What does a South African living in the United States think of African athletes celebrated in Britain?
Over the past two weeks, I actively followed the 2012 London Summer Olympics, writing updates for Africa.com. One of the strongest images that remained with me was the A
frican sweep of the women’s 5,000-meter race: three African women presented with gold, silver, and bronze in Britain. Even though British imperialism is over, in the strict historical sense of the term, I could not help but contemplate the meaning of race and nationhood at the Olympic games, as I have become more interested in and aware of discourse on race and colonialism.
In-between the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, my life was most affected by migrating to the U.S. for college. Once in the States, I decided to change prospective majors from economics to Black studies at Amherst College. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I became more conscious of the way that race and colonialism are aspects of my subjectivity that I can’t escape, because I never fully dealt with it while living in South Africa. Even though we live in a global “post-racial” society, race has a huge impact on the way all citizens, around the world, are socialized.
Prior to my journey, I had excused the legacy of racism and colonialism that characterized my experience in South Africa. Racism and colonialism are regarded as “things” of the past that supposedly have no relevance in the present. However, this legacy survives through individuals (attitudes and personal preferences along racial lines) and structures such as employment patterns and economic dispositions as a result of apartheid (the unemployment rates between non-white and white South Africans is 63.3 percent and 5.9 percent, respectively).
In my mind, there was never a process of mental decolonization throughout society. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although worthwhile, did not reach its potential. And, in my opinion, there is still no working model for decolonizing the mind. As Frantz Fanon wrote: “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”
Even though some may read Fanon as extreme, he touches on a pivotal aspect of decolonization. It is important for us South Africans, a formerly colonized people, to create a sense of identity and pride that is actively counter to the work of colonization. Therefore, decolonization needs to disrupt historicism (as defined by Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History).
I return back to the main question: What does a South African living in the U.S. think of African athletes celebrated in Britain?
It is ironic that the Africans who were historically seen as inferior are now praised for athletic abilities. Even though African bodies were commoditized to do physical labor, the body was never highly regarded as it is today. Instead, the body was the basis, the central point of the lack of humanity that Africans faced through slavery. David Rudisha of Kenya is certainly one of the most talked-about athletes after his 800-meter victory in which he set the world record. However, it is not only African athletes who caught my attention, but black athletes throughout the African diaspora. Usain Bolt of Jamaica is definitely one of the most celebrated athletes in and outside of Olympic discussions. He has received mixed commentary, with many writers criticizing his attitude and supposed arrogance, while negating that he could very well be classified as a legend.
I also became more aware of body politics in athletics during the Olympics. The South African runner Caster Semenya endured the terrible ordeal of gender testing after her victory at the 2009 World Championships, which included an 11-month ban from participating in international competitions. The images of the tennis-playing Williams sisters from the U.S. are often characterized as “manly,” and Serena in particular is often criticized for her choice of athletic wear. Or, for instance, recall the recent social media posts concerning the American gymnast Gabby Douglas, who was criticized for not having a more stylish hairstyle while winning the gold medal in women’s all-around gymnastics. I personally cannot recall this much attention on the bodies of Caucasian athletes, or at least this much negative attention.
I can’t help but feel slightly unsettled as I watch African athletes on the podium presented with medals. I look at the gold, silver, and bronze medals being presented to the African athletes, and can’t stop the giggle that escapes my lips. I think of valuable metals extracted from the continent—our resources never really belonging to us. Yet on this world stage, African athletes are adorned with “gold,” “silver” and “bronze.” Do we call this progress?
This is indeed only one perspective on race at the Olympics. I am sure that there are many who read the scenarios and anecdotes that I present very differently. However, to ignore how certain races are expected to perform well in athletic events and how black bodies are discussed is naive and possibly dangerous, especially if society continues to overlook the impact that colonialism has had on black communities around the world.