/ 23 August 2009

Semenya sex row causes outrage in SA

The decision to subject the gold medal-winning athlete Caster Semenya to sex tests over claims she is a man has provoked outrage in her village and throughout South Africa

Student Debra Morolong chalks defiantly on a school blackboard. ”Caster always is a winner,” she writes. ”I am very proud about Caster cause is my best friend. Caster is the champion in 2010.”

The classroom has cheap wooden desks lining a bare concrete floor. Paint is peeling off the graffiti-strewn walls beneath a corrugated tin roof. Caster Semenya was just another pupil in this impoverished corner of South Africa until her body propelled her to international glory — and very public humiliation.

Semenya (18) stormed to victory last week in the women’s 800m at the world athletics championships in Berlin. But her rags-to-riches journey had been called into question even before the starting gun. The athlete’s muscular build, deep voice, facial hair and suddenly improved performances led to a frenzy of speculation that the fastest woman in the world over two laps is, in fact, a man.

The governing body of world athletics confirmed that it has ordered Semenya to undergo a ”gender verification test” to prove she did not have an unfair biological advantage. British bookmakers offered prices on whether she will prove to be a man, woman or hermaphrodite.

But although the debate is ostensibly about sex, many in South Africa believe it has a racial dimension. Political leaders have accused Western ”imperialists” of a public lynching, comparing her case to that of Saartjie Baartman, an 18th-century Khosian woman who paraded naked in Europe for colonialists to prod her genitals with their umbrellas.

Close friends such as Debra Morolong, who have known Semenya most of her life, say that the sex test is futile because they already know the answer. ”She’s a girl,” said Morolong, who was a pupil with Semenya at Nthema Secondary School in the village of Fairlie in Limpopo province. ”She wore skirts at primary school but then she wore trousers or tracksuits.”

Semenya has many male friends too. Ezekiel Laka (20) who captains the football team in which she was the sole female player, said: ”Many people say she’s a boy but in fact she’s a girl. I have proof. When we played football she went somewhere far away from the boys so she could change in private. She tells people, ‘I’m a girl’.”

The loyalty of Semenya’s friends and neighbours is striking. South Africa’s rural communities are typically regarded as bastions of social conservatism divided into traditional gender roles and expectations of femininity. But there is no evidence that Semenya, an androgynous tomboy who played football and wore trousers, was ostracised by her peers. Instead, they are shocked at what they perceive as the intolerance and prurience of Western commentators.

”They are jealous,” said Dorcus Semenya, the athlete’s mother, who led villagers in jubilant singing and dancing on Friday. ”I say to them, go to hell, you don’t know what you’re saying. They’re jealous because they don’t want black people improving their status.”

There was little in Semenya’s upbringing that could have prepared her for the global firestorm now engulfing her self-identity. Her home village, Masehlong, is an isolated outpost in the bush, surrounded by miles of dry and dusty scrubland. It has recently acquired electricity but water comes from a communal tap linked to a borehole. With unemployment estimated at 80%, young men sit idle in the afternoon sun and families depend on subsistence farming, keeping hens, goats and cows on their wire-fenced homesteads.

Semenya’s father, Jacob, works as a gardener for a city council. It is enough to provide for a relatively comfortable five-room house with TV and DVD player for Semenya and her four sisters and one brother. The modest homestead also has a rondavel and a scattering of plants coming into blossom. In a corner sit a pile of concrete blocks.

Sports facilities for the young hopeful were virtually non-existent, forcing Semenya to train on uneven dirt tracks. Eric Modiba, principal at Nthema Secondary School, where Semenya was a pupil from 2004 until last year, said: ”The sports facilities here are poor and the ground she used to practice on was pathetic. I used to transport her to a neighbouring village where the ground was more standardised.”

Modiba runs the 285-pupil school from his office inside a prefab steel container. The classrooms are three basic brick buildings in a sand gravel yard with a water pump, surrounded by a mesh fence topped with barbed wire. The adjacent football pitch has fallen into disrepair, consisting of more dirt than grass, while the goalmouths are made up of rusting posts and an uneven wood crossbar.

The young Semenya wore dresses and skirts and played with dolls like other girls. But at school she became something of a tomboy and developed a love for football, softball and wrestling. When she reached secondary school, she abandoned skirts in favour of trousers. Her friend Boitumelo Noshion said: ”Sometimes in the class she’s asked about boyfriends but she’s not interested. But she’s mentioned that she wants to have children one day.”

Semenya is now a first-year sports science student at Pretoria University, where staff express similar bafflement at the gender controversy. She has gone from a virtual unknown to the world’s fastest woman over 800m this year when she clocked 1:56,72 at the African junior championships in Mauritius. She sliced more than a second off that with her winning time of 1:55,45 in Berlin on Wednesday, but was so overwhelmed by the global controversy that she had to be persuaded to accept her gold medal.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is standing its ground, saying it only made the sex test public after it had already been reported in the media. The test, which takes weeks to complete, requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.

The IAAF says it was obliged to investigate after Semenya made improvements of 25 seconds at 1 500m and eight seconds at 800m — the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use. It is not the first time that the gender of female competitors has been challenged. The IAAF denies charges of racism, arguing that its president is a black man.

But 15 years after the end of apartheid, public discourse in South Africa can quickly become racially charged. The African National Congress has vehemently condemned the sex test and the president of its youth league, Julius Malema, has lambasted the IAAF for ”this attack on this beautiful woman”. South Africa plans to lodge an official complaint with the UN high commissioner for human rights for undermining Semenya’s rights and privacy.

Leonard Chuene, the head of South African athletics who has stepped down from the IAAF until the matter is settled, said: ”We are talking about a child here, whose name has been dragged through the dirt by an organisation which should know better.

”If gender tests have to take place, they should have been done quietly. It is a taboo subject. How can a girl live with this stigma? By going public on the tests, the IAAF has let down this young child, and I will fight tooth and nail to protect her.”

Describing the speculation about Semenya’s gender as ”racist”, he added: ”Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl?

”I say this is racism, pure and simple. In Africa, as in any other country, parents look at new babies and can see straight away whether to raise them as a boy or a girl. We are now being told that it is not so simple. But the people who question these things have no idea how much shame such a slur can bring on a family.

”They are doubting the parents of this child and questioning the way they brought her up. God has his say on what people are. He made us all. A young girl has no input as she enters the world on what she will look like.

”It is outrageous for people from other countries to tell us ‘We want to take her to a laboratory because we don’t like her nose, or her figure.”’

Semenya was on Sunday being cared for by specialist counsellors at South Africa’s team hotel in Berlin.

On Sunday the entire team will enjoy an end-of-competition dinner before flying back to Johannesburg on Monday.

Chuene said: ”We are caring for this child because nobody else will. She came here anonymously and now she is trembling about the media. She cannot understand why she is being treated like this. In some ways she is very strong. I have not seen her cry about this. But in other ways she is very much the child. She is desperate to get home to her family, who know her and have raised her.

”She is very upset, but on the surface she is OK. The other athletes are treating her as if nothing has happened. At the leaving party she will dance with everyone else. It is right that we do not let this dominate her thoughts.”

That mood is reflected by villagers in Limpopo, who are preparing a enthusiastic celebration for Semenya when she returns on Tuesday, partly as a message of defiance to the watching world. At 18, Caster Semenya is quite probably frightened and confused. Her dignity has been attacked, her profoundest sense of self laid bare with potentially damaging psychological consequences. But when she returns home, she seems assured of a special welcome from family and friends who have never sat in judgment on her nature. They have always accepted her simply as Caster, the girl who can outrun them all. – guardian.co.uk