Zanele Situ got sick on a Sunday. “I was fetching water with my brother and I just started to feel tired,” she says. After three days of fatigue and weakness, she awoke with no feeling in the lower half of her body. She was admitted to hospital, where she would remain incapacitated for years, drifting in and out of sleep, doctors unable to establish a diagnosis.
Eventually, they discovered the problem: spinal tuberculosis. By this time her paralysis was irreversible. For most people, losing the use of their legs would be devastating. But from the moment she was declared paralysed, Situ refused to allow her condition to determine the course of her life. Viewing her circumstance through the eyes of a child was beneficial. “For me it was something fun,” she says. “My younger brother would push my wheelchair around outside in the grass, we would trip and fall. I didn’t really take it that seriously.”
At the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia, that playful child would become the first black South African woman to win a Paralympic gold medal. With no formal coaching, the wheelchair-bound javelin thrower shattered the world record. No one was more surprised than the athlete herself.
“I didn’t really expect anything,” she says of her win in Sydney. “It was a big stadium filled with people but I told myself, ‘Nothing will change.’ When I compete, I just focus only on what I am doing.” An eternal optimist, Situ approaches her life with enviable enthusiasm and courage. Wheelchair-bound from the age of 12, she has spent most of her 43 years defying others’ expectations. The challenges in her life could have propagated resentment in Situ. Instead, they did the opposite.
“I do feel happy and proud of myself,” she says. “If I want something, I push myself. If I fall, I get up again.” She asks for no sympathy and no favours. She’s realistic about her situation, and also incredibly ambitious. Never accepting the limitations intimated by her disability, she allowed her dreams to dictate her path.
Born in the Eastern Cape in 1971, Situ grew up in the small rural town of Matatiele. Before falling ill, she recalls a happy childhood, spent playing and exploring with her three siblings. Her builder father and fruit-hawker mother made little money but their four children grew up happy.
Over 30 years later, Situ still has vivid memories of the incident that resulted in her paralysis. She speaks of it at length. The TB infection stole upon her with little warning. She doesn’t remember feeling sick until a few days before she was unable to move from her bed, never anticipating it would lead to a life spent in a wheelchair.
It didn’t matter. Situ’s independence and adventurous spirit were obstinate as ever. She loathed being fussed over and feeling incapable of doing the same things her peers were. Constantly testing her capabilities, she would ignore her family’s concerns and do everything she could around the house. Making food, sweeping the yard, cleaning the house – she was eager to prove proficient in every capacity.
It was this eagerness to test her own limitations that led to her athletic success. “I would try everything,” she says of her introduction to sports. “Basketball, wheelchair rugby, table tennis, everything. I needed to see if I could really do it. Maybe I would have to accept that I couldn’t, but if I tried and managed once, that means I can do it.”
In 1985, Situ picked up a javelin spear for the first time. By this time, she was living in Stellenbosch, with full access to the training equipment at Stellenbosch University’s Sport Performance Institute. She tried the discus throw, shot put and javelin, discovering that she had a natural strength for all three. “I really did just fall in love with javelin,” she says. “I can’t really say why but the more I improved, the more dedicated and committed I became.” Her natural skill shone and before long she was competing on an international stage.
She made her official debut in Paralympic sport in 1996 when she represented South Africa in the Paralympic World Championships in England. In 2000, she flew to Sydney to compete in the Paralympic Games in Australia. She was by her own admission intimidated by the throngs of spectators gathered in the stadium. Despite her nerves, she exceeded everyone’s expectations – including her own – by breaking the world record by over three metres.
For the humble, unassuming Situ, her success was overwhelming. Not only had she demolished a record on her first attempt, she had also become the first black athlete to win gold at the Paralympics. A media frenzy enveloped her upon her departure from the stadium. Situ was unaware of the impact her feat had made. “I was so confused,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh, what have I done now?’”
Four years later at the Paralympic Games in Athens, she again took home the gold medal for South Africa. In addition to the Paralympic medals she’s won since 2000, Situ has also received the National Order of Ikhamanga for Outstanding Achievement, and the coveted Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award.
Away from sport, Situ exercises the same kind of pragmatism and strength that she does on the field. As well as being a top athlete, she is also a single mother to a little girl, Azamazi. Now seven years old, she is her mother’s greatest accomplishment. “I try by all means to teach her right from wrong,” Situ says. “I always tell her that making mistakes is fine, but always try to do the right thing.”
She sets a fine example of this to her child. While she never knew she wanted to be an athlete, Situ says she always knew that she wanted to support others – especially those with disabilities similar to her own. “I do like to help people and make them get out there,” she says. “I know for us – people with disabilities – it isn’t easy. But if you get out there maybe you will try something new and discover something you are good at.”
Ours is a nation built upon tales of resilience and hope. Zanele Situ’s story is one of them. Refusing to let her life be dictated by her disability, she has met every obstacle with a boldness displayed by few others. Armed with an irrepressible upbeat attitude, an astonishing work ethic and a natural talent for her vocation, Situ is a worthy role model and a true South African hero.