You remember Caster Semenya

There was a big birthday party a week or so ago, in South Africa. No, not that one, not the ANC centenary, although, amazingly, people are still debating that blowout a whole week later, including how some of the VIPs got to experience what ordinary people endure everyday. This was a party of now, of today and tomorrow and then some. On January 7, Caster Semenya turned 21, and she celebrated in style, in her home village of GaMasehlong in Moletjie near Polokwane. She partied with her new coach, Maria Mutola, with the “People’s Poet” and mbaqanga singer Mzwakhe Mbuli, her family and friends, including sister athlete Ashleigh Trotter. Semenya is beaming. The pictures and reports indicate a truly joyous event.

You remember Caster Semenya. In 2009, she ran like the wind, and beamed after every race. Until she was charged, by a fellow runner, with gender indeterminacy. Actually, she was first accused of being a man, and then, when that didn’t quite pan out, of being … something else. She was ‘investigated’ by the International Association of Athletic Federations… sort of. The IAAF didn’t actually have a procedure for determining gender, and apparently didn’t know that sexing the body is an ideological, a political, procedure. So, they invented science and scientists and, as so often happens, betrayed the trust the then 19-year old South African woman had put in them.

Do we truly need a true sex? With a persistence that borders on stubbornness, modern Western societies have answered in the affirmative.” Western societies. White Western societies.

In the debate that ensued, much of the attention paid by the Western media focused on the intricacies of intersex, transgender and all those ‘exotic’ realms that were yet again being ‘discovered’ in the aftermath of homo- and trans-phobic violence and violation. While it was not the first time that the IAAF had screwed up, royally, around sex and gender, this time, the press doted on pictures and stories of “the African girl” who had run through the countryside of Limpopo, and who played soccer rather than fetch wood. They dealt with the sheer and complete support her family and her village gave to this ‘different’ girl-child with a touch of astonishment. Acceptance of difference is ‘modern’, isn’t it, and modern is rarely African and always urban, metropolitan.

And so the story continued. The scholarly debates continue, the more general attention less so.

The story of Caster Semenya was always a story of a Black African woman, and was equally always the story of a Black woman. As Erykah Badu has been reminding us, Black is a country. So, as 2012 rolls along, let’s truly not need a true sex and, instead, let’s sing a little praise song, an anthem, for Caster Semenya, and remember the women who blaze trails.



Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

  1. While I agree that our gender identity is pretty much a cultural and therefore political construction, I disagree on the idea that the need of a true sex is so persistent in white western societies. I am afraid that it knows no borders nor races. Otherwise how do you explain the homosexual taboo that pervades black townships in South Africa? What you hear there is that homosexuality has been introduced by white, western colonizers, and that was unknown to “real” African cultures. And how do you explain the practice of “corrective rape” against black lesbians in the townships? Really, it is not a matter of colour. It is an ancestral fright for whatever is different, for this difference is a menace to our own identity.

  2. Whatever. If she is a man then I have a problem with her being able to run as a woman. I want the test results because she may be a great person but she absolutely looks male and if this is the case then she should run with men, not woman.

  3. this is obsurd. in the USA the williams sisters look like men as well bt has any1 eva questiond their gender. ts bout time ppl lve Caster semenya alone, she dd nt ask to b like ths and instead of sulking and feeling sorry for herslf she is using it too her advantage. she may look like a man bt blve me she is 100% woman.

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