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Spartacist South Africa No. 6

Summer 2009/2010

Racist, Sexist Furore Over Caster Semenya

Leave Her Alone!

The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard (No. 942, 11 September 2009).

JOHANNESBURG, September 7—At last month’s world athletics (track and field) championships in Berlin 18-year-old Mokgadi Caster Semenya, a black woman from an impoverished village in rural South Africa, achieved a stunning victory in the women’s 800-metre race, running the fastest time this year with a huge lead over her competitors. Her accomplishment was all the more impressive given what transpired just before she ran the final: the world media was informed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that Semenya was being subjected to “gender verification” testing. After Semenya won the gold medal, an IAAF spokesman announced that she would be stripped of the medal if tests showed that she was not a woman.

Caster Semenya was able to become a world champion athlete despite growing up in a country where the degraded status of women is reflected in traditional practices such as lobola (bride price) and polygamy, which reduce women to property to be bought and sold into marriage. Yet it was in Berlin that she faced the ultimate humiliation at the hands of athletics officials and doctors who wanted to prod and poke her young body to determine whether she had an “unfair advantage” over her competitors because she is not female enough. The treatment of this athlete, who has struggled to overcome the barriers of race, sex and class in neo-apartheid South Africa, has ignited a firestorm of indignation and protest from all quarters in this country, and beyond. It has been aptly described as a modern-day version of the abuse of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was taken to Europe in 1810 to be studied and exhibited as an anthropological and sexual curiosity (“the Hottentot Venus”) and whose brain and genitals remained on display in the Paris Musée de l’Homme until at least 1974.

The IAAF is well aware that there was nothing questionable about Semenya’s performance, which was slower than that of the woman gold medallist in last year’s Olympics. The vilification of Semenya, in which the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport had a hand, has everything to do with race and sex. As Semenya’s mother bluntly stated, “They’re just jealous because they don’t want black people improving their status” ([London] Guardian, 23 August).

Black South African athletes suffered “double apartheid” for many years. Under the system of apartheid segregation, the country’s white capitalist rulers denied most black athletes the material and legal means to participate in organised sport at the national and international level. This isolation was exacerbated by the international boycott of everything South African promoted by anti-apartheid liberals throughout the 1960s to ’80s. While apartheid formally ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, sport, like other aspects of life, still reflects the poverty and deprivation of the oppressed non-white masses.

The Politics of Biology

In Caster Semenya’s case, the most advanced forms of medical testing, including genetics and endocrinology, are to be used to supposedly determine her sex. The IAAF states that it is not accusing Semenya of knowingly cheating by trying to pass for a woman. Instead, according to their cruel logic, they are checking whether, unbeknownst to her and her family, she is not really female. As some have pointed out, Semenya’s rapid improvement as an athlete can be explained in large part by the fact that last year she moved from a rural backwater with virtually no sporting facilities and enrolled as a student of sport science at the University of Pretoria, where for the first time she received high-quality training as a runner.

Semenya is hardly unique among women athletes in having what is deemed a “masculine” appearance. Legendary Mozambican 800-metre champion Maria Mutola was dogged throughout her career by similar speculation that she was not really female. Compare this with the treatment of white South African runner Zola Budd who was described merely as “tomboyish”. But even when it comes to the question of “sex determination”, research shows that one in 1,000 people are born with an “intersex” condition (“The Gender Trap”,, 30 July 2008). According to the Intersex Society of North America, the term “intersex” is used to describe a variety of conditions in which a person’s sexual anatomy doesn’t fit the typical medical definitions of male and female. There are also chromosomal and adrenal anomalies that are sometimes described by this term. As Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, pointed out to the New York Times: “It turns out genes, hormones and genitals are pretty complicated. There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. Sports require that we do, but biology doesn’t care. Biology does not fit neatly into simple categories, so they do these tests.” Dreger said, “But at the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision” (“Gender Test After a Gold Medal Finish”, 19 August).

In fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) abolished universal gender testing after the Atlanta games in 1996, where eight women “failed” the tests but were cleared after challenging the results. Seven of these women were found to have an intersex condition. Such gender testing in Olympic sports began in 1968 at around the same time that anabolic steroid use by athletes came under scrutiny. Much of the hysteria against steroid use and accusations of cheating by having men compete as women were whipped up against the former Soviet degenerated workers state, as well as the East European deformed workers states, as part of the anti-Communist Cold War. Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvilova was dogged by gender and steroids accusations after setting the world record in Semenya’s event in 1983, a record which still stands. Such anti-Communist accusations of cheating also did the rounds in the bourgeois press around the Olympic Games in China last year, such as the imputation that China had lied about the age of some of its champion female gymnasts.

Anti-Communism also plays a role in the attacks on Caster Semenya. An article in the Mail & Guardian (28 August) focuses on one of her coaches, Ekkart Arbeit, who was the head coach of the athletics team of the former DDR (East Germany) and a key target of the furore whipped up over the “doping” of athletes. Such accusations were used to deny the enormous advantages of the planned economies of the bureaucratically deformed workers states, where capitalism was overthrown. As Katarina Witt, the world champion East German figure skater, recalled, “The state provided for me…. Skating is rather expensive, and in East Germany all the equipment and the time on the ice that you needed were provided” (Times online, 25 May 2003).

The IOC and IAAF have continued the practice of “gender testing” if a complaint is made about a particular athlete. These tests are supposed to be kept private, but in Semenya’s case she and her coaches were clearly pressured by IAAF officials to have her drop out of the competition prior to the final, including by making public the accusation that she is not a woman. The IAAF has managed to take to truly grotesque levels the regular humiliation Caster Semenya has been subjected to here in South Africa, such as bathroom inspections demanded by rival teams in local athletics competitions. Today it was reported that after Semenya returned from the African championships in Mauritius in July, she was given gender tests that she thought were just standard drug tests. Her coach, Wilfred Daniels, has resigned and apologised to the athlete for the way he and Athletics South Africa, the sport’s national governing body, had handled the whole debacle. The devastating consequences of such high-tech “gender testing” as the IAAF practices were seen in the case of Santhi Soundarajan, an Indian runner whose brief hope of lifting her family out of dire poverty in the state of Tamil Nadu was shattered after she “failed” a gender test and was stripped of an Asian Games 800-metre medal in 2006. Soundarajan subsequently tried to commit suicide.

The cruel and twisted treatment of Semenya and other athletes before her who have faced scrutiny for not looking sufficiently “feminine” is an expression of the reactionary sexual stereotyping upheld as the norm in capitalist society. These stereotypes along with entrenched male and female gender roles flow from the institution of the family, which is the main social source of oppression of women, youth and homosexuals in class society. The institution of the family, along with organised religion and traditional authority, serves as a key prop for the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression by instilling subservience to authority and ensuring that the task of rearing the next generation of wage slaves falls largely on the shoulders of the domestic slaves, women. Anything that deviates from the family “ideal” is thus viewed as a threat to social order, whether it be gay sex or giving women control over reproduction through access to contraception and abortion.

The consequences of not conforming to these reactionary sexual stereotypes are often quite brutal in South Africa, where women suspected of being lesbians are targets for “corrective rape” as with the gang rape and murder in 2008 of former women’s soccer star and gay rights activist Eudy Simelane (“Raped and Killed for Being a Lesbian: South Africa Ignores ‘Corrective’ Attacks”,, 12 March). This murder echoed that of AIDS activist Gugu Dlamini in 1998 by a rabid mob who beat her senseless for having the courage to talk openly about her disease and sex life. In Durban in 2007, Zandile Mpanza was stripped naked and paraded by a group of men who then burnt her house down for violating a rule against women wearing pants in the area of their hostel. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, and for those women who even try to report the crime, the result is generally further humiliation at the hands of the police and the courts.

