South Africa’s first black Olympic gold medalist

Twenty years ago, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Josia Thugwane shocked his nation by becoming the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, Thugwane “reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”

Josia had to overcome more than just his competitors in the marathon in the 1996 Olympics, but also the segregation and oppression of apartheid that he had grown up under.

While trying to earn a living by gardening for an older woman in 1988, Josia asked a join a local running team that was sponsored by a mining company.  With no formal education and no running shoes, Josia saw this as an opportunity.  At 18, he was given a job as a janitor, mopping floors and cleaning rooms for the mining company in a coal mine hostel, and was allowed to train with the company’s running team.

But even running was segregated in apartheid South Africa.

During apartheid, whites generally had the access to technical instruction, equipment and running tracks that were forbidden to blacks. In all of what was formerly considered black South Africa, there is only one all-weather running surface, in the township of Soweto. Blacks generally took to road racing, where shoes were the only equipment needed and bare feet would often suffice.

Still, blacks suffered legislated discrimination. In the past, black runners were frequently stopped by police for running through white areas without carrying their identification papers.

Josia quickly became one of the best long-distance runners in the country, and in 1993 he won the national marathon championship in Cape Town and eventually earned a spot on the South Africa Olympic team for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.  He was thrilled to be able to run for Mandela – the man who freed all South Africans just two years earlier when he was elected president of the country.

At the Olympics, he was so much of an underdog in the marathon that not one journalist managed to ask him before the race what a win would mean.

But here was Josia, a black man, running for Mandela — running the race of the ancients.  A black man, running away from his homeland’s sad racial past — running toward a reformed South Africa.

If he won, not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936 or aboriginal 400-meter runner Cathy Freeman won gold in Sydney in 2000, could a more powerful racial message be sent on an Olympic track.

South Africa’s first healing, unifying moment on the sporting stage had come the year before, when the Springboks stunningly won the Rugby World Cup. Mandela partnered with the team’s white captain, Francois Pienaar, to unite the country behind the most popular sport of white South Africans. Months later, in January 1996, South Africa won the African Cup of Nations for the first time, inspiring whites to unite behind the mostly black national soccer team.

But no black South African had ever won an individual gold medal on the Olympic stage; government money had scarcely been used to develop anyone but South Africa’s white athletes.

Never had just one black man faced the possibility of millions of white South Africans on the brink of euphoria if he could medal.

In a stunning upset, Josia won the marathon by just 3 seconds in what was the closest finish in Olympic marathon history.

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Josia had become South Africa’s first black Olympic gold medalist.

In South Africa, they poured out of the black townships, out of the gated white neighborhoods, out of malls and restaurants, off the motorways into filling stations – all celebrating the glory of one man, one flag.

“I won this gold medal for the people of South Africa. I also won this gold medal for President Nelson Mandela. His efforts to end apartheid have made us free – free to run, free to be part of the international community.  Without him, I would not be standing here today as Olympic champion,” Thugwane said.

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Nelson Mandela with Josia Thugwane after winning the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics

“It is an indication to others that if we work hard, all of us have equal opportunity, not like in the past.”

Josia Thugwane came home to two weeks of celebrations, parades and honorary dinners. Nelson Mandela even said of Thugwane’s historic victory, “He is our golden boy and he has reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”

Josiah Thugwane

Tony Longhurst, Thugwane’s agent, said, “For a country that has been through so much political turmoil, this is a huge hope for the future. We can have heroes who don’t have to be black or white. They can be South Africans.”

South Africa’s troubled history with the Olympics

As the Rio Olympics near, another opportunity presents itself to look back at South Africa’s conflicted experience with the Olympics, from being banned from the Games for decades to their triumphant return.

While most countries take for granted their right to compete among the world’s best every four years, South Africa knows what it is like to be an outcast on this world stage.  As a result of the almost universal condemnation and abhorrence of apartheid, South Africa was banned from the Olympics from 1964 until 1992.

