International Women’s Day 2018

Lorato Trok
March 2018

 

In 1976, when the country was gripped by political unrest following the Soweto student uprisings, a 16 year old girl from Atteridgeville was re-writing the history books. Rosina Sedibane Modiba became the first black South African woman athlete to compete in the multi-racial championships.

Four years ago, I was working in schools in the Pretoria townships of Atteridgeville and Saulsville as a South Africa coordinator for the African Storybook initiative. One of the schools was Bathokwa Primary school in Saulsville, where Rosina Sedibane is an HOD and sports coordinator. I learned about her extraordinary story during one of my visits when the school librarian, Ms Tebogo Moses asked me if I knew about Rosina’s athletic history. Of course I did not, and so does the millions of people in this country. I was intrigued by her story and I kept telling her that I will write her story one day. In August 2017, I applied for a writing grant with ANFASA and I jumped for joy when I learned one December evening that I was one of the 2017 grant recipients.

In 1975 Rosina made history as the first woman from the South African Amateur Athletics Federation (Bantu) to compete in the all-race South African Multinational Cross-Country Championship. She did not win this race, coming in at 22, but she knew that she was ready to compete against the best in the country. She had renewed confidence and continued with her training schedule with Coach Mokoka.

Sedibane Modiba’s athletics career took off in 1974 under the tutelage of renowned coach James Mokoka. The inter-high schools championships were a display of athletic prowess among the cream of the crop in black high schools across the country. Young Rosina Sedibane won the 800m at just 14 years in the junior section of the championships.

She made history again when she became the first black South African woman athlete to win a gold medal in 1500 metres during the multi-racial provincial championships at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria in March 1977. Rosina astonished everyone when she beat the current record holder and favorite in the white federation, Sonja Laxton.

In the same year, 1977, she competed in four other meets, repeating her winning streak at the 1977 annual Paarl Boxing Day games when she won the 1500m meet and placed second in the 400 and 800 metre meets. Rosina and her sister Margaret competed against each other at the Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg in the multi-racial championships. Rosina came third in the 800 m meets and second in the 3000 cross-country, with her sister Margaret behind her in third position in the 800 metre race.

Rosina was a dominant force in athletics in the country, dominating in both the black federation and in multiracial meets.

During the Black Championships held at Western Holdings mine in Welkom, she ran two different meets two days in succession, winning the 1500 m meet on 19 March and the 800 metre meet the next day on 20 march 1977.

 

Rosina and Sonja Laxton met again at the Ford invitation in Port Elizabeth in February 1978. Sonja Laxton denied Rosina 1st position while Rosina came third. Rosina remembers the first time she went to compete in Namibia (then South West Africa) in March 1978. They had been invited to compete in Namibia. The South African apartheid laws were extended to Namibia and prevented black Namibians from having any political rights during their fight for independence against South Africa. Apartheid laws prevented Rosina and her team to board a commercial flight to Namibia, instead they cramped into a military plane like cargo to compete with their Namibian counterparts. Nonetheless, under these circumstances Rosina beat all the other girls for first position in 800 and was placed 2nd in the 400 meter meet.

The stadiums where Rosina competed in multi-racial races were in designated white areas. The pass laws were still enacted and blacks needed permission to get to the stadiums. That prevented a majority of black people who wanted to see Rosina run from going. Margaret and Zachariah were allowed in by virtue of being Rosina’s family. Zachariah remembers the rapturous applause from the minimally filled black section of the stadium and the packed, stunned faces of the white section of the stadium when Rosina stormed into the history books, claiming her first gold medal by beating the South Africa record holder and setting a new South African record of 2 minutes 9, 8 seconds in the 800 metre race. For black South Africans, Rosina’s victories were more than running the races, they were also about dignifying black lives amid the brutality of apartheid.

The apartheid laws denied Rosina a green jacket, or the Springbok colours as it is popularly known. Obtaining Springbok colours is the highest honour in the careers of sportswomen and men in South Africa. Even though Rosina excelled in her field, her substantial feat in athletics were never recognized formally in South Africa. In 2014, a year after her husband of more than 30 years wrote a letter to Athletics South Africa appealing for Rosina to be recognized, Rosina was awarded a green jacket, more than two decades after her history making races. Her husband passed away before he could see his wife in her long deserved green jacket.

The Gauteng Department of Education recognized Rosina’s indelible mark in sports by re-naming a top school development academy in Laudium, west of Pretoria after her. Rosina Sedibane Modiba Sport Academy is one of the City of Tshwane’s top sports schools.

My interest in writing Rosina’s story was prompted by the fact that there was a school named after her, but there was no history behind the story. Rosina’s story is one of the many stories of the erasure of black women’s stories and achievements in history the world over. Black women have attained history making feats since the beginning of time, but overlooked and underrepresented in the history books and in the political narrative.

We say to Rosina halala Rosina halala! We salute you and all the women before and after you who smashed doors open against all odds.