A STAR of the Rio Olympics was Wayde van Niekerk, who won gold for South Africa in the men’s 400 metres, and shattered Michael Johnson’s 1999 world record. With an easy smile and a relaxed attitude to the media, Mr van Niekerk, little known outside athletics before the Games, won hearts around the world.
His mother, a talented sprinter, was denied the chance to compete at the top level under apartheid. His coach, Ans Botha, is not only 74 years old, but is also one of a handful of women worldwide coaching a top-level male athlete.
Mr van Niekerk, who is 24, has struck up a friendship with the world’s track superstar Usain Bolt. Both are men of Christian faith.
In his homeland, his achievements were greeted with joy, but also stirred a debate on race. Mr van Niekerk is a member of the country’s five-million-strong Coloured community.
Coloured culture — a mix of African, Asian, and European heritage — is rarely given credit for its distinctiveness, even in South Africa. This heterogeneous community is mainly Christian, including many Anglicans, but also a large Muslim minority, whose ancestors were taken as slaves by the Dutch from what is now Indonesia. Some Coloured villages in the remote north of the country also preserve the traditions of the Khoi-San tribes, formerly known as “Bushmen”.
The term “Coloured” was in use as a term of self-identification generations before it became a formal apartheid racial classification in 1948. Coloured people avoided some of the worst aspects of apartheid, but were segregated in housing, public facilities, and education, and, in effect, barred from many areas of employment.
Many still feel marginalised, looked down on by a wealthier White population and a politically powerful Black community: “We were too dark under apartheid, and are too pale now,” a common refrain runs.
Some Twitter-users celebrated Mr van Niekerk’s win with the hashtag #ColouredExcellence, seeing it as an inspiration to young people growing up in the face of stereotypes of gangsterism and addiction.
Similar views were expressed in the press. “Now everyone will know that Coloured people are capable of extraordinary things”, the journalist Carmen Williams said in the lifestyle magazine W24, “because over the years I know and have experienced overwhelming doubt in the capabilities of people of my race.”
Elizabeth Hoorn Petersen, an Anglican who founded and directs a Cape Town NGO, the South African Faith and Family Institute, cautioned against creating divisions between Black and Coloured communities.
“Already in my first years at school,” she said, “I learned I could not serve God as I believed I was called, because I am Coloured and a woman, not a White man. We still live under the Siamese twins of oppression — White supremacy and patriarchy.”
Ms Petersen said that Christians must remember their most important identity. “Our true identity is in what God said to Jeremiah: ‘Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.’ Our true identity is in Christ.”
Mr van Niekerk would, no doubt, agree. Immediately after the Games’ closing ceremony, he said on Twitter: “I can’t stop thanking God. Jesus did it.”