3 June 2003
South Africa joined the rest of the world in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest last week, and two South Africans made sure the flag flew on top of the world. Game ranger Sibusiso Vilane made history in the process, becoming the first black African to summit the world’s highest mountain.
32-year-old Vilane, who holds joint South African and Swaziland nationality, reached the summit of Everest with the rest of his international team on 26 May – in the face of extremely hostile weather conditions. Claire Keeton, reporting for the Sunday Times from Everest Base Camp, said that wind speeds were in the region of 80km/h, and temperatures down to minus 30 degrees Celcius.
Vilane and his team spent 24 hours “in Everest’s ‘death zone’ above 8 000m, much of this time in the dark and fatal cold”, Keeton wrote. “Sibu had not only reached the top of Everest, he had survived it at its worst.”
“When I reached the summit, I felt as though I was stepping onto a very sacred place and could not contain myself. I fell to my knees weeping”, Vilane told Keeton. “… I wanted to show the world that nothing could stop black people from standing on top of the world, given the opportunity.”
Sibusiso Vilane on the Lhotse Face. (Photo copyright Rodrigo Ponce, Jagged Globe Mountaineering)
Four days later, on 30 May, 36-year-old filmmaker Sean Wisedale reached the same 8 848m high spot. “As I look down, I can see Sibusiso’s flag, right here. The Swaziland and South African flags, right beneath me”, Wisedale told Patricia Glynn, who was reporting on the Discovery Everest expedition from Base Camp.
Wisedale was the only member of the six-man Discovery team to reach the summit. Having made two attempts on the summit only to be forced back by the weather 350 metres from their goal, team leader Alex Harris reluctantly decided that the team had run out of the time and supplies they needed for a further attempt.
Wisedale still felt strong enough for a third push, however, and was able to join another climbing party, with further backing from sponsor Discovery. The weather “window” finally opened, and Wisedale grabbed his opportunity.
“I’m at the top of the planet now, the closest point to God”, he told Glynn from the summit. “If you want to get to the top, you’ve got to go to the top. God bless South Africa, God bless Discovery, and God bless our families.”
‘All Africans stand 8 848 metres tall’
“Sibusiso Vilane has made all of us – of all colours, cultures and stations in the continent – stick out our chests in justifiable pride and wonder”, President Thabo Mbeki said in a statement last week.
“His example of sheer grit and optimism, not alone but in the closest partnership with others, is exemplary as we Africans face the Everest-like challenges ahead of us, notably to revive our continent and free it from past socio-economic subjugation”, said Mbeki, who is also chairman of the African Union (AU).
Mount Everest, alone among the Seven Summits in having what mountaineers refer to as a “death zone” – anything higher than 8 000m. (Photo copyright Discovery Everest Expedition)
“Years ago, in 1953, when the same Everest (named after a colonial surveyor-general in India) was first climbed, the splendid news broke over an imperial nation celebrating a coronation and a new life under a new monarch, in a changed world and a changing Commonwealth.
“In not-incomparable circumstances”, Mbeki said, “Sibusiso has achieved fame just as a new era dawns in Africa – with the post-imperial strivings and struggles of Africans being recalled and lauded during the 40th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
“The spirit of the new African Union, which has arisen in strength from the OAU, inspires us all to march on to a sustainable life of success and plenty for Africa. In this we are in deadly earnest, and we can rightly see Sibusiso Vilane’s achievement as a very special inspiration to this end.”