Remember Caster Semenya

The story of Caster Semenya was always a story of a Black African woman, and was equally always the story of a Black woman.

Image by Yann Caradec.

There was a big birthday party a week or so ago, in South Africa. No, not that one, not the centenary of the African National Congress, although, amazingly, people are still debating that blowout party that happene 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.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.