Opinionista Rhulani Thembi Siweya 18 April 2016

Caster Semenya makes Sara Baartman smile from her grave

Caster Semenya’s triple win in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m at the SA Senior Athletics Championships – in a single day – made me think again of how her story reminds me of that of Sara Baartman.

When she was only 18 years old, Caster Semenya had to suffer humiliation and public scrutiny for her sexual orientation. Opinion pieces were written about her, everybody and anyone questioned her orientation spoke aloud. Instead of celebrating her 800 world title at 1:55.45 as an 18-year-old black African child in 2009, the world decided to question how she made it, given her appearance. This was done by making many allegations. Her situation always reminded me of Sara Baartman. The sexuality of the black child was placed under scrutiny yet again.

Baartman was born in 1789 in South Africa. When she was barely in her 20s she was sold to a Scottish doctor, Alexander Dunlop. She spent four years in Britain being exhibited for her large buttocks. She was subjected to examination by Georges Cuvier, a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History. Baartman lived in poverty, and died in Paris of an undetermined disease in December 1815.

Her life journey to date reminds us that humanity and the looks of the black child will forever be questioned. When the black child wins, there ought to be an investigation. Just like Sarah, Caster was questioned about her looks, subjected to scientific tests because according to them she was not human enough. Unlike Caster, Sara did not live for long. At a time in her life when she surely needed support, a majority of us failed her.

Semenya represent a majority of black families who are never open to possibilities of cross-gender struggles, lesbian, gay possibilities and so on. She is a black child from a rural village in Limpopo, and never had an opportunity to open up about how she feels and what sexual orientation she would like to expose. We all forgot that our communities are not exposed and a lot still needs to be done. We simply did not care and expected her to be on par with her situation. Her situation left us with so many questions and yet it was an eye-opener.

Post that event, she did not do so well in the racing court. She went on to change two coaches and lose now and then. This was as a result of the humiliation she went through. However, she never gave up. Caster survived our opinions and kept moving.

It was impressive to have seen pictures of her weeding on social media. It was encouraging because eventually, after all, she found refuge and had the courage to explore who she is. A rare moment, especially for a majority of black communities.

One is convinced that acceptance of self and moving away from public opinion has helped her to get back to greatness. Regardless of her sexual orientation, Semenya is a star. She is go-getter and a world champion. We are proud of her courage and victory. After all, there is nothing wrong with her, she is as human as the rest of us. Her victory affirms that gender roles and sexual orientation cannot be a hindrance to success.

Today celebrate her first ever, history-making victory. Caster has risen and is a shining star. She is the first person to win national titles in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m at the Olympic qualifying championships in South Africa. She is the first athlete to do this and she is black, and a gender activist in her own right.

This is a victory for the black child, a victory for gender activists. Her resilience should instil in us the courage to confront our challenges.

It must remind us that we are all capable beings and human opinions do not matter.

We congratulate the 25-year-old world champion and join the rest of South Africa in dancing to her victory. We hope this will eventually enable us to put our differences aside and support our youth. Caster must go on to make South Africa shine. She must be written about in the books of history alongside Sara Baartman, a woman who was crucified for her appearance. DM

Rhulani Thembi Siweya is the founder of Africa Unmasked. She is also an NEC member of the ANC Youth League and writes in her personal capacity.

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