Outside of the few sunny, glorious days of the Paralympic Games and the World Para Athletics championships, South Africa’s disabled athletes are barely noticed.
The few such athletes who have climbed previously impossible heights and raised the national flag on the global stage have entered their names into sporting folklore but not necessarily the hearts of ordinary South Africans and the minds of influential sponsors. It’s an injustice that reflects the many obstacles placed in the way of most disabled people in South Africa.
Winning world titles and breaking records is meant to change fortunes and open doors, but it does no such thing for disabled athletes.
When Anrune Weyers returned from the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai with gold, silver and bronze for the 400m, 200m and 100m respectively in the T47 category for athletes whose primary impairments are in the upper limbs, there were no riches thrown at her fast feet, no throngs of frenzied fans lining the streets. And though money is no motivation for athletes like Weyers, she still shivers from the cold shoulder para-athletes are given by sponsors and administrators.
“We have a big struggle in terms of support for para-athletes. When I came back from the world champs in Dubai, the question was asked quite a lot. And I’ll be honest, we’re not all equal in this country and that’s sad, because we’re raising South Africa’s flag high and we’re making the country proud,” says Weyers.
The 27-year-old Stellenbosch resident was born with a congenital defect in her left arm and turned to athletics as a way to fight her own insecurities growing up in a world where “imperfections” are frowned upon.
“Growing up with a disability, it was a little difficult to know my place in the world. That was a big challenge for me. I’m a female, and in the world we live in we’re always looking for this perfect idea of how someone must look, and I struggle with that image that the world created,” she says.
Not being defined by labels
Weyers’ passion for athletics was spotted early. The sport changed the trajectory of her life and she is fully appreciative of that fact.
“In primary school, I had a really great teacher. She inspired me to show people that there’s more than just a box that people put us in, and we’re all accepted the way we are. That placed faith and hope in my heart on the day I heard it from her. Athletics gave me confidence. Every time I did it, I felt as if I’m turning into someone I want to be. And obviously I was good at it and that helped me say, ‘You know what, I’m different. I need to accept it and I need to live it and I need to use the gift that God has given me – and that’s to run.’ That’s where it all started.”
South Africa’s disability prevalence is at 7.5% of the population. The national disability grant ranges between R1 695 and R1 780 a month. Disabilities are more prevalent in females than males (8.3% and 6.5%). Besides pursuing personal milestones, the added expectations thrust upon para-athletes means they become the voice of disabled people by default. It’s a responsibility Weyers doesn’t take lightly.