While it’s not necessary to achieve fame to make a profound difference in the world, these South African game changers have risen to prominence, and sometimes notoriety.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013
Nelson Mandela’s mother was Nonqaphi Nosekeni and his father, Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, was the main advisor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He was named Nelson by his teacher on the first day of school. Growing up hearing the elders’ stories of his ancestors’ valour during the wars of resistance, Nelson Mandela dreamed of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people. Making that dream come true, often at his own peril, became his life’s work. In spite of almost insurmountable odds, he was unwavering in his commitment to democracy, equality, and education for all.
Desmond Tutu (1931-)
Desmond Tutu rose to fame as one of the most prominent and eloquent voices opposing apartheid. Like Nelson Mandela, he was unshakeable in the face of overwhelming odds. In 1985, he was appointed the Bishop of Johannesburg, and a year later, he became the first black South African Archbishop of Cape Town. In 1987 he was name president of the All Africa Conference of Churches. Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2005.
J.R.R. Tolkien, (1892 –1973)
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a writer, poet, philologist (expert in languages), and university professor. He’s most famously known as the author of the high-fantasy Lord of the Ring series. He often expressed social issues and his opposition to Stalinism, socialism, and racism in other works. He’s also attributed with a quote familiar to motorcyclists, “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Steve Nash. (1974-)
Basketball star Steve Nash was born in SA but the family immigrated to Canada when he was 18 months old to avoid raising their children amidst apartheid. He didn’t start playing basketball until he was 12 or 13 and then became a two-time NBA MVP and eight-time NBA All-Star. He’s involved in many corporate, environmental, and philanthropic pursuits, including his charity dedicated to assisting underserved children.
Gary Player, (1935-)
Gary Player is a retired South African professional golfer, most famous for becoming the only non-American to win the “Grand Slam of Golf” consisting of the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA championship. He’s designed more than 325 golf courses on five continents and authored or co-written 36 golf books. The Player Foundation has a primary objective of promoting underprivileged education around the world. In 30 years, it’s raised over US$60 million for educational facilities in South Africa.
Elon Musk (1971-)
Elon Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa and grew up in the last decades of Apartheid. He’s described as a Canadian-American business magnate, investor, engineer, and one of the greatest and most prolific modern inventors. He’s responsible for monumental advancements in futuristic technology like renewable energy and space travel. He’s known for founding Tesla Motors and SpaceX, which launched a landmark commercial spacecraft in 2012. His goals emerge from his vision to change the world and humanity through sustainable energy production and consumption, and making life multi-planetary.
Oscar Pistorius, (1986-)
Oscar Pistorius is a sprinter who became the first amputee to compete in the Olympics in 2012. Born without a fibula in either of his legs, his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. Shortly after he began running at 16, he captured a gold at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Nicknamed Blade Runner, he’s been called “the fastest man on no legs.” In 2007 he was banned from competing after the International Association of Athletic Foundations said he had an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes. He appealed and went on to become the first amputee to win a non-disabled world track medal at the 2011 World Championships in Athletics. In 2012 he became the first double-leg amputee to participate in the Olympics. In 2013 he achieved notoriety when he admitted to killing his girlfriend.
Christiaan Barnard, (1922-2001)
Christiaan Barnard was born to a father who was a missionary in a mix-raced church, and a mother who taught her children they could do anything they wanted, and do it well. After his first successful kidney transplant in the United States in 1953, he went on to perform the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967. The initial public response was fraught with negativity, controversy, and ethical opposition. Some said his most important contribution was his courage to proceed with a human transplant when other surgeons hesitated. During apartheid, he allowed mixed-race nurses in the operating room to treat white patients and transplanted the heart of a white woman into a black man.