x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A wave of indignation

Amid the joy and pride on display at Johannesburg's international airport this week lay a deep-seated wave of anger.

Caster Semenya salutes the crowd after her arrival at Johannesburg airport.
Caster Semenya salutes the crowd after her arrival at Johannesburg airport.

Amid the joy and pride on display at Johannesburg's international airport this week lay a deep-seated wave of anger. Around 3,000 people packed the arrivals hall of Tambo airport, with plastic horns and trumpets blaring, drums beating, and the floor of the building vibrating to their dancing as they welcomed home Caster Semenya, the controversial athletics women's world champion at 800m, and the country's other medallists.

Banners proclaimed her a "golden girl" and others declared "Caster you beaut!", despite questions over her gender. In response, South Africa has been swept up in a flood of patriotic defiance. "When they say they are going to test her gender, that has touched me," said Hendrik Dalani, 34, a supermarket distribution worker. "I feel so shamed. "There's a problem when coming to internationals, whereby even if a black person can make a good thing they don't accept it. That's my problem."

Zoliswa Mabindisa, 28, a businesswoman, said: "I'm very cross with the IAAF [the governing body of athletics]. There are so many people who look like men but they are not questioned." Nehwoh Belinda, of the rights group People Opposing Women Abuse, said Semenya was being targeted because she was a woman who did not conform to social stereotypes. "She has the right to be who she is and nobody has the right to judge her," she said.

"There's a stereotype, a woman should put on make-up, high shoes and be soft. But she is a strong woman because women are strong and can handle the pressure, that's why she's able to win." Such sentiments have been fanned by the authorities with accusations of sexism and racism, rather than examining the issues. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) had a substantial presence at the airport, with much smaller groups from the opposition Democratic Alliance and Congress of the People, and it was a demonstration of the ANC's innate defensiveness.

In many ways they still considers themselves a revolutionary movement, rather than a political party, despite having been in government for 15 years, and sometimes display the mindset of seeing outsiders as enemies, born of a decades-long period under constant threat from the apartheid authorities. That defensiveness, when added to their stated commitment to a "non-racial, non-sexist" South Africa, has made the row over Semenya explosive.

Some commentators have pointed out the risk that the case will be abused by political and pressure groups seeking to further their own agendas. Athletics South Africa (ASA), the organising body in the country, showed no such qualms however at the welcoming press conference, with several ANC representatives given places on the podium, and multiple invocations of the struggle against apartheid. Julius Malema, the president of the ANC's Youth League, said that any questioning of Semenya's gender undermined all South African women and accused her doubters of racism. "It's only those who gave birth to her who can tell us whether it's a she or a he, therefore she will not be subjected to any scientific testing, because ours is confirmation from the parents and that's enough."

Leonard Chuene, the ASA head, who stepped down from the IAAF council because he claimed Semenya had been "humiliated", expressed similar sentiments despite his role as a sports administrator rather than a politician. "Let me warn the professors and the scientists, the only scientist I believe in is the parents of this child," he said, condemning "little knowledge from another stupid university". "We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children," he said. "We must refuse to let other people set the agenda for you. For a long time in our country we allowed people to set the agenda for us."