'Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl? It is racism'

Caster Semenya row: 

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 800 metres 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 traditional

round building with a thatched roof 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 1500m 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 governing 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 today being cared for

by specialist counsellors at

South Africa's team hotel in Berlin.

Today the entire team will enjoy an

end-of-competition dinner before

flying back to Johannesburg tomorrow.

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 years old, Caster Semenya is

quite probably frightened and confused.

Her dignity has been attacked,

her profoundest sense of self laid bare

with potentially damaging psychological


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.

Link here

             J-L K.
Procurement Consultant
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  Kigali - RWANDA
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