The local Olympics body boss had reason to share the limelight since, with an accuracy akin to that of a prophet’s projection, he had promised the country that medal haul before Team SA left for Brazil.
Sam was one of numerous dignitaries who included stakeholders such as sponsor representatives from Telkom and the National Lotteries Board, self-appointed “mister razzmatazz” himself, Minister of Sport & Recreation Fikile Mbalula and his deputy, Gert Oosthuizen, Gauteng MEC of Sport & Culture, Faith Mazibuko, Miss SA Ntando Kunene, as well as the team’s mascot, Tshukudu the ‘rhino’ – who shared a stage, purposefully erected near the Terminal A Arrivals section of the airport for the occasion, with the beaming star attractions – the medalists in person!
Just off a flight from Brazil which had touched down a tad after 7am, into a Highveld winter morning, the familiar and new heroes and heroine didn’t show any jet-lag as they politely and approvingly lapped up the mood of a crowd numbering in the hundreds spread across the airport’s multi-tiered oval area bristling with uproarious fervour and the abandonment of vuvuzela sounds.
All were present, including those who had arrived back from the games earlier such as swimmer, Chad le Clos, long-jumper, Luvo Manyonga and the Sevens rugby team except the country’s truly new superstar, Wayde van Niekerk and javelin thrower, Sunette Viljoen – who had to fly on to Paris to participate in a Diamond League meet.
SABC sports presenter directed a celebratory programme which had singer, Khanyo Maphumulo belting a rendition of the national anthem, then followed by poetess, Napo Masheane who stirred the assembly with Sesotho-laced evocations to the extent that, ‘mma ngwana o tshwara thipa ka bohaleng’ [a child’s mother holds the knife at its sharpest point] and recited that every African child is born with sport in their blood.
“Halala ku zinja ze game, halala!”, encouraged Gauteng MEC of Sport & Culture Faith Mazibuko toward a good-spirited crowd composed of young and adult, students and workers such as uniformed pupils from Kempton Park’s Solid Foundation Primary School [who boisterously waved miniature South African flags and chanted slogans instantly warming to the early morning air], a claque of ANC women’s league members in their colourful headbands and well-known soccer fan, Saddam Maake [himself recently back from watching the games in Rio] and his coterie of fellow soccer supporters in green and gold.
Then came ‘mister razzmatazz’ turn and he wasted no one’s time by opening with trademark gusto: “Ayeye! South Africa, ayeye! Uzo ithola kanjani ohlele khonene?!” he asked the willing audience, borrowing from a kwaito lyric line. “Our team has done us proud, even those who didn’t win medals – don’t give up!” he implored, whilst mentioning fifth-placed 100 meters finalist, Akani Simbine.
Alternating his address in Sotho and English, Mbalula, now in typical element, turned to newly-minted golden heroine, Caster Semenya seated diagonally behind him and offered: “Re ya go rata Caster and we’ll love you more and more – you can see, even the police are smiling, ho monate mo South Africa!”
Taking care to mention every medalist, the minister then went on to mention swimming double silver medalist, Chad le Clos [who disappointingly hadn’t brought along his medals for the fans and media to behold and photograph], Sunette Viljoen [along with Semenya, one of the two be medalled heroines] whom he referred to as, “imbokodo yethu”, another swimmer in the form of friendly Cameron van der Burgh and Luvo Manyonga, who stood up flashing a smile revealing a set of an all-white dental formation in acknowledgement whilst generously showing off his silver medal – prompting the lady voices on the ovals immediate upper tier above the podium to let out reverberating screams of admiration.
The show of affection immediately prompted Mbalula to observe, “Luvo, you got friends here.” The 25 year old lad from Mbekweni outside Paarl in the Western Cape was furthermore, described by the sports minister as being a celebrity more than those who appear on the Generations soapie.
“We should have beaten England for all the years of colonialism – but a bronze is a bronze”, Mbalula continued, turning his attention to the Sevens rugby team. He then summarized a breakdown of the cash incentives the medalists stood to accrue – adding that van Niekerk would be rewarded with an extra R150 000 for breaking the world record, in addition for the half a million rand due to him for achieving a gold medal.
Semenya would receive R100 000 bonus in addition to R400 000, whilst the silver medalists would receive R70 000 “happiness from South Africa”.
“Minister of Finance, please don’t cut the sport budget”, urged Mbalula, ambling on to remind all who could care to listen that “we don’t roll out the red carpet for mediocrity.”
“I want Caster to drive a Lamborghini” adding, “Dololo – wololo!” to the both those on the podium, the press gallery and the throng at large.
The minister then signed off from the podium with a call for support for the Paralympics team before adjoining to the press conference room where he was due to hand out his government’s own token of appreciation medallions to the Olympics medalists.
With the heroes safely assured into the press area after making their way there through a long security wall of police and a private security company shielding them from massing fans – the welcoming event continued with Mbalula, formally handing out souvenir medallions engraved with the coat of arms in bespoke wooden casings and dummy cheques to both the medalists and their respective coaches.
Wayde van Niekerk [400m gold]; Caster Semenya [800m gold]; Chad le Clos [swimming double silver]; Cameron van der Burgh [swimming silver]; Luvo Manyonga [long-jump silver]; Sunette Viljoen [javelin, silver]; Laurence Brittain and Shaun Keeling [rowing: men’s coxless pair, silver]; Henri Schoeman [triathlon, bronze] and Sevens team [rugby, bronze] – reads the roll of honour for Team SA’s participation at the Rio Olympic games.
Semenya, South Africa’s first ever female Olympic track gold medalist posed for selfies with well-wishers as well as photographs with her parents, Jacob and Dorcas, who is painfully camera-shy to the extent that she had her head down away from the cameras range all the while the photographers were snapping away.
Amongst the entourage from Limpopo who had come to the airport to welcome her back were, Edward Paya, the mayor of Molemole – which her village of Ga-Masehlong in Moletjie -falls under and a mayoral official let slip that the municipality will be hosting a home-coming party for their heroine.
The Rio Olympic Games had an inspirational edge to them as viewed from Team South Africa’s perspective since they entailed the tales of a lad a total stranger cannot help but instantly like in the form of Luvo Manyonga, who overcame a drug addiction and the loss of a mentor in a car crash to turn his life’s fortunes around; a lad who is a cancer survivor and whose sibling had medalled at the preceding London Olympics in the form of Laurence Brittain; a lad who roused himself from an unexpected chest infection in the person of Henri Schoeman; the embodiment of perseverance itself in the determination of Sunette Viljoen, rightfully described as “imbokodo yethu” – and also South Africa’s first ever African female Olympic medalist in history, Caster Semenya, who, like African-American Alice Coachman, who became the first black woman to win Olympic gold back in 1948 – sets a marker for females colour to assume the baton towards the realization of profoundly held dreams amidst a maelstrom of life’s naysayers.
Team SA’s haul of 10 medals is the largest since the games at Antwerp and Helsinki – with the Rio games feat holding the distinction of having been realized within a democratic dispensation.
Said Sam, on the sidelines of the welcoming event at the airport, “You make your promises, and you deliver, what else can you do – I am happy!”