’t argue that race has nothing to do with it. In fact, it has so much to do with it. And it matters.

- Faith Daniels is a seasoned radio and TV journalist, and is currently head of news at Kagiso Media’s Jacaranda FM and East Coast Radio.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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