One of the greatest weapons in the struggle against apartheid was the international sports boycott.  These boycotts included both foreign countries and individual athletes from abroad refusing to play in South Africa and South African teams and athletes being prohibited from playing in other countries.  Specific sports bodies, for example, FIFA and the Davis Cup, also banned South Africa and its athletes from taking part in tournaments and even being part of these associations due to apartheid.  South Africa was almost entirely isolated from the international sports world as a result of apartheid, affecting boxing, soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis, and golf, among others.

But the largest and most prominent sports ban was from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

South Africa’s rigid sports apartheid had been applied since the National Party came to power in 1948, and it included segregation in sports fields, seating in stadiums, and especially on teams and clubs.  Not only were “non-European” South Africans banned from being part of national and local teams, but South Africa even refused at times to play against multiracial teams from other countries.

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SAN-ROC pin

The campaign to prevent South Africa from taking part in the Olympics started in the early 1960s, led primarily by Dennis Brutus.  Brutus, one of the first sports social activists, saw the power sport had to change society, and he recognized and channeled the power of sport in the fight against apartheid.  In 1962, he helped set up the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC), as opposed to the white-only government sports bodies, which spearheaded the international sports boycott against apartheid South Africa.

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Dennis Brutus

It was Dennis Brutus who, in 1963, wrote to members of the IOC urging them to join the struggle against racist sport in South Africa.  Brutus gathered support from other African nations, who supported both the ban on apartheid sport and South Africa’s dismissal from the Olympics.

Brutus and others focused on the Olympic Charter, which specifically prohibits “discrimination…against any country or person on grounds of race, religion or political affiliation.”  They hoped that if enough countries called for South Africa to be banned from the Games, then the IOC would have to take action.

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were the first Games where South Africa was banned. The IOC made the decision to withdraw its invitation to South Africa when the South African government insisted that the team would not be racially integrated.

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As Dennis Brutus points out, “[Sport] was the first area in which apartheid was successfully challenged, and it sent an absolute earthquake through white South Africa.”

The IOC said the decision could be overturned only if South Africa renounced racial discrimination in sport and opposed the ban in its own country on competition between white and black athletes.

At the next Summer Olympic Games, in 1968 in Mexico City,  the IOC was prepared to readmit South Africa after assurances that its team would be multi-racial. The IOC visited South Africa and presented a favorable report, stating that they had undertaken to send a multiracial team, selected on merit, to the Olympic Games. Their invitation to take part in the Games, however, elicited such sharp protests from many African countries and others, with 38 countries threatening to boycott the Games if South Africa was allowed to participate.  The IOC thus made the decision to withdraw its invitation to South Africa, preventing them from taking part in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

It was finally in 1970 when the IOC took the decision to formally expel South Africa from the IOC, preventing their participation in any future Olympic Games.

In South Africa, some athletes, however, were able to compete in the Olympics after leaving the country and gaining citizenship in other countries, including Zola Budd (Britain) and Sydney Maree (United States) in 1984.

The Olympic condemnation over apartheid continued despite South Africa’s ban. In the 1976 Montreal games,South Africa’s apartheid again brought controversy to the Olympics. Earlier that year, New Zealand’s rugby team had undertaken a three-month rugby tour of segregated South Africa.  This rugby tour prompted dozens of African countries to demand that the New Zealand Olympic team be excluded from the games. The IOC chose not to exclude New Zealand on the grounds that rugby was not an Olympic sport.

As a result, protests against their participation spread.  In the end, 28 nations boycotted the Games in response to New Zealand’s inclusion.

The Olympic ban on South Africa was only lifted prior to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when the international community became convinced that South Africa was irrevocably on the road to political transformation and democracy.

While the country’s first democratic elections were still two years away, it was deemed that the apartheid government had shown efforts to bring an end to apartheid in the country. In 1991, the Population Registration Act, a cornerstone of apartheid legislation, was repealed by the government of F. W. de Klerk, and a nonracial national Olympic committee was formed and recognized in South Africa.

