South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk (gold medal) poses during the podium ceremony for the men's 400m during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 15, 2016.
The recent wave of political engagement that has swept the nation has gathered many previously apathetic citizens in its wake. Those untouched by the injustices of apartheid or who have enjoyed the comforts of a liveable wage are no longer silent bystanders during protests. Placards have been made, awkward dances have been rehearsed and northern suburbs accents now chant with the downtrodden members of the country.
However, one relatively small but extremely influential subsect of South African society has remained dormant. While the rest of us are finding our voice, professional athletes have been deafening in their silence.
A quick look at Twitter highlights just how seemingly indifferent our sports heroes remain on the subject. Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana ‘keeper and captain, Itumeleng Khune keeps his tweets relatively light and largely focused around on-field performances. The same goes for Proteas superstars AB de Villiers and Kagiso Rabada, whose innocuous post, “Success is a lousy teacher”, garnered 212 retweets and 555 likes.
Some athletes use their platform for social upliftment such as Stormers captain Siya Kolisi or Olympic gold medallist Wayde van Niekerk who both actively give back to various charities and organisations. But praiseworthy as their efforts are, they, like all South African athletes, stay well clear of politics.
Many would view this is a good thing. The mixing of sports and politics can leave a bad taste in the mouth for those who see athletic competition as a bastion of moral purity. And besides, why muddy the waters with something so noxious?
Furthermore, these athletes (and many of their fans) will argue that moving the political discourse is not their job. They are entertainers; avenues of escapism for millions of South Africans inundated with depressing and challenging headlines on a daily basis.
But these headlines are inundating so it is impossible that elite athletes are unaware of the problems facing many South Africans. Poverty, violence against women, unemployment, government corruption; there is no shortage of social and political battles to fight.
One can therefore draw the conclusion that our athletes remain silent because they either do not care, which is hard to believe, or they are reluctant to stick their neck out least they become a martyr without a job. This fear is not unfounded.
Last year’s NFL season kicked off on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Standing against what Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, called a “red, white and blue tsunami” of American patriotism was the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who has since become a figurehead for political activism in the sports world.
Amongst the jingoism, Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in response to police brutality aimed at black Americans and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an interview, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Kaepernick, 29, is now unemployed and looking to join an NFL team after his contract with the 49ers ended. A myriad of reasons have been touted for his failure to find a home from his erratic passing (though 7% of his throws last season were fumbled) to the fact that his vegan diet hinders his athletic competency (not a problem for Tom Brady, who also happens to be a friend of President Trump).
What seems to be a major factor behind Kaepernick’s predicament is his politics. NFL franchises are mostly owned by conservative white men. Their teams are mostly supported by a similar demographic. A young black man with an afro directly challenging white privilege and standing up against a system that casts a blind eye to racial inequalities is bad for business.
If the Kansas City Chiefs were to recruit Kaepernick, as some US columnists have suggested they should, would the decision alienate a fan base that has not voted Democrat since 1964?
If AB de Villiers were to state his support for Helen Zille’s remarks on colonialism, how many fans would turn their back on him? What if we found out that Keagan Dolly was an ardent card carrying member of the EFF and regularly tweeted #ZumaMustFall – would Nike pull their endorsement of the gifted footballer?
Athletes do not use their platform to espouse a political agenda because they are afraid of having that platform taken away from them. It is therefore up to us, the engaged citizens of the country, to encourage the political participation of our athletes and alleviate any fears they may have.
We all understand how influential they are when it comes to selling products; imagine how successful they would be selling ideologies. In these tumultuous times, silence is as good as apathy and should not be accepted – not from average citizens and not from our athletes.