Manufacturing controversy

The mass support for Caster Semenya among South Africans is paradoxical: of a country deeply divided, yet at certain moments strangely united around a common cause.

Image by Yann Caradec.

It may be true that race-obsessed, populist elements in South Africa’s ruling ANC are exploiting the controversy around world-beating athlete Caster Semenya for political gain. The rallying of support by the ANC has been roundly criticized in media reports both internationally and in South Africa, as well as by the ANC’s political opposition. It might also be that the ANC is charging up emotions to divert people’s attention away from their dismal social conditions instead of working harder to change them. This is, however, more a case of politicians trying to keep up with public opinion than the other way round. Denying this would be giving politicians too much credit, and disregard South Africans’ ability to form their own opinions about a controversy that, for many, reflect their own struggles for recognition, respect and equal treatment.

And as with so much else in post-apartheid South African society, the mass support for Semenya (5000 people turned up at the airport to welcome her back, she has received encouragement in newspaper editorials, cartoons and the blogosphere, and even met with Nelson Mandela) is a paradoxical one that tells the story of a country deeply divided yet at certain moments strangely united around a common cause.

What can we learn from this response?

South Africans are sports mad. They measure their emotional state by the fortunes of their national teams and fiercely loyal to their athletes. When the former minister of finance, Trevor Manuel declared that he supported New Zealand’s All Black rugby team (as did many black South Africans in defiance of the white-controlled game which barred them from the national team) he was criticized by supporters of the team which reminded him that Mandela was now the Springboks’ number one fan.

Sporting codes remain largely racially segregated, a legacy of early twentieth century attempts to racially police sports: football for blacks and rugby and cricket for whites. But increasingly black and ‘coloured’ (in apartheid parlance) sports heroes like Bryan Habana (rugby) and Wayne Parnell (cricket) are adored by all South Africans alike.

In this light, a decision by an international body to doubt the success of one of “us” was likely to be met with a nationalistic response, which could easily be reframed as an anti-imperialist one.

The clumsy and callous way in which the IAAF handled the inquiry into Semenya’s gender seemed for South Africans to smack of a patronising attitude towards their country as a backward, “underdeveloped” place from which it was unlikely that an athlete of Semenya’s extraordinary talent could emerge overnight.

Here the ANC might have a point in asking whether a white athlete — read: European or North American — would have been similarly publicly humiliated before a ‘gender’ test was carried out. If there is something you should not tell South Africans, who are relishing their re-entry into the global arenas of commerce, sports and the arts, it is that they cannot compete at the same international level as others or that they are inferior or backward.

And by rejecting statements by Semenya”s parents (and her birth certificate), her trainer, school teachers and classmates who all testified that she grew up as a girl, the IAAF was seen to say: ‘Who are you to tell us you’re a woman, we don’t trust your birth certificate and- we will tell you if you are a woman.’ To some South Africans the IAAF was implying that her parent’s — hardly cosmopolitans or members of South Africa’s black political class or emerging economic elite — were in on a massive conspiracy.

The response at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg also reflects ordinary South Africans’ experiences of marginalization. People want to believe in a dream, thus coping with their precarious and struggling existence in a country marred by poverty, violence and inequality.

The public response to Semenya”s gender testing also shows up how some in the West, for all its pretence, lives by outdated constructions of what are male or female ideal body types or behaviours. South Africans, only recently emerged from colonialism and Apartheid that was underpinned by pencil tests and ethnic shibboleths, are for all their faults very wary of essentialised categories.

What is more, by rejecting the prescriptions and impositions of international athletic tsars in white laboratory jackets, South Africans–generally socially conservative–are discovering for themselves the arbitrary and constructed nature of gender. In a country with high levels of gender-based violence (including violence against lesbians, perceived as women acting like men by their attackers), this is a positive sign. Interviewed by a Kenyan TV station, one of Caster’s classmates said, ‘I am proud of her gender.’ The t-shirts of some of Caster’s young female supporters at the airport said it all: ‘If Caster is a boy, I am a boy too.

Further Reading

I, Surya

The story of Surya Bonaly, and her unwillingness to yield to racist demands and expectations in the sport of figure skating.