Interestingly, at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, the official flag of South Africa and anthem Die Stem were still the apartheid-era ones, but the Olympic team competed under an interim flag and used Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as their interim anthem.

Apartheid victims lose 14-year legal battle against Ford and IBM

In a unique and complex legal battle, a 1789 law in the United States and apartheid have been linked up in the U.S. court system, including the U.S. Supreme Court, for over a decade.

The case has its roots in South African apartheid victims seeking compensation and reparations for abuses, oppression, discrimination, and violence during the apartheid era. Their focus, however, was not solely on individuals and organization in South Africa, but also multinational corporations who did business with South Africa in this era, thus profiting from apartheid’s system of cheap labor and thus propping up the apartheid state and aiding and abetting the perpetuation of gross human rights violations during apartheid.

In 2002, apartheid victims filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S.  The case was brought by several South Africans, including Lungisile Ntsebeza, whose brother Dumisa Ntsebeza is one of the lawyers in the case.  Several of them were former employees of Ford who were arrested and tortured after Ford released information about protests to the apartheid government.

The case went through the U.S. court system, and eventually all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case this week.

The denial by the Supreme Court this week means that an earlier ruling by the lower US District Court stands – that IBM and Ford could not be held liable, in US courts, for actions by its subsidiaries based in South Africa in favor of the apartheid regime.

The South Africans sued the corporations under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a U.S. law enacted in 1789, which allows non-citizens to pursue civil claims in US district courts for violations of international law or US treaties. Initially, 23 companies had been sued for having relations with the apartheid regime, including Citigroup, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, General Electric, ExxonMobil, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler.

Since 1980, US courts have interpreted the statute to allow foreign citizens to sue for human-rights violations that may have occurred outside of the United States. However, the Supreme Court has never specified if corporations can be held liable for their actions under this law.

Additionally, it is still unclear if entities can be held liable for actions that did not occur in the United States. In the absence of a final decision on that question, lower courts have required varying degrees of the planning of human rights violations to have actually occurred in the United States.

As a result, by 2013, claims had been dismissed against all corporations, except for Ford and IBM, due to an inability to prove that the corporations had planned their human rights violations within the United States.

Support for the plaintiffs came from a variety of organizations, including former Truth and Reconciliation commissioners, various human rights NGOs, COSATU, and the South African Council of Churches. Former US Ambassador David Scheffer even submitted a brief to the Supreme Court supporting the plaintiffs.

The government of South Africa was initially opposed to the lawsuit, claiming that it would damage foreign investor perceptions of the country. However, in 2009, the government officially reversed its position. In a letter to the United States Supreme Court, Minister of Justice Jeffrey Radebe stated that his government was of the view that the “[Supreme] Court is the appropriate forum to hear the remaining claims of aiding and abetting in violation of international law.”

In their arguments to the Second Circuit Court, Ntsebeza and the others argued that Ford and IBM should be held accountable as they were “U.S. corporations that, through their conduct in the United States, provided direct support to the South African government during apartheid and/or were purposefully complicit in the human rights violations committed by the apartheid government and security forces…[and] produced the very products that enabled the apartheid government to run and maintain the apartheid system and to oppress, control, suppress, intimidate, denationalize, and otherwise violate the rights of black South Africans.”

They claim that Ford’s US board made key decisions to manufacture specialized vehicles for apartheid security forces in violation of US sanctions and retaliated against employees who took part in anti-apartheid protests.

IBM, they say, provided database and information storage services that were key to the apartheid government implementing their race-based classification system.

Several of the South Africans in the court case were former employees of Ford who had been arrested and tortured after Ford released information about protest activities to the apartheid government. They believe that Ford and IBM’s US supervision of South African subsidiaries was a strong enough connection to allow the companies to be prosecuted under the Alien Tort Statute.

In their submitted briefs, Ford and IBM did not deny that their South African subsidiaries had helped the apartheid government. But they argued that they could not be held liable in the United States, as general supervision of their South African subsidiaries was not a strong enough connection to establish that the US headquarters had planned and supported the human rights violations.

