LGBTQIA+ community remembers SA Olympian and sports activist Cheryl Roberts


Cheryl Roberts will be remembered both for her great passion for sport and commitment to social justice (Photo: Facebook)

The South African LGBTQIA+ community is mourning the recent loss of Cheryl Roberts, a South African sports transformation champion, writer and activist who used her position to advocate for gender equality and women’s role in sports.

Roberts passed away from cancer at the age of 60 at Netcare Parklands Hospital in Durban on 7 October. She lived most of her life in Woodstock, Cape Town, where she actively participated in political rallies and protests for gender equality and queer rights.

She was a renowned table tennis player who represented South Africa at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Her dedication resulted in her being awarded the coveted Andrew Mlangeni Green Jacket by the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture and being honoured four times by the gsport Awards, including her 2016 induction in the gsport Hall of Fame.

A notable role model for young LGBTQIA+ sports professionals, she dismantled the perceptions and views about the LGBTQIA+ community, using her prominent position for social cohesion.

“Sport and society are one; inequalities in society will also be present in sport. Is it any wonder that women in sport – and especially black women in sport – are treated differently to their male counterparts, facing prejudice and discrimination?” she said in 2020.

She spoke out at the the marginalisation of women and girls in sport

One of her close friends, Patric Solomons, described Roberts as a “cool, friendly, youthful and independent” person who loved sport, music, arts, nature and travelling.”

He told the Cape Argus that “She spoke out at the lack of transformation in sport, the marginalisation of women and girls in sport, and the corruption in sports management, development and sponsorship.”

Funeka Soldat, a queer activist and founder of FreeGender, a black lesbian movement based in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, recalled her 15-year friendship with Roberts.

Soldat highlighted Robert’s humility and her great passion for supporting marginalised communities both in queer spaces and in sports.

“Cheryl was an amazing person. Our journey began in the early 90s when we met through a friend and realised our shared passion for social issues and the challenges of black queers in the townships. She was so touched by the plight of black lesbians being killed in the townships that she paid us a surprise visit one day in Khayelitsha,” said Soldat

“I mean, she lived in an upscale area in Sea Point, but was so humble that she spent most of her time with the poor communities. Aside from helping our organisation, FreeGender, get on its feet, Cheryl just came with food that we shared with each other and with the kids in the community,” Soldat remembered.

Cape Town LGBTQIA+ rights and community services group Triangle Project also took to social media to share its grief over Roberts’ passing.

“She countered traditional media, and we loved her for it. One of few, if not the only writer documenting Black Queer women in sport. Her legacy is rooted in the lives of everyone she encountered. Rest in peace and power Cheryl,” said Triangle.

Cheryl Roberts dedicated her life to promoting young talented sportswomen

She was not moved by fame and not only did Roberts promote women’s sports, she used her personal finances to help women and girls achieve their athletic goals. She authored many publications on grassroot sports development and those that profiled women in sport. She also actively used social media to spotlight the role and achievement of women in sport.

One example saw her celebrating the success of former Springbok Women’s captain and now manager, Nomsebenzi Tsosobe on Twitter. “Her father never got the opportunity to represent democratic SA at rugby. But she got the chance to play women’s rugby, become a Springbok in post-apartheid SA. Today, she’s on a jet plane – SA to New Zealand as manager of SA’s women’s rugby World Cup squad,” wrote Roberts.

In a media statement, the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, paid tribute to Roberts.

“An undoubted advocate and activist of non-racial sport and in particular women, Cheryl Roberts dedicated her life to unearthing young talented female women, many of whom have blossomed into successful athletes,” he said.

Roberts’ unwavering enthusiasm will be sorely missed. Her family’s loss is shared by many, not only in the sports movement but the LGBTQIA+ activist movement and community at large.

As part of the celebration of Cheryl Roberts’ life, FreeGender will host a memorial service on October 29 at 10:00 at Zivivana in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, focusing on her life and contributions as an activist.

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