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What we talk about when we talk about Caster Semenya



The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships, Berlin, 2009. An 18-year-old Mokgadi Caster Semenya stretches her body in lane four, just a few steps behind the turn of the curve on the blue track. In the heats she blew past her competitors with ease, having just qualified to compete in her first senior trial.

Thirty seconds in and she’s already breezed to pole position. But she slows on the bend, falling into the huddle on the inside lane as Kenya’s Janeth Busienei takes the lead. Lap two and Semenya breaks out of the pack with a speed that can only be described in superlatives. She turns her head, checks over her right shoulder. No one. She’s a little anxious. A little confused. She checks again. Nothing and no one. No one still as she skips over the finish line. She’s barely even broken a sweat.

On the other side of the globe, South Africans gather closer to their screens. The cheers cut abruptly. Excited anticipation. We wait for it. She brings her arms up in celebration. Hands turn it, out and in again, y’know, to brush the dirt off the shoulders.

Time: 1:55:45. Two and a half seconds ahead of the other 800m athletes.

When she watches the footage later will she notice, maybe, the arms and legs flailing and thrashing behind her, desperately willing their respective bodies forward while she seemingly sails to the finish.

“I have always wanted to be both man and woman, to incorporate the strongest and richest parts of my mother and father within [and] into me – to share valleys and mountains upon my body the way the earth does in hills and peaks. I would like to enter a woman the way any man can, and to be entered – to leave and to be left – to be hot and hard and soft all at the same time in the cause of our loving. I would like to drive forward and at other times to rest or be driven.” – Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

Before she can collect her gold medal in Berlin, the rumours, toxic, begin to infect her surrounds.

“Is it true,” reporters ask, “that she is really a man?”

In a clip of the race online, someone has drawn a red circle around her stomach. “Look at that six pack. Man???”

In another video, another red circle appears, this time around her genitals, highlighting a “very obvious” bulge that no one else but that particular commentator can see.

The IAAF confirms the rumour: yes. There have been concerns. She was tested in South Africa and in Berlin. Athletics South Africa’s disgraced former president, Leonard Chuene, denies the allegation. Later he will admit to deceiving Semenya into signing off on the tests.

“Oh, man, I don’t know what to say. It’s pretty good to win a gold medal and bring it home,” Semenya’s face is measured and so is her response. It is a classic post-match interview from a consummate athlete who – viewers might forget – is still a teen.

“I didn’t know I could win that race, but for the first time in my life … the experience … the World Championships. I couldn’t believe it, man,” she says.

Gold looks good on her. She wears it well. On a You magazine cover in September 2009, gold drips from her neck and arms. It pours out of her skin. In the image, Semenya beams, a full afro framing her face. A gold chain-link necklace hangs past her shoulders, down past her chest and rests heavy over her breasts, stopping some millimetres shy of her manicured hands, her nails a burnt red-purple hue. The cover announces itself loudly: “We turn SA’s POWER GIRL into a glamour girl – and SHE LOVES IT! Wow, look at Caster NOW!”

The 18-year-old 800m World Champion: “Power”, “girl”, “glamour”. “Wow, look at Caster now!”

She tells the journalist, “God made me the way I am, and I accept myself.”

In other articles, writers describe Semenya’s body. The sinew of her arms. The breadth of her shoulders. Her jaw. Her chest. Her frame, which apparently makes other runners seem “diminutive” in contrast.

Hijra (in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal), transgender, intersex and non-binary people normally making a living as entertainers, performers and sex workers.

Recent studies show how in the 1800s, Britain began to systematically oppress and erase non-binary people, who were criminalised, forced underground, murdered, assaulted and prohibited from earning a living. Children were taken from their parents.

The message was clear: conform or die.

It still is.

An image from the Rio Olympics 2016: three women on the track, two white, one black.

Mokgadi in green, gold and white. Thin cornrows that climb to the crown of her head. Her arms outstretched to comfort another athlete who has her back to us. The faceless woman cries into the arms of British runner Lynsey Sharp. Sharp with a scowl on her face. With that look in her eyes. What is it? Irritation? Disgust? Arrogance?

It’s a well-known look. On the faces of white teachers in school. In the eyes of white women in lifts. Their faces saying always: “You don’t belong here.”

“Hermaphrodite, what is that? Somebody tell me, what is hermaphrodite in Pedi? There’s no such thing, hermaphrodite, in Pedi. So don’t impose your hermaphrodite concepts on us.

“You are either a woman or a man. When a child is born you say it is a baby girl or a boy. We have never heard in the village a child being announced, ‘We were given a hermaphrodite.’” – Julius Malema, October 2009.

“I was coming down the home straight. We were not far away and you can see how close it is. That is encouraging. We will work hard and aim to come back even stronger.” Sharp ran a personal best that race, placing in sixth position, almost an entire five seconds behind Semenya.

“For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.” – Italy’s Elisa Cusma finished five places behind Semenya at the World Championships in 2009.

