By Mpumelelo Mhlongo, South African Para Athlete
The story is that there are 80 million people living in Africa with physical and/or intellectual disabilities according to the UN. That’s more than the number of people living in the UK, and approximately the population of Germany. The story is that these sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of ours, who — due to their impairments — are the most vulnerable in society, make up the very poorest, least educated and most stigmatised in Africa. They are the subclass in the continent we perceive to be the poorest on earth. The unluckiest will become ‘the institutionalised’ and beaten, and most of those called lucky will be ‘the homebound’, the ‘cursed’, the forgotten. The story is that the disabled in Africa live in the shadows of society, with a life expectancy 25 years lower than the average global citizen.
“The story is that there are 80 million people in Africa with physical and/or intellectual disabilities…They are the subclass in the continent we perceive to be the poorest on earth.”
Two decades ago I was one of those living in the shadows. I was born with amniotic band syndrome in a deeply challenging township in Durban, South Africa. My syndrome means that my mother’s umbilical cord wrapped around me in the womb, and left me with a shorter right leg, a deformed club foot and several deformed fingers. My story was that the doctors told my mother I would never walk, and my condition meant my mother and I carried around significant social stigmas. I was called, spoken to, and treated like a curse by my society. The hopes and opportunities for my life were as close to zero as a number could be.
Later on in my childhood however I did eventually walk. I somehow grew in confidence with the help of many and began to rise above my early story. I won a scholarship to a prestigious school that I had no right going to, and while there got into and built a drive around sport. Eventually I performed well alongside, and captained, my able-bodied peers. I got into the University of Cape Town to study chemical engineering, am now pursuing a PhD, and while an undergraduate won Sportsperson of the Year an unprecedented four consecutive years. My story today is different. I am considered a world class athlete. I am the South African 100m and 200m champion and the All-Africa record holder in the 100m, 200m, long and high jump for my para athletic category. I am the world record holder for the T44 men’s 200m and long jump, and pending ratification will also hold the 100m world record.
My story today is different. I am considered a world class athlete… I am the world record holder for the T44 men’s 200m and long jump, and pending ratification will also hold the 100m world record.
Whatever you think about my change of condition and hopes over the last twenty years, the truth is that I have been selfish, as good friends have been honest enough to tell me. I have been reserved and unwilling to share my story: one that has the potential to change minds and even help humanise the disabled in Africa. I thought that telling my story would make it all about me, but I forgot that I am one of many. The truth is that against the odds I have lived through and overcome adversity to become a para athlete, Rio 2016 Olympian, and breaker of world records. The truth is that most people with disabilities who have gone before me and are coming after me would call it a blessed day if they could leave their house and roam with a sense of dignity.
The truth is, just as Malawi’s President Joyce Banda stated, “no region in the world is doing enough for people with intellectual disabilities”. So this is not just an African challenge but one for the entire world, even if the situation within my continent seems that much more bleak. The truth is that despite being part of the community, I do not know how to change the way the disabled are viewed in South Africa and other countries across the continent. However, I do believe that through my successes as a para athlete and advocacy, a global spotlight can be shone on this issue; and if that can happen, change could happen.
“I do believe that through my successes as a para athlete and advocacy, a global spotlight can be shone on this issue; and if that can happen, change could happen.”
Having narrowly missed out on a medal in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, gaining 4th and 5th place in the 100m and long jump respectively, I am doing everything in my capacity to go a step further in Tokyo 2020. This is how I have been called to action, and the way I hope to bring the spotlight to, show the potential of, and change attitudes towards Africa’s disabled beyond 2020.