It’s been tough few weeks for South Africans.
Under president Jacob Zuma, the country has been rocked by the kind of scandals that destroy political careers and unravel democracies. But not his.
In the last three years, South Africans have seen their once promising country get slapped with a recession, captured by the Guptas, caught up in the wave of unrest and disillusionment at elite universities, and declare a full scale war on journalists and advocates for free speech.
Since Mandela’s passing, there’s been a quiet yearning for the sort of hero who could offer the cheery aspiration which helped usher the country into democracy in 1994.
Sport has provided heroes who act as ambassadors for their countries in ways politicians couldn’t. From the Springboks to, before his downfall, Oscar Pistorius. Athletes are usually the country’s best ambassadors.
But in this particular moment of disaffection and fear, the person best poised to become that hero is sprinter Wayde van Niekerk. When the 25-year-old sprinter won gold by breaking the world record at the Rio Olympics in 2016, South Africans braced themselves for the arrival of a superstar. It’s continued on ever since.
Van Niekerk, who Usain Bolt crowned his successor as athletics global superstar, won gold in the 400m finals at world championships in London on Wednesday. The 25-year-old is hoping secure a double ahead of the 200m finals today (Thursday).
In South Africa, everything is about race. The only people who have managed to “transcend” those rigid categorizations are those who manage to make us proud on a global scale.
Wayde van Niekerk is a new national hero because he represents South Africa in the best light. His achievements feel personal, his wins belong to the country, and his potential is the same potential the founders of democracy saw in ordinary South Africans with ordinary possibilities.