Related searches:

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On Google’s related searches, this name doesn’t come up in relation to Semenya’s, but it does for many black women: Sara Baartman.

Born somewhere in 1789 near the Gamtoos River and orphaned before adolescence, Baartman was sold into slavery at the age of 16 after Dutch colonisers murdered her husband. She was then moved to Cape Town to labour as a servant belonging to Hendrik Cesars, the brother of the trader who took her as a slave.

William Dunlop was a Scottish military surgeon at the Cape slave lodge who used his interest in African animal specimens to supplement his income. The popular narrative: the surgeon meets Baartman and tries to convince her to travel to England with him. She declines but the good doctor persists, seeing a money-making opportunity that would benefit them both.

Failing to win her over, he turns his efforts to Cesars, her owner. A free black man, Cesars had incurred a lot of debt buying himself and his family freedom. He agrees, and together with Dunlop, Baartman and two unnamed black boys, they travel to the metropol.

The rest we know.

A phenomenon. A creature from the interior of Africa. The Hottentot Venus displayed first in Piccadilly Circus and then in Paris, where she was displayed in a laboratory to an audience of scientists, academics and society’s upper crust. They could pay more to finger and probe at her genitalia. After her death, her genitals were displayed in a jar at the Musée De l’Homme in Paris until the government of South Africa called for her remains to be brought home.

Dutee Chand, an athlete from Bangalore, described in detail the procedures performed on her during her gender testing. Chromosome analysis. An MRI. A physical exam to measure the effects of testosterone on her body, including measuring and palpitating her clitoris, vagina and labia. And grading her pubic hair and breast size according to a graduated scale.

In February 2013, Handri Walters, an undergrad at Stellenbosch University, opened a cupboard in the university’s Sasol Museum and found a human skull and instruments used to measure hair type and eye colour. Engraved on one of the instruments, the name of leading Nazi eugenicist Eugene Fischer.

Further Reading: Eugene Fischer, experiments on black and mixed-raced people, Namibia.

Further Reading : Henrietta Lacks

Further Reading: Rhodes University, phrenology.

1966: The International Olympic Committee requires all female athletes to undergo centralised gender testing, checking the genitals of every female participant in what they termed the “nude parade”. After international outrage, the committee introduces a more “humane” verification tool. A chromosome test that many scientists and geneticists find inaccurate. The scholars say the committee is forcing science to make delineations that nature itself refuses to draw.

2018: The IAAF reintroduces an antiquated regulation that requires women runners to chemically alter the levels of testosterone in their bodies.

April 2019: Semenya takes gold running the 5 000m at the South African athletics championships, the second runner-up trailing more than 100m behind her.

May 2019: The courts uphold the IAAF’s ruling, effectively confining Semenya to two options: quit running or alter her body to meet the IAAF’s arbitrary standardisations.

Later that day, she’s bent over the start line at the Doha Diamond League, her hair in a ponytail. The first lap looks bleak. We’ve seen this before. How they prod and prod and prod at her until she cracks, gives in, runs fast enough to win but not enough to elicit more abuse.

Her celebration is muted. She applauds with the audience, poses for the cameras with a thumbs up, no smile. Behind her five runners are bent over, hands on knees, spent and struggling for breath. Another sits on the polyurethane tartan. All of them, heaving chests. All of them, wet faces and shortened breath. Semenya with the cameras, thumb still in the air, still unsmiling. Her eyes darting, unstill. Unsure. She mouths something unintelligible to herself the entire time.

Project Coast: the much denied apartheid biochemical warfare project. Supervised by Wouter Basson, the projected experimented with undetectable methods of “neutralising the enemy”. The incidents included the poisoning of more than 200 South West African People’s Organisation members (their bodies were dumped into the Atlantic) and the recruitment of young boys by infamous askari Joe Mamasela. He would later lace their drinks and detonate a bomb in the minivan in which the boys were travelling.

Some noted techniques: forced sterilisation, birth control in the water supply, poisoned envelopes and stamps, and walking sticks and umbrellas that shoot “undetectable” poison pellets.

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, an apartheid chemical researcher admits to attempts at a bacterial strain that would only kill black people. He claims that they succeeded. Basson denies everything. In 2002, he’s aquitted of 54 charges. Today, he runs his practice from a cardiology healthcare organisation in Durbanville, Cape Town.

Or, as scholar and poet Fred Moten puts it, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognised that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognise that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

This article was first published by New Frame

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Lindokuhle Nkosi
Lindokuhle Nkosi
Lindokuhle Nkosi, a writer from South Africa whose work textual work often merges with installation and performance. She has written for Mahala, Chimurenga, Africa Is A Country, City Press, Elephant Magazine, Red Bulletin, and Timeslive, and she has curated exhibitions and projects at galleries and in the public space. While floating across different genres – journalistic, reflective, experimental – her work is consistently insightful, rich in textures, and engaged with realities.

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