Gender debate

South Africa versus the world: The Caster Semenya affair

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

She has become a heroine in her homeland – and a political pawn for the ANC

With plastic horns blaring, a surging crowd dressed in yellow and green and printed placards filling the airport, travellers arriving at Johannesburg airport yesterday might have thought the World Cup had started early. But the raucous and indignant crowd were there for a political rally of sorts, the homecoming parade for an 18-year-old world champion whose victory has been overshadowed by questions over her gender.

Any hopes that Caster Semenya had of a quiet return to her old life were blown away as her new status as a national heroine was shouted to the rooftops.

The newspapers that declared her "Our First Lady of Sport" or "Our Golden Girl" had become printed placards and were being handed out in their hundreds outside as people defied the cold for a glimpse of an overnight sensation.

The apparently shy 18-year-old who was "too traumatised" to speak to reporters, according to officials, but had to contend with thousands of supporters flooding the airport flourishing banners and creating a crush trying to catch a glimpse of her. Dressed in her national team tracksuit and flanked by South Africa's two other medallists, the shocked-looking 800m champion was hustled through the tumult to a stage outside. Waiting was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the arch populist of the ruling African National Congress who wasted little time in calling her "my grandchild".

"We are here to tell the whole world how proud we are of our little girl," the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela told the cheering fans. "They can write what they like – we are proud of her."

The athlete's obvious discomfort in the spotlight did little to dissuade others from turning the homecoming into a stage-managed political carnival. Even as she was at home yesterday, news broke that preliminary tests indicated her testosterone levels were three times higher than ordinarily present in a woman. Hormone tests vary widely and scientists have warned that conclusive results could take weeks rather than days to emerge.

South Africa's President, Jacob Zuma, was in defiant mode at the presidential guest house in Pretoria. "Msholozi" as he's popularly known sounded a warning to anyone at the IAAF thinking of stripping Semenya of her medal. "They're not going to remove the gold medal. She won it. So that question does not arise."

The ANC has been quick to pick up on popular anger at the perceived humiliation of the young South African by international athletic authorities. Yesterday the party bused in hundreds of members from its women's league to give a volume boost to proceedings at the airport.

Speaking at the athlete's reception, President Zuma pressed genuine anger at track and field authorities: "It is one thing to seek to ascertain whether or not an athlete has an unfair advantage over others, but it is another to publicly humiliate an honest professional and competent athlete."

With the ANC suffering from domestic travails ranging from industrial disputes to township protests, some analysts believe the "us and them" gender controversy has proved a welcome distraction.

The gold medallist who has shied away from press conferences since her impressive World Championship win was clearly uncomfortable in the hubbub. In the arrivals hall she had to have her arm lifted to salute the crowd by one of her fellow South African medal winners. Outside on a platform in the car park she could be seen rubbing her face and exhaling nervously. The athlete managed a thumbs up wave from the stage and said a quick: "Hi everybody" before joining briefly in a dance.

Her mother, Dorcas, had no such inhibitions and was up on stage wearing a traditional headdress. "She has lifted our hearts. We feel powerful because of her," she said. The feisty Dorcas has rebutted any accusations over her daughter's gender as only a mother could, reminding questioners that the runner comes from her womb and that "there is nothing I don't know about her".

The controversy that has erupted since news of the gender test broke during the Athletics World Championship in Berlin has provoked an angry response in South Africa. Questions over her deep voice, masculine appearance and dramatically improved performances have been met in the rainbow nation with accusations of imperialist or racist attitudes.

"For a long time in this country we let people set the agenda for us," said Leonard Chuene, the head of Athletics South Africa, who has resigned his seat on the IAAF board in protest at Semenya's treatment.

"We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and defeat our children."

The athlete who set the fastest time in the world this year while winning the women's 800m at a canter, is not being accused of cheating, she is being tested to establish whether she has a medical condition that blurs her gender and gives her an unfair advantage.

It is now understood that the IAAF had been monitoring the South African athlete prior to the Berlin Games after her incredible improvements in performance. The track and field authorities had asked the South Africans to withdraw her before the race but news of the gender test leaked out by accident because a fax was sent to the wrong person.

Semenya has so far declined to speak about the suspicions and when she did eventually say something yesterday she stuck to narrating her triumph on the track and not the furore that has followed her off it. She revealed the last words of her coach before the final, when he told her "'(In the) last 200, kill them'. I did what he said, but I took a lead in the last 400. I celebrated the last 200. It was great."

ANC MP Mandla Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, said many of his compatriots saw evidence of racism in her treatment. "As an African athlete she has been the victim of prejudice. What I'm saying is that an athlete from the US or the EU would have been treated differently."

Expressing his sympathy for her situation, he added: "Today she must be questioning herself as a woman."

The controversy has caused deep embarrassment for the IAAF, whose president Lamine Diack confirmed that an internal inquiry into the handling of the affair was underway.

The view from South Africa

Schmeagle in Daily Dispatch Just because she is built like a man and looks a little like a man now they are discriminating against her. I think they should leave her alone.

Zam in Daily Dispatch I don't get the fuss – it's easy to prove, just let them get on with it. Athletics SA was asked to do it and they didn't. As a result, it became international news – unfair on her.

Mpho Moerane in Daily Dispatch I have the same situation at home... I am a woman and my partner just happens to be a woman as well, although to look at her many people refer to her as sir (if you understand what I mean). It's not her fault she was made to look like a man but in actual fact was a woman with all woman parts and all the monthly happenings. People are just people and want to be accepted regardless of what they look like.

Zongz in Daily Dispatch Utter nonsense and discrimination, I can't rule out racism, because these whites can't stand to see a black beating them... let them conduct these tests, we are proud of Semenya and we fully support her.

Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits