Racism in Namibian sports is rife and has become a daily experience for many athletes in many a sporting disicpline.
One should perhaps acknowledge the myth-busting performance of the barefooted African American sprinter Jesse Owen at the Berlin Olympics in 1933.
Owen shattered a number of records in full view of the disbelieving Führer, taking four gold medals (100m, 200m, long jump, and 4x 100m relay), thus with his unbeatable pace and athleticism, he quickly dissembled before the eyes of the watching world all doubt as to the potency and potentiality of black sportsmen and women.
Prior to that, given its roots in ancient Greece, the Olympics had largely been an affair dominated by Europeans and those of European descent.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s the resistance of black athletes to a system that regarded them as second class, became increasingly visible, as through the wit and fury of Muhammed Ali and the famous power salute of 200m gold medallist Tommie Smith, as well as bronze medallist John Carlos, who raised their fists in protest during the singing of the American anthem.
That protest is recorded in what has become known as one of the “most overt political statements in the history of the Olympics”. The two US athletes received their medals shoeless, wearing black socks instead to represent black poverty.
It is against this historical background that darkish hide athletes sought to define their place in the world of sports, and when given an opportunity, proved themselves capable of excelling, even in sports codes that were historically reserved for Europeans, such as football, tennis and golf, to mention a few.
Of course, our own struggle to create a level playing field for local athletes today, takes place against a backdrop of the massive historical disadvantage that has burdened black people’s lives as a result of South African racial policies.
This includes deliberate exclusion, racism and severe debilitating poverty, based on nothing other than “the crime” of having been born black.
Darkish hide athletes, thus, still have a mountain of obstacles to scale just to be able to be present on the field of play, as ordinary things that wealthier athletes take for granted, such as having the right equipment, nutrition, an income and a conducive place to live and practise, are often lacking for the struggling black athlete.
It is in the context of this massive burden, the tragic legacy of apartheid in sports, and the basic inequality in the experience, treatment and advancement of black and white athletes in Namibia that yours truly wants to raise a number of concerns.
The much-publicised grounding of highly gifted young hockey player Liya Herunga, is a case in point. It has been widely reported that the poor girl was subjected to racial prejudice.
However, her mother would have none of that as she rightfully demanded answers for her suspicious exclusion from the national under-16 hockey team.
Needless to admit that the presiding body, the National Hockey Union (NHU), resolved to turn a blind eye to this potentially credibility damaging incident and is yet to pronounce itself publicly on the issue.
There is absolute blatant racism in Namibian sports – it’s just that people don’t want to talk about it publicly or rather don’t want to hear about it.
If my recollection serves me well, there was an interesting incident where a young physically challenged black girl of Damara descent, was making waves in horse riding.
Sadly, this young lady entered what seemed to be considered sacred territory in the equestrian sport, a discipline generally reserved for the colonial settler elites.
A god-sent good Samaritan, who owned horse stables near Okahandja next to the Osona Army Base, took her through the ropes in the art of show jumping and in no time, she started to make strides – winning competitions one after another, showing the masters how it’s done at their own game.
And guess what happened? Half a dozen of the horses belonging to this good Samaritan’s stable were poisoned by unknown thugs and perished as a result. That was indeed the end of this young lady’s fairytale journey in equestrian sport.
Under normal circumstances, one would have expected the self-proclaimed overly animal protectors, to make a loud noise about this “barbaric cruelty to animals”. So, what does this unusual silence tell us? I’m just wondering.
Let us take a closer look at archery, an exclusively white sport. This is one sport code where one would have expected to see the San clan swallowed
in to unleash their full potential through their natural god-given talent.
And what about seasoned shottists from the Namibian Defence Force? Are you really telling me that these NDF blokes who have undergone years of professional military training are not good enough to compete on the international stage?
Interestingly, when we politely point out the importance of demographic representation in national teams, those at the helm of some of the small sports codes, bowls in particular, would conveniently rope in their personal drivers and gardeners to make up the composition team just to colour-code the travelling entourage.
But alas, its does not take a rocket scientist to smell a rat that these blokes are just ushered in to camouflage the team selection, because they would in all likelihood never feature anywhere when on foreign soil.
Nevertheless, who would pass a lifetime chance of hitting the blue skies travelling overseas on a fully paid holiday?
As it stands, there are five vital components that are very much in short supply amongst sports administrators and officials: integrity, morals, ethics, honesty and accountability.
It’s an open secret that some of the sports codes are unequally dominated by close families and clans, where parents and their offspring are always the chief beneficiaries whenever it comes to team selection.
As if it is not enough that the mother of the athlete is team manager, the father or uncle is generally the coach or selector. Does such practice not constitute a grave conflict of interest? I’m just asking.
A closer inspection at schools sports reveals a sketchy picture since most of the representative youth teams do not reflect the country’s demographic layout.
As long as we have coaches who cannot relate to previously disadvantaged athletes and being fully conversant with their cultural and social backgrounds – we can forget about genuine transformation.
There’s this misplaced perception about “transformation” amongst many sports administrators.
Transformation has been deliberately misinterpreted with development, but these two entities are worlds apart. Development is the nurturing of talent whose identification should never be colour-coded whilst transformation is about affording opportunities to athletes to prove themselves and their worth as deserving athletes on equal footing.
It’s a well-documented fact that white kids are given countless opportunities to prove themselves week in and week out, while black kids are only afforded sporadic chances to prove themselves and make a lasting impression.
The predominantly white sports codes are reluctant to embrace the concept of national unification. It is just simply because the laws and rules oblige us to play under the same roof, but there has been a lukewarm acceptance of national unity.
Whenever athletes of colour are selected to represent their native land, particularly in hockey and cricket, they are made to feel that they are only there because of their skin colour, not on merit. And worse still, the dominant view amongst whites is that the inclusion of athletes of colour weakens the teams.
This is a dangerous scenario and can have a negative impact on black athletes’ performance as they become unsure, and rightly so about the coaches’ genuine opinions about their playing ability, whilst their white teammates consider their selection as handouts – a token gesture to athletes of colour.
By contrast, many of you might have noticed that whenever our national teams are competing on the African continent – white athletes become notable absentees, but would be readily available for overseas escapades.
It is time that we call a spade by its name and not sugar-coat nasty things that could ruin the health of the sporting fraternity and the prospects of talented Namibians, who have the potential to reach higher and further than their forebears, who were held back often by visible and invisible chains: chains of degradation, of discrimination, of dispossession of land, of induced poverty and super-exploitation.
That we forgive the sins committed against our forebears does not mean that we should forget the grave misery that racism has brought to this continent and its people. It has been said that the greatest weakness of black people is our unending capacity to forgive.
Let all athletes, be it black, brown or white, be given equal access to a level playing ground. Anything else is a recipe for defeat, as we have repeatedly seen, not only on the field of play, but in the eyes of the wider society, which craves greater national unity. I rest my case.