Additionally, they contended that the statute did not allow for corporate liability, especially when the corporation that had committed the violations were based in another country (as their subsidiaries technically were).

In August 2014, US District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin dismissed the claims on grounds that the statute did not allow for corporations to be held liable, when all relevant violations of international law had taken place outside of the United States. In her opinion she stated, “that these plaintiffs are left without relief in an American court is regrettable” but said she was bound to follow previous cases, “no matter what my personal view of the law may be.”

In February 2016, Ntsebeza’s legal team wrote a petition to the Supreme Court, appealing against the dismissal of their case. They highlighted inconsistent standards among lower courts on what actually constitutes “aiding and abetting in human rights violations” and they asked the Supreme Court to answer the fundamental question of whether corporations can be held liable under the Statute.

The denial of appeal means the Supreme Court did not see this as a strong enough court case or did not want to answer either of those questions. As it is the highest court in the United States, Ford and IBM are officially free from the civil action by Ntsebeza.

Divided cities: South Africa’s apartheid legacy

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Hout Bay, Cape Town

A photographer is offering a new perspective on the sharp divide between rich and poor in South Africa with a series of aerial photographs.

Johnny Miller’s project, Unequal Scenes, saw him use a drone to capture images of some of South Africa’s richest and poorest neighborhoods lying side-by-side.

Miller, originally from the US, moved to Cape Town in 2011.

During his studies he became fascinated by the method of city planning used during apartheid, which involved creating buffer zones to keep racial groups separate.

Decades on, a level of separation continues between informal settlements, or shanty towns, and wealthier suburbs, even though geographically many of them are very close.

“I took the drone to one of the most dramatic examples of informal settlements, which is the boundary between Masiphumelele and Lake Michelle,” Miller said.

“I wanted people to see that divide from a new perspective.”

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Kya Sands, Johannesburg

Miller said people had strong reactions to the project.

“Recently I spoke in front of a crowd and a man came up to me, whom I had never met before,” Miller said.  “He looked me dead in the eyes, and said, ‘you’re giving a voice to millions of people around South Africa who are living in these conditions.'”

Critics pointed out that inequality exists everywhere, but Miller argues Cape Town’s layout makes its two extremes even more apparent.

“There aren’t really that many places in the world that look as extreme as South Africa,” he said.

“Have these people ever been inside a South African informal settlement? I have. I can tell you that it is desperate. In some cases, it is like an urban hell.

“There is disease, there is crime, there is unemployment, there is anger, and there is hopelessness.”

Miller’s photography helps us better understand the realities of apartheid-era segregation, the lingering realities of that segregation in today’s South Africa, and the economic inequalities that exist in South Africa.

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Check out all of Miller’s photography from this project here: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2016/jun/23/south-africa-divided-cities-apartheid-photographed-drone.

40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising

June 16th marked the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising in South Africa.

It is considered a turning point in the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But what exactly happened that led up to this fateful day in June 1976, and why was it so important to the downfall of apartheid?

Background

The 1953 Bantu Education Act, passed by the apartheid government, laid the seeds of the 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto and around the country.

The Act was part of an an inferior education system that was designed to limit African education to the needs of the white community. The architect of the Act, Hendrik Verwoerd, put it bluntly as to how he thought of African education in the country:

“The native child must be taught subjects which will enable him to work with and among his own people; therefore there is no use misleading him by showing him the green pastures of European society, in which he is not allowed to graze. Bantu education should not be used to create imitation whites. … There is no place for him…above the level of certain forms of labor.”

As Nelson Mandela said in 1953 about the Act, “The Minister of Native Affairs, Verwoerd, has been brutally clear in explaining the objects of the Bantu Education Bill. According to him the aim of this law is to teach our children that Africans are inferior to Europeans.”

