Natalie du Toit is perhaps one of South Africa’s greatest ever athletes.
She first began swimming competitively at 14 years old — and dreamed of competing at the Olympics. But in 2001, as she drove home from practice on her scooter, a reckless driver crashed into her and crushed her left leg. She was only 17 when that leg was amputated below the knee.
But within three months du Toit was walking again — and by the following year, still a teenager, she became the first athlete in history to make the final of an able-bodied event at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, UK. She was then awarded the first David Dixon Award for the Outstanding Athlete of the competition.
Du Toit later realised her dream in 2008 as the first female amputee to swim at an able-bodied Olympics. Still, she remains the only athlete to ever carry a flag for their country at both an Olympics and a Paralympics opening ceremony in the same year.
“It’s quite an interesting thing — once you become disabled you realise how many disabled people there are,” Du Toit told Global Citizen. “I guess it’s like driving a certain car — you realise how many of the same car is on the road. It’s quite an amazing phenomenon.”
We exchanged words in a dimly lit garden in Pretoria — more specifically, at the residence of HE Adam McCarthy, the Australian High Commissioner to South Africa.
It was here that McCarthy hosted an event with Global Citizen on Wednesday night with ambassadors including Thabane Zulu — South Africa’s director general at the department of energy — Nigel Casey, the British High Commissioner to South Africa, Canada’s High Commissioner Sandra McCardell, and Elif Çomoğlu Ülgen from Turkey. It was all about focusing attention on the Charter for Change: a 10-point document authored by the British government that protects the rights, freedoms, dignity, and inclusion for all people with disabilities.
Over 320 organisations and governments ranging from Norway to Uganda, and including COTY, one of the world’s largest beauty companies, signed the declaration at the world’s inaugural Global Disability Summit held in partnership with Kenya on July 24 in London — and more appear to be on the way.
“I think the Charter for Change means that it’s no longer just a discussion,” du Toit continued. “It’s something serious. It’s come down to a certain amount of points, and those points will be worked on. So I think it’s getting everyone together to work towards a common goal, and achieving a common goal, and that’s one of the biggest movements.”
“Tonight was extremely important,” she added.
Paralympian @Natsdutoit tells us of her experience: “We disabled people have our own personalities, we are our own movement... I didn’t want to be put in a box, I just wanted to be me.” #BeTheGenerationpic.twitter.com/83NjV02ESm— Global Citizen Impact (@GlblCtznImpact) November 28, 2018
Just after du Toit delivered her speech detailing her experiences living and competing before and after the crash, something historic happened: Thabane Zulu signed the Charter for Change on behalf of South Africa.
“[Nelson] Mandela laid the foundation for the inclusion of all people in everything we do,” Zulu said to the room as he held the pen.
And Nigel Casey told Global Citizen at the reception that it was a superb victory for inclusion. He first arrived in South Africa to represent the British government in 1993, and saw first-hand the country’s transition to democracy and voted for Nelson Mandela as its first elected president.
“[Disability] is a really high priority for us as a government — and for Penny Mordaunt personally as our secretary of state for international development,” Casey told Global Citizen. “It’s particularly relevant in Africa… to end the stigma associated with disabilities, and a lot of that was encapsulated in the Charter for Change.”
“Personally I’m thrilled that South Africa has decided tonight to come on board and sign the charter,” he added.
Casey mentioned, however, that there was still a long way to go in terms of practical steps, especially when supporting people with disabilities to overcome the physical obstacles outside South Africa’s biggest cities. And around the rest of the continent, he told us that there have always been immense challenges.
“They tended to be hidden away from the mainstream, stigmatised, their rights not fully recognised — either in theory or in practice,” he said.
The reception on Wednesday night was the first in a week of activism around Johannesburg, culminating on December 2 with Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100, presented and hosted by the Motsepe Foundation.
Taking the stage will be Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Cassper Nyovest, D’Banj, Ed Sheeran, Eddie Vedder, Femi Kuti, Kacey Musgraves, Pharrell Williams, Chris Martin, Sho Madjozi, Tiwa Savage, Usher, Wizkid, and more alongside world leaders, campaigners, and tens of thousands of Global Citizens.
“I confess I am a massive Beyoncé fan,” Casey told Global Citizen. “I hope she’s going to play Crazy In Love.”
And all the while, the battle to sign more countries up to the Charter for Change will continue. There’s an estimated 1 billion people with a disability worldwide, of whom 80% live in developing countries. The world’s poorest people are more likely to have a disability, while those with a disability are more likely to live in poverty.
Therefore, the fight to break down stigma, increase inclusivity, and protect the rights of people with disabilities is the same battle as that to support the world’s poor — and that must be accomplished with dignity, as the Charter illustrates.
“It’s important to remember that it’s not about the disability, but it’s rather about the ability,” du Toit concluded. “And should you not understand the ability or the disability, get to know the person.”
We were delighted to meet @Natsdutoit and D.G. Mr. Thabane Zulu, and are very grateful for South Africa’s commitment to ensuring and furthering the rights of people with disabilities. #BeTheGenerationpic.twitter.com/kiuGPi7tcj— Global Citizen Impact (@GlblCtznImpact) November 28, 2018
The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.