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No, we’re not referring to those sure-footed, smelly farm animals that are know to eat anything, including your undies off the washing line, but G.O.A.Ts – people who deserve the title of ‘Greatest Of All Time’. Of course, the title may not be held in eternity as others in one’s field of success may inherit it later, but let’s take a look at some South Africans who we can proudly think of as being the best in the country (and sometimes the world). From sports, the arts, movies, music and politics – we have a lot of great people to celebrate.
This honour unequivocally goes to Gary Player, whose professional golfing career spanned seven decades. Player became the only non-American, and only one of five golfers ever to win the Career Grand Slam, and he did this at 29 years old! The Grand Slam consists of the Masters Tournament, PGA Championship, US Open and British Open. All in all he has won more than 160 professional tournaments, over six continents. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
He has also written books on golf and designed over 400 golf courses. The second most successful SA golfer is Ernie Els, who won 72 golf championships – and remember he was contending with Tiger Woods during his career, making his wins all the more impressive.
Here we have an outright winner – not only South Africa’s best all-rounder, but the world’s top-ranked all-rounder! Jacque Kallis scored 25,528 runs and took 577 wickets in 519 matches in all 3 formats – T20s, ODIs and Tests.
While bowlers from other countries may hold higher scores, the most successful South African bowler in Test cricket is Dale Steyn, who has taken 439 wickets over a career spanning 15 years. However, Sean Pollock has taken 823 wickets in all formats of the game, over a 13-year career, while Steyn has only 697 in this category. Hard to decide who the GOAT is in this instance…
There have been 23 Formula One drivers from South Africa, with 18 of them having started at least one Grand Prix race, but none were close to being winners. Jody Scheckter is the only South African to have been successful in F1, winning 10 Grand Prix races AND the World Championship in 1979!
He also got to stand on the winners’ podium 33 times in all. He won or was placed in Drivers Championships a few times and ended his career driving for Ferrari, helping win them a Constructor’s Championship in 1979. After a lackluster performance in 1980, Scheckter retired from racing, and went into business, and then organic farming in the UK.
No need for guessing – it’s Madiba! Without a doubt, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was the most respected, loved and famous (for good reasons) political figure ever to walk this earth in modern times. He won a Nobel Peace Prize, 15 million copies of his memoir ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ have been sold, and celebrities and other famous people flocked to South Africa to meet him. No fewer than 120 streets, roads, boulevards, avenues, bridges, and highways have been named after Mandela, from Cape Town to California and beyond.
Hospitals, clinics, hotels, apartment blocks, a stadium and even a school in Munich have been named after Nelson Mandela. A café in Copenhagen, a university campus bar in Bristol, a restaurant in Brooklyn NY, a protea, an orchid … this remarkable man who lived a remarkable life has been commemorated across the world in many forms.
Quite a few South Africans, both past and present, have had success on stage and on the silver screen in places like London, New York and Hollywood, but perhaps none have ever become as recognized and world famous as Charlize Theron from Benoni! Now one of the world's highest-paid actresses, Theron has won or been nominated for numerous accolades, including in 2004 an Academy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe Award, all for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
Theron has appeared in at least 64 movies, many of them critically acclaimed and/or office box hits. In addition, she has become a movie producer, often starring in the films she produces. Of course, she also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
William Kentridge is South Africa's most famous contemporary artist. He works in an assortment of media including printmaking, painting and drawing, sculpture, and film – the latter which he produces by creating charcoal drawings which he films in half- to two-second frames, after incremental changes to his drawings each time. His artworks and installations have been shown at New York's MOMA and the Louvre in Paris, among other notable international galleries. Some of his works have purportedly fetched over R2 million each.
His biggest artwork was a commission from the Roman government that formed part of a larger cultural event. Using the Tiber River’s embankment walls, a 500m frieze of 60 figures was created by ‘reverse stenciling’ – powerwashing the negative spaces to a bright light colour, while the dark, polluted walls held the images that portrayed Rome’s over 2,700 year old history.
South Africa has produced so many outstanding performers, so we don’t really want to overshadow these great stars with something of a ‘one-hit wonder’. However, Master KG’s very catchy ‘Jerusalema’ (feat. Nomcebo) became a world hit in 2020, effectively becoming the universal lockdown anthem, so it deserves a shout out. The Jerusalema Challenge, a dance trend that started in Angola, soon exploded over the internet, with everyone doing the dance – from nuns in Ireland to airline staff in Austria to police in Rome, and from hospital staff in Sweden to hotel staff in Japan to students in Jerusalem.
In September 2021 Jerusalema became the most Shazam-ed song in history, streamed almost 55 million times on Spotify, the music video watched more than 170 million times on YouTube and on TikTok, #Jerusalema has had 385m views.
This honour goes to Bruce Fordyce, who completed the gruelling 89km Comrade’s Marathon a record 30 times, and won it 8 times consecutively and then again two years later, making him a 9 times winner – another unbroken record. His best time record stood for 20 years until it was finally broken.
Fordyce also won the 50-mile London to Brighton Marathon three times in a row and set a record time in 1983, that still remains unbroken. He was also instrumental in bringing the 5km Saturday morning parkrun concept to South Africa.
Quick, let’s get this in here before it changes! It’s our Springbok team, who are currently No. 1 in the world. The Springboks tie with New Zealand at the top of the World Cup rankings, with each having won the Webb-Ellis Cup three times.
Fullback Percy Montgomery, who represented South Africa in two World Cups, including their win in 2007, holds the record for most points scored in World Cup matches, an impressive total of 111 off his boot.
Wing Brian Habana holds the Springbok record for most international tries scored with a total of 67. He also shares the record with Jonah Lomu for the most tries (15) in Rugby World Cups.
British-South African Lewis Pugh is an individual with an extraordinary ability to endure Arctic temperatures in nothing but a Speedo. He is the first person to have completed long-distance swims in every ocean in the world.
He uses these feats to draw attention to vulnerable oceanic ecosystems and the effects of global warming, for example when he swam across the North Pole to highlight the rapidly melting Arctic Sea ice. Dubbing his highly publicized swims “Speedo Diplomacy” by the press, Pugh was instrumental in creating the world’s largest marine reserve off Antarctica.