We gather our hearts and rise for Meyiwa
“What is clear now is that, of all of that hope, fear, lust, love and grief, nothing remains but [the] unyielding earth. [He] is dead, our innocence too. The seed shrivelled and died … There is really nothing more to say – except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”
This passage from Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, came to me in the early hours of the morning as I thought about the murder of 27-year-old Orlando Pirates goalkeeper and captain, Senzo Meyiwa.
Sport, for many black people, particularly black males, is rarely for entertainment purposes only; it is highly political. As bell hooks writes in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity: “Professional sports have constituted an alternative work arena for many black men. In that world the black male body once used and abused in a world of labour based on brute force could be transformed; elegance and grace could become the identifying signifiers of one’s labour.”
She notes that, historically, “entering the world of professional sports was a profoundly political endeavour for black men. If you wanted to enter that world you had to be willing to push against racial boundaries and there was no real way to escape the political.”
She is writing about a particular African-American context and history, but it is relevant to South Africa because it relates to black men and sport – and informs the history of Meyiwa’s team, Orlando Pirates. Foreign Policy magazine has written about how opponents of apartheid seized on the “potential of using soccer to rally support and raise funds. The ANC, then a banned underground movement, quickly realised that wherever there was soccer there was a crowd.”
Football matches became strategic places, gatherings where many people who were underground could meet among the crowds to strategise. It is no coincidence that, as Foreign Policy notes, “when [President Jacob] Zuma returned from exile in Zambia in 1993, his first residence was at the home of the owner of the Orlando Pirates”.
As hooks contends, sport for many black men becomes a site where we can seek “redemption and affirmation” – and it would seem to have been so for Meyiwa.
A gifted striker for the London Cosmos in the 1990s in Umlazi, Durban, Meyiwa represented KwaZulu-Natal “in the Transnet under-14 and Coca-Cola under-17 interprovincial tournaments in 2000 as a 13-year-old”, reported football writer Neil Greig. “His performances caught the eye of Orlando Pirates scouts, who brought him to the club’s development programme.”
He made “impressive progress” at the youth levels, making his official debut in 2006. In the next few years he made a “dramatic upswing” in his “rise to prominence”, Greig wrote.
“Meyiwa was not only the first-choice [Bafana] goalkeeper but was also handed the captain’s armband by new coach Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba [and,] inspired by the honour, [Meyiwa] kept four successive clean sheets as South Africa claimed top spot on the standings after four matches and put themselves within touching distance of qualification for the 2015 Afcon [African Cup of Nations].”
SABC news reported that, despite his success at such an early age, Meyiwa remained committed to the development of his community. He was involved in youth initiatives in Umlazi and “had plans to implement sports development in the township”.
Unfortunately, as hooks writes, sport can function as a place for patriarchal manhood “or a humanist-based selfhood” and capitalist production. Reports on Meyiwa point to a personal life that seems to have been a tumultuous combination of all of these: patriarchal manhood plus humanism and levels of ultra-capitalist consumption. But reports of his apologies to the women involved in his philandering ways and many concurrent partnerships indicate a young man who seemed at least to have been striving for what hooks calls “an alternative masculinity rooted in dignity and selfhood”.
Paying tribute to Meyiwa, South African Football Association chief executive Dennis Mumble expressed condolences to Senzo’s family, which he said was “all South Africans”.
This certainly felt true when I arrived home in Orlando, Soweto, on that day last week. My aunt said she hadn’t been able to do anything since hearing of Meyiwa’s death. She said it felt as if she had lost her own child.
“In his fall rose a nation,” wrote one commentator. We have risen and gathered our hearts. And, as a friend of mine remarked, it has also been touching to see the international outpouring of love and respect, as well as the careful international coverage – a number of publications, including the Atlantic, paid tribute to him.
Lala ngoxolo, Meyiwa. Zonke izizwe zisondelene … ewe, sisondelene [Rest in peace, Meyiwa. All nations are united … yes, we are united], to pay homage to a life cut short.
Gcobani Qambela is a lecturer, researcher and scholar, working on HIV, masculinities and sexual and reproductive health.