Such violent abuse is the most extreme reflection of the degraded status of women more generally in South Africa, which is also measured in high rates of HIV/AIDS infection and death among women, with a high maternal mortality rate along with infant mortality that has worsened since 1990. The intersection of racial, sexual and class oppression in South Africa is in many ways epitomised by the legions of black women who toil in the most menial of domestic service and cleaning jobs in the wealthy, white suburbs, just as they did under apartheid.

For a Black-Centred Workers Government!

South African athletics officials along with the Tripartite Alliance government have vigorously protested the treatment of Caster Semenya, with Parliament planning to lodge a complaint with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights because the gender tests constituted a “gross and severe undermining of rights and privacy”. The government organised a “hero’s welcome” for Semenya and other gold medallists upon their return to the country along with a meeting with the president, Jacob Zuma. The justified outrage over the abuse of Semenya is predictably being used by the capitalist government of the bourgeois-nationalist African National Congress (ANC) and its partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the COSATU trade-union bureaucracy, to whip up a frenzy of nationalist pride, complete with “anti-imperialist” rhetoric. Yet it is these very same leaders who for 15 years have administered a system of neo-apartheid capitalism in South Africa, where the economic order continues to be based on white privilege and the superexploitation of the overwhelmingly black working class by the Randlords and their imperialist partners.

The misleaders of the working class in the SACP and COSATU bureaucracy seek to obscure the reality that they themselves are responsible for maintaining the capitalist system which perpetuates racial, national and women’s oppression. The SACP/Young Communist League and COSATU spokesmen piously preach the need to defend women’s rights, while defending a bourgeois constitution that enshrines the authority of tribal chiefs and elders who enforce a benighted social order in rural areas. That practices such as abducting women into marriage continue in some parts of the country gives a sense of how fraudulent the SACP’s purported “national democratic revolution” really is. What we wrote ten years ago remains true today:

“While the African National Congress-led bourgeois-nationalist government of Nelson Mandela has put on paper some of the broadest liberal democratic laws—striking down prohibitions on homosexual sex, legalising abortion and promising free health care to pregnant women and their children—all these legal provisions amount to a cruel hoax.... This capitalist government cannot and will not deliver on promises of quality health care for women, housing, jobs, education or anything else the population desperately needs.”

—“Brutal Murder of South African AIDS Activist”, Workers Vanguard No. 706, 5 February 1999

The only road forward in addressing the triple oppression of race, sex and class faced by black women in South Africa is that of permanent revolution. Genuine national and social liberation will be realised only through the expropriation of the capitalists and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We fight for a black-centred workers government. There can be no justice in South Africa until the non-white majority has power in a workers state that would unite the many black tribal- and language-based groups along with the Coloured (mixed-race) and Indian populations, with ample room and full democratic rights for those whites who would join in building a society based on genuine equality. Proletarian revolution will put the enormous wealth of this country at the disposal of the workers and poor. Only by extending socialist revolution internationally, especially to the imperialist centres, and building a world socialised planned economy can the material conditions of life for the masses of southern Africa and the rest of the neocolonial world be lifted up to a level of material abundance for all.

Such a revolutionary overturn will make it possible to eliminate the material roots of women’s oppression: to replace the institution of the family with socialised childcare and housework, thus freeing women from domestic servitude. This is the programme that Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party sought to carry out in the young Soviet workers state following the October Revolution of 1917. Our task is to build a revolutionary workers party like the Bolshevik Party that will act as a tribune of the people, a defender of all the oppressed, to lead the fight for socialist revolution as part of a reforged Trotskyist Fourth International.

Spartacist South Africa No. 6


Summer 2009/2010


Break with the Bourgeois Tripartite Alliance!

Fight for a Black-Centred Workers Government!


Racist, Sexist Furore Over Caster Semenya

Leave Her Alone!


All U.S./NATO Troops Out of Afghanistan, Iraq!

Down With Obama’s War in Afghanistan!


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