KEVIN MCCALLUM: For Zanele and Duif, see you one of these days...
After losing so many dear loves, death is always a presence in my life
I think about death a lot. Probably more than I should or is healthy, but death seems to have a thing for me. There were five of us McCallums when we first came to SA from the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1977. From war to war, from religious bullshit to racist evil.
Mary, Bill, Kevin, Brian and Barry. Now there is just me.
My dad died on Christmas day in 2010 at 68, Brian in 2015 and Barry in 2017, both at 46, and my mum last year in May at 77. 1977 and 77. That sounds weird and wrong, and somehow a full circle. I turned 56 in September. God knows how. I have lived a good, bad, hard life. Being a sports journalist is the best fun you can have, and the worst for your body, if you are, as I am and many of my colleagues are, inclined towards a drink or two too many, which, I now know, is a problem and not the solution. I am not the Peter Pan I hoped to be. I have lived longer than I thought.
Two days before my birthday in September, I thought I was going to die. I’ve written about the floods in Stanford and our escape from a car that had no luck trying to escape the torrent that Sillery Street had become. That day still sits hard on me, the resulting blame game, revisiting of what I could have done better and what could have been taken from me. All I have is my wife and my dogs. It feels like I lost everything on that day despite surviving and saving my dogs. Nothing has felt the same since. I often feel like I have no distance left to run.
But, here we are and so it goes, as someone wise once wrote in a different and better way. My journey in writing started with a lot of luck, the offer of covering the Sydney Paralympics, an offer negotiated with one of my now dearest friends, Andy Scott, over a beer.
The current health minister, Dr Joe Paahla, and I sat beside each other on the bus from the airport to our hotel. I don’t know who was more excited and confused, myself or Joe, but we spoke a lot and he is a good man. We haven’t seen each other in some years, but I know there will be a hug if and when that happens.
I worked hard at those Games. Stupidly hard. I think I wrote seven stories a day, if not more, but sometimes less. I was anxious and happy. I spent a lot of time with Duif du Toit, one of the best of the best sports photographers. We formed a friendship and partnership at those Games. Grant Leversha, the great golf photographer, once told me that I write with a visual essence, which I had never considered. Perhaps that is why Duif and I clicked.
On one sunny day, the two of us, not au fait with how the disabled won medals, were sitting in the press stands talking about how the Australians had complained that the Gauloises Duif smoked were too strong for their laws.
I kept tabs on a South African javelin thrower who was on the field. I saw her javelin go over two lines that had been marked on the field. “Duif, are those two lines the world and Paralympic record?” “Yes,” he smiled. “Then a South African has just broken the world f******g record.”
“Shit,” shouted the Dove and ran down to the field.
Zanele Situ became the first black female African to win a gold medal at any games. Our interview was awkward. She was a lady from Umtata who one day felt very tired and then was disabled from the hips down. She told her story in a matter of fact way. In Sydney she won gold with 14.78m.
She was front-page news. She was gold and shy. We were the guests on a, thankfully, short-lived magazine show hosted by Tim Modise. He struggled to speak to her. I led the conversation and Zanele and I had a fat old chat as Tim nodded and smiled.
Zanele was my first big interview, if you will. We talked often down the years as she struggled with money and fame and the bullshit of who and what she was. She passed away this week. Duif left us in 2015. With every death I wonder when I might slip along the path to wherever they are and when my turn may come. Perhaps I have a little distance left to run.
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