The brutal realities of what this act did to education in South Africa was in full effect by the 1970s:

  • The government spent 30 times more on the education of a   white student than a black student
  • In 1967, there was a 58 pupils/teacher ratio in Soweto
  • From 1962-1971 no new secondary schools were built in Soweto as the government said all new high schools would be built in the Homelands
  • In 1961, less than 10% of teachers in black schools had graduated high school
  • Only 33% of Grade 12 students graduated in 1968

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Then, in 1974, the government announced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 onwards in Math, Social Sciences, and Biology in the southern Transvaal, which included Soweto.  Few teachers knew how to speak Afrikaans, and students regarded it as the language of the oppressor, and thus this regulation proved to be highly volatile.  It was set to take effect in 1975.

To put it in perspective to an American audience, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said, “Suppose white American families were told that their children would be taught all their school subjects in French or Dutch from now on. Imagine that virtually all white children, regardless of ability, were given a different and inferior kind of education.”

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Abram Tiro

Student anger was aided by the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, the South African Student Organization (SASO), and the influence of Abram Tiro.  Tiro was a SASO leader and student at Turfloop University in 1972 and was outspoken in his calls for educational reforms.  He was subsequently expelled from the university, in response to which black campuses throughout the country rallied behind Tiro and the students from Turfloop, boycotting classes in 1972.  Harry Mashabela recalled that “The expulsion of Tiro from Turfloop crippled black tertiary education countrywide.” Tiro went on to teach in Soweto right at the time when Afrikaans was being enforced as the language of instruction there, and he became a role model and icon of the young students.

On May 16, 1976, students at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Soweto refused to proceed to their classrooms after the morning assembly, boycotting their classes.  They demanded the principal explain why they were now expected to study in Afrikaans. Six other schools around Soweto soon joined in them on the boycott, and by early June, 2,700 students were boycotting classes.

As Nelson Mandela recognized, “Students did not want to learn and teachers did not want to teach in the language of the oppressor.”

The South African Students Movement (SASM) organized a student march on June 16, organized by Tsietsi Mashinini, a local high school student.

The march was in protest at the Afrikaans ruling and in support of the local students who had been boycotting classes for weeks. More than 15,000 students marched, carrying signs that read, “Down with Afrikaans” and “Bantu Education—to hell with it.”  This march launched the Soweto Uprising.

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The police opened fire on the unarmed students less than an hour after the march began. The police killed 23 people that day, including 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson.

Hector Pieterson’s death became the symbol of the uprising as photographer Sam Nzima was there to capture the moment.

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Riots broke out throughout Soweto and surrounding townships and continued for months.  Protests broke out across the country, in Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, and many other cities.  What happened in Soweto was a spark that had ignited the resistance of the entire country against apartheid.

By the end of 1976, the police had shot and killed more than 500 protestors and wounded over 4,000 protestors in riots and marches that had continued. Thousands had been arrested

The Soweto Uprising signaled the beginning of the end of apartheid.  It inspired thousands of young people to flee the country to join the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) to help fight for their country’s liberation.  In many ways, with the leaders in jail or in exile, it inspired the masses to stand up for their rights and refuse to accept the oppression and segregation of apartheid.

But 40 years on, what does the Soweto Uprising mean for a new generation of young South Africans?

 

 

 

 

 

Our oldest human ancestors – the San

Africa is the very source of human history – the cradle of humanity.  And Southern Africa specifically is home to some of the oldest evidence in the world documenting the emergence of humankind.

In Southern Africa, the San are our oldest human ancestors, DNA testing proving they are direct descendants of the first Homo sapiens.

The San have lived in Southern Africa for as many as 20,000 years and are widely recognized as the oldest human population on Earth.

Scientists recently analyzed the genetic variation within the DNA of more than 3,000 Africans and found that the San were among the most genetically diverse group, indicating that they are the oldest continuous population of humans on the continent – and on Earth.  The study, led by Professor Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, was published in the journal Science in 2009.

The San are descended from the earliest human ancestors from which all other groups of Africans stem and, in turn, to the people who left the continent to populate other corners of the planet.

The origin of a species is taken to be the place where people show the most genetic diversity because of the time it takes for genes to evolve.  The DNA tests therefore suggest the San are the oldest continuous population of humans on the Earth.

