SA sports heroes honoured

8 December 2003

When President Thabo Mbeki handed out the newly conceived Order of Ikhamanga – South Africa’s highest honour for achievement in the creative and performing arts and sport – in Pretoria last week, 11 South African sportsmen and women were honoured for a range of achievements under a variety of circumstances.

Two orders in the bronze class were awarded, seven in the silver class, and two in the gold class – to South Africa’s sportsman of the twentieth century, golf legend Gary Player, and to 1950s soccer superstar Steve “Kalamazoo” Mokone.

Gary Player
Player was a shoo-in for gold. A nine-time major victor, as well as the winner of 163 tournaments all around the world – 63 more than the great Jack Nicklaus – South Africa’s sportsman of the twentieth century has been a fine role model for all South Africans throughout his storied career.

Player has also proved himself a champion away from the golf courses of the world by championing the causes of those who have not enjoyed the opportunities he has been afforded in life.

Player is in golf’s Hall of Fame, and apart from his amazing career will also be remembered for a saying that has become one of the most famous in the sport: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”

Steve ‘Kalamazoo’ Mokone
Rated by many as South Africa’s finest footballer ever, Steve “Kalamazoo” Mokone made his name overseas in the late 1950s and early 1960s, playing most of his soccer for Heracles in the Netherlands, and for Torino in Italy.

His incredible skills, learnt as a youngster juggling a tennis ball, earned him widespread praise in Europe, with one Italian journalist writing: “If Pele of Brazil is the Rolls-Royce of soccer players, Stanley Matthews of England the Mercedes-Benz and Alfredo di Stefano of Argentina and Spain the Cadillac of soccer players, then Kala of South Africa, lithe and lean, is surely the Maserati.”

During his time in Europe he helped Heracles to win the Dutch League and he was also very successful with Torino, where on debut he scored all five goals in a five-two win over Verona.

Hestrie Cloete
Two-time world high jump champion Hestrie Cloete became a member of the order in the silver class.

Her performances in 2003 were phenomenal, and included the world title in Paris and an astonishing nine clearances of two metres or higher. Those jumps included a career-best 2.06m to win the world title, equalling the third best height of all time. She also won the IAAF Grand Prix for women, awarded to the top athlete on the circuit.

Basil D’Oliviera
Basil D’Oliviera was another recipient in the silver class. Affectionately known as “Dolly”, he was forced to go abroad to follow a sporting career. It was at the relatively advanced age of 34 that he made his Test debut for England. Yet he managed to become one of England’s most consistent performers for the next seven years, finally retiring at the age of 41.

It was the “D’Olivieira affair” – when England’s tour of South Africa in 1968/69 was called off because then South African Prime Minister JB Vorster declared the England team “the team of the anti-apartheid movement” – that led to South Africa’s suspension from international cricket. It was the first solid step towards normalising the sport in the country.

Penny Heyns
Swimmer Penny Heyns also picked up a silver award. She made it big in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympic Games, when she won South Africa’s first gold medals since the country’s readmission to the Games after a ban that lasted 32 years. Heyns captured gold in both the 100 and 200 metres backstroke and went on to dominate her specialist events for a number of years.

Her 100 metres winning time in Atlanta was a world record, while her 200 time was an Olympic record.

Heyns also had a purple patch in mid-1999 that captured headlines all over the world. She seemed to break a world record every time she took to the water and when he career was over she had set 14 world records, eight of them coming in that amazing span in 1999.

Heyns was not only a star in the pool; her religious manner and gracious ways captured the hearts of the nation.

Stars under apartheid
Among the sports men and women to receive the Order of Ikhamanga were some of the pioneers of non-racial sport in South Africa. Beside Mokone and D’Oliviera, these were boxer Jacob Ntuli (silver), cricket and rugby player Eric Majola (silver), middle distance athlete Sydney Maree (silver), and cricket and rugby player Goolam Abed (bronze).

Jacob Ntuli was the first black South African boxer to receive world acclaim – at a time when black boxers were severely restricted in South Africa. He became the first black South African to win an Empire championship (the forerunner to the Commonwealth title) in 1952, effectively making him one of the best two or three flyweights of his time, an achievement confirmed when the influential Ring Magazine named him the top flyweight in the game.

Eric Majola excelled in cricket and rugby, making his name in the Eastern Province in the early 1950s. He represented the national African team in both sports, but because of South Africa’s apartheid policy at that time was never afforded the chance to shine on the world stage.

Athlete Sydney Maree made his mark overseas. However, before he left South Africa’s shores, he recorded a sub-four minute mile as a schoolboy, in a time second only to Jim Ryan’s all-time schoolboy mark of 3:56. Then, while in the United States, he became one of the world’s dominant middle distance athletes.

Maree set a world record in the 1 500 metres, going on to break the 3:30 barrier in the event with a time of 3:29.77. In 1984 he was chosen to represent the USA in the Los Angeles Olympics, but an injury just two weeks before the Games kept him out of action. In 1991 Maree became the first black athlete to be named South Africa’s athlete of the year.

Goolam Abed, who excelled in both rugby and cricket, found himself on the outside looking in because he was a man of colour in apartheid South Africa. He represented the South African “Coloureds” team in both rugby and cricket, and went on to play rugby league with Bradford Northerns in the United Kingdom. He was also a professional cricketer with Rochdale.

The final silver award winner was wheelchair athlete Zanele Situ, who made her mark in the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 when she won the javelin with a world record throw, and also captured the silver in discus, so becoming the first black South African female athlete to win gold at the Paralympics.

The Boksburg Bomber
Heavyweight boxer Gerrie Coetzee became a member of the order in the bronze class. Known as “the Boksburg Bomber”, Coetzee enjoyed a 15-year professional career during which he won the WBA heavyweight title – at a time when there were only two organisations that decided on world champions, unlike today’s alphabet soup of organisations.

Coetzee was unbeaten in 22 career fights, including a first-round demolition of Leon Spinks, when he met “Big” John Tate for the WBA world title in 1978. He lost for the first time over 15 rounds. In 1980 the WBA gave Coetzee a shot at Mike Weaver, but this time he went down in 13 to the American.

Then, in September 1983, he won another shot at the WBA crown, against Michael Dokes, at that time expected to be a top-class champion. Coetzee turned in an inspired performance, knocking Dokes out in the 10th round.

Unfortunately for Coetzee, he lost next time out against Greg Page at Sun City, and was never again given the opportunity to challenge for the world title.

Handing out the awards, Mbeki said that the 11 sportsmen and women had all contributed “to the pride we as a nation feel in our achievements that celebrate our inner African and human soul”. Their achievements, Mbeki said, were representative of the country’s “wealth of human imagination and talent”.

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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