South Africa’s sporting fraternity is reeling with the news that one of its most celebrated daughters has died. News of Zanele Situ’s passing at the age of 52 has been met with extreme sadness for the Paralympic icon.
Born Ntombizanele Situ on 19th of January 1971 in the Eastern Cape town of Matatiele, “Zanele” was one of the country’s best known Paralympians and an inspiration to a generation. In 2000 she became the first black South African female athlete to win a Paralympic gold medal, in Sydney. Three years later she was recognised for her achievements when she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (silver) for her outstanding contributions to sport by the Presidency.
A formidable javelin thrower, Situ showed that at her peak she was comfortably the best javelin thrower in the world and she followed up that gold medal in Sydney – where she also achieved a silver in the discus – with another gold at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.
At those Games, she was handed the Whang Youn Dai achievement award, one of only two South Africans to be bestowed the honour, with Natalie du Toit later receiving it in 2008.
Sixteen years after winning her first medal at a Paralympic Games, the Maties Parasport athlete did it again, winning bronze in the javelin (F54) at the Paralympics in Rio. Between Sydney 2000 and Rio 2016, her career had been full of highs and lows. At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics she was unable to win a medal, but she came back in 2011 to earn a bronze medal at the World Championships. She also finished fourth at the 2012 London Paralympics. The unassuming, but ultra-determined veteran won two more World Championship bronze medals, at Lyon (2013) and Doha (2015), both in the javelin. She also threw a distance of 17.90m, a personal best, to claim the bronze medal at the 2016 Games, her first Paralympic medal in 12 years.
At Tokyo 2020, held in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Situ represented Team SA at a sixth Paralympics. Then aged 50, she was the oldest member of the 34-strong squad in Japan.
The chef de mission (team leader) at those Tokyo Games was Leon Fleiser, who is General Manager – High Performance at the South African Sports Confederation, Olympic and Paralympic Committee (SASCOC). In paying tribute to her, Fleiser called Situ a South African sporting legend.
“The news that Zanele has passed on is heart-breaking. We have lost a true icon of not only South African sport, but the Paralympic world has lost a legend. I got to know her extremely well over the past 20 years or so and she was simply a delightful, kind person, who rose above unbelievable adversity to become the superstar that she was. I saw her behind the scenes so many times, well away from the cameras and the attention she got. She was humble, patriotic and a mother to a nation,” Fleiser said.
“She was the flag-bearer for Team SA at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and when she received the honour she was the proudest person on the planet. It meant a great deal to her, but the No1 priority in her life was always her daughter, Azamazi, who is now 17. ‘I am as proud of her as she is of me,’ Zanele, would say. As the years and Games went by, she would bring that motherly element to her Paralympic teammates. She was hugely popular, loved and respected,” Fleiser added.
The president of SASCOC, Barry Hendricks, was among those who paid tribute. “Our heartfelt condolences and sympathy goes out to Zanele’s loved ones at this terrible time. She was a shining beacon of hope and inspiration to our sporting nation and brought immense honour to the country. Zanele’s passing comes as a terrible shock and at such a young age. All her life she had battled adversity, born into apartheid South Africa in 1971, and rising above all odds to become a six-time Paralympic and multiple Paralympic medallist. She will be mourned, celebrated and never forgotten.”
In adding her voice to the list of tributes, the CEO of SASCOC, Nozipho Jafta, offered her condolences. “Zanele was a true South African hero. She was faced with adversity and hardship early in her life and overcame it, reaching the very pinnacle of Paralympic sport. She was a beacon of light, and hope, for all South Africans. I’m truly saddened by the news of her passing and wish her family and loved ones every source of strength and support at such a difficult time.”
At the age of 11 in 1982, Situ’s parents took her to hospital after she was constantly weak and fatigued and struggled to walk. She spent three years in hospital during which the doctors said that the spinal cord damage was so severe that she would never walk again.
She lost the use of both her legs and became confined to a wheelchair. Determined not to be held back by the challenges posed by her disability, she took up athletics in 1985. In 1996, Situ qualified for the World Championships in England, where she won gold medals for javelin and shot put. She was also entered to compete in table tennis, but it clashed with her other items.
At the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Situ, then 50, told TeamSA’s media: “I don’t feel 50. After these Games I will go back to Stellenbosch and train for what happens next. I don’t feel any difference with age. As long as you carry on, you feel strong, you don’t feel the age. It’s something I have always done, every day. I’m not here because I’m old. I’m an athlete, like everybody else. I’m not part of the old-age squad. I’m here to compete. When you’re an athlete you mustn’t worry about age.”
Situ is survived by her sister and her daughter.
Issued by SASCOC