The San were traditionally semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving seasonally based on the availability of resources such as water, game animals, and edible plants.

Currently the estimated 100,000 San predominantly live across South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Namibia.

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The San, which Europeans derogatorily referred to as the Bushmen, are known as the Basarwa in Botswana.

But the San today are caught between modernity and 20,000 years as hunter-gatherers. Their culture, traditions and heritage are at risk of being lost forever.

They are being removed off their traditional land and their culture is slowly being lost.

Basarwa in Botswana

Like many Native Americans in the US, many San today are found in resettlement villages, especially in Botswana where the government began relocating the Basarwa.

In 1997 the government of Botswana began removing the Basarwa off their off their ancestral hunting-ground in the vast expanse of the Kalahari Desert, which currently is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The government says the restriction of people on the land is intended to preserve the wildlife and the ecosystems of the vast reserve, which is slightly bigger than Denmark.

But many point to the fact that the government’s decision only came after the discovery of diamonds in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the 1980s. The ancestral lands of the Basarwa lie in the middle of the world’s richest diamond field. They believe they were relocated to make way for a multimillion dollar mining project.

In 2002 the army moved the majority of the Basarwa out of the Kalahari, often brutally, to government-built resettlement camps far from the reserve.

The Basarwa have been at odds with the country’s government since 1997, embroiled in several legal battles over their right to live inside the game park – and to continue their traditional lifestyle as hunter-gatherers.

At one point they were even denied access to water in the reserve. Their boreholes were capped and they were banned from drilling more.

However, the Botswana Appeals Court, in a 2011 judgment on the matter, described the plight of the Basarwa as a “harrowing story of human suffering and despair” and ruled that they be allowed access to water in the game reserve.

But the loss of their culture is continuing.

“Some of the kids, Basarwa kids, are taken to schools (and) they can lose their culture because they are taught other ways of living,” explains Bihela Sekere.

And while the Basarwa traditionally hunted wild game and gathered wild plants to eat, modern laws that ban hunting in certain areas have added to the strains on their nomadic lifestyle.

A number of them are now also adopting Western fashion over more traditional ways of dressing, and avoid their language for modern languages like English.

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young Basarwa in Botswana today

Hope is not lost, however, while there are those willing to preserve indigenous culture. Local man Xontae guides the curious around some of his people’s greatest heritage sites, including the Tsodilo Hills in Botswana, where 4,500 rock paintings dating back to the Stone Age can be explored.

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Meanwhile the Kuru Art Project, which describes its work as contemporary San art, seeks to revive art making among the Basarwa once more.

Ann Gollifer, who is part of the initiative, says that the work the Basarwa create mainly depicts a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Using modern mediums to paint ancient traditions, these artworks have sold all over the world.

It’s proof that culture is dynamic, malleable and susceptible to change — for better or for worse. But with will and determination, the likes of Sekere believes the Basarwa have what it takes.

“Culture on its own, it is what makes you who you are… It’s upon us, the youth, to learn from these old people to promote our culture and to preserve it while they are still alive.”

International Albinism Awareness Day

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June 13th is International Albinism Awareness Day.

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Albinism is a non-contagious, genetically inherited condition that results in the lack of pigment in skin, hair and eyes. People (and animals – the disorder affects all vertebrates) lack tyrosinase, an enzyme that is necessary for the body’s production of melanin. This pigmentation defect can affect a person of any race or ethnicity, and aside from causing vision problems and sensitivity to the sun, it generally isn’t considered a detriment to one’s health.

It is most common in sub-Saharan Africa, where there remains great misunderstanding about people with the condition.  One in 1,400 people in southern Africa have albinism, compared to 1 in 20,000 people in the West.

In some parts of southern and eastern Africa, body parts of those living with albinism are believed to hold “magic powers”, and so they are hunted and killed by “albino hunters”.

The UN even warned that albinos in Malawi are at risk of “total extinction” amid escalating attacks against them.

