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[21 Icons - Season 2] Zanele Situ

"I feel happy and proud of myself that if I want something I push myself to do it, if I fall, I stand up again, this is how life is, there will be many times when you fall and you have to get up again." - Zanele Situ
This week 21 ICONS shines the spotlight on the eighteenth icon of its second season: Zanele Situ, a Paralympic athlete who exemplifies an inspiration to all South Africans, she conquered setbacks and adversity and became the first black athlete to win a Paralympic gold medal.

In the portrait, Situ is photographed leaning back in the action of throwing a javelin, the event for which she won gold at the Paralympic games in Sydney in 2000, and breaking the world record in the process.

Overcoming her disability


In an intimate conversation, Situ talks about her life as a Paralympic athlete. Born in Matatiele, Eastern Cape in 1971 she became paralysed in 1982 at the young age of 12. Contracting a TB infection from her fourth vertebra down her spinal cord her whole life changed overnight. "One Sunday evening I was having a bath and I was overcome with tiredness. This was the start of my illness."



She was bed ridden in a hospital for three years drifting in and out of sleep, Situ says that her spirits were never low as she still had an active mind. She was encouraged to take up javelin by her teacher in Umtata and once she realised her ability she pushed herself to gain strength and power.

At the Ikhwezi Lokusa Special School in Matatiele, she was encouraged to try her hand at field events and quickly found she excelled in javelin, discus and shot-put.

With an incredible attitude Situ never felt limited buy her disability and was very active in her wheelchair, playing rugby and, basketball and participating in life by doing chores, shopping and cleaning the house.

Confined to a wheelchair she was determined not to be held back by the challenges posed by her disability and she took up athletics in 1985, and turned professional three years later.

Breaking the world record


In 1996 Situ qualified for the World Championships in England where she won two gold medals for javelin and shot-put. At the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia, she broke the world record for javelin and again took the gold. In France in 2002 she once again broke the javelin world record at the World Championships.

Passionate about javelin she said that, "I can't really say why but I fell in love with javelin and the more I improved, the more dedicated and committed I became."

She said she had been intimidated by the 50,000-strong crowd at Stadium Australia and wanted to throw in the towel. "I just wanted to go home. But once I had my first throw and saw that it went over the yellow line for the world record, I felt much better."

Competing in a category for athletes with spinal injuries, Situ won the javelin event with a world record throw that bettered the previous mark by an unprecedented three metres. Situ followed up that achievement with a silver medal in the discus event.



She was a recipient of the National Order of Ikhamanga Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2003 awarded by former President Thabo Mbeki.

She said she never allowed her paralysed body to stop her from being a top athlete in South Africa. She said that there is no reason to not participate in sport just because you are disabled. "My weapons for obtaining discus silver and other trophies are praying, hard work, focus and passion." Situ is a fine example of the human spirit to be able to overcome adversity and become the heroine.

About 21 Icons South Africa



21 ICONS South Africa is an annual collection of photographs and short films of South Africans who have reached the pinnacle of achievement in their fields of endeavour. These men and women have been an inspiration through their extraordinary social contribution. It is not a definitive list and does not denote any ranking.

The short film-series documents the conversations between Steirn as the photographer and filmmaker and the icons. Each short film provides insight into both the subject and photographer's creative approach to the portrait.

Season two of 21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Momentum Asset Management, Nikon, Deloitte and the Department of Arts and Culture.

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