People living with albinism face discrimination in many parts of Africa because they are “whites” born of black parents.

The stigma also stems in part from superstition. Many in communities in Tanzania, Malawi, and Burundi believe that people with albinism can bring bad luck to a community. At the same time, their body parts are falsely believed to be magical, and used as amulets or in potions from witch doctors. Because of the myths, albino body parts fuel a valuable black market.

“The worst form of discrimination is the ritual attacks. These are rooted in superstition… . Body parts of persons with albinism are used for witchcraft purposes. There is this belief in certain countries that body parts have magical powers and if used in potions produced by witch doctors it will bring wealth and power,” said U.N. human rights official Alicia Loudono.

As a result, people with albinism are mutilated for their body parts. Loudono says a limb can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. She says a person who has had an arm or a leg cut off is usually left unattended and bleeds to death.

A complete set of body parts from an albino, including “all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose,” can bring in up to $75,000 on the black market, according to a 2009 report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Victims who survive usually receive no communal support or legal assistance.

Ikponwosa Ero, the United Nations’ expert on albinism, said, “Persons with albinism, and parents of children with albinism, constantly live in fear of attack.”

Loudono says she is very concerned by the marginalization, discrimination and persecution to which people with albinism are subjected in Africa. She says they are portrayed as ghosts, as devils, as people who bring bad luck, death or sickness.

In 2016, there have been attacks in Tanzania, Burundi and Malawi. But even when they are not hunted, people with albinism often face discrimination and ridicule within their own families and communities.

Nombuso Cele, a 24-year-old financial management student from Durban, South Africa, describes the challenges that people with albinism endure in their day-to-day lives:

As much as some family members accepted me from birth, it took my parents some time to truly accept me. It affected me because I needed them at that time, and I didn’t have their support.

But I couldn’t blame them because they didn’t understand what was going on with me. I have experienced a lot of discrimination from our society and people who are uninformed about albinism.

When I was in primary school, other kids stayed away from me because I was different from them and it affected my self-esteem.

In high school, I started gaining more confidence and claimed my position and my right to be part of the so-called “normal” society.

Since then, I have always had confidence and didn’t let anyone treat me as though I were different from the rest of the people.

People have a crazy idea that albinos are not human enough to be part of the society.

People need to accept us for who we are, and if that means I have to associate myself with them and exist in the same space as them, then so be it.

I have had challenges at school with my eyes, but that did not stop me from following my dreams. I have friends who have been helpful throughout the past two years of my studies, and I am very grateful for having such people.

I have had my fair share of challenges and faced a lot of discrimination, but I chose not to let that determine who I am.

It’s funny how dark-skinned people think they are better than albinos, but we are all black.

Within the Durban University of Technology there are people who still look at me with resentment. That alone shows how uninformed and socially illiterate young people can be. I am OK with the fact that our university doesn’t have any organization specifically for people with albinism because we are well informed about it.

It is the society that needs to be informed, and the organizations advocating for people living with albinism should take a different approach when raising awareness.

Instead of mobilizing each other, they should involve the society and provide necessary information to them.

I am very grateful that my mother did not take me to the special schools that accommodate those living with disabilities. As much as the government declares albinism to be a disability, I don’t allow myself to be treated as a disabled person because I am able in every way.

Myths about albinos need to end.

Men need to understand that albinos are human too, and [not believe] the myth that having sex with a person with albinism will cure HIV and AIDS.

People need to stop being gullible and ridiculous. We have the same blood; it is just the skin pigmentation that is different.

Many people are brainwashed and believe that those with albinism have a certain magic. Yes, we are special, and there is something special about us. That doesn’t make us animals to be preyed upon and brutally killed.

We should not be made to feel self-conscious about who we are because that’s how isolation begins. I am impressed by the fact that our government has begun considering us for employment opportunities because we are just as capable as others, regardless of our condition.

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The UN Human Rights Office and the NGO, Under the Same Sun, made a presentation to the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council in 2014

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Al Jazeera’s The Stream – Albinos who are breaking barriers and stereotypes