Caster Semenya’s devastating runs on the athletics track this year all around the world has installed her as the world’s leading athlete in the women’s 800m going into the discipline’s finals at 2016 Rio Olympics on August 20. The event carries significance and power for every black woman living in a South Africa entrenched with patriarchy, hetero-domination, sexual prejudice and black body haters.
The black body and athletics prowess of a rural black woman has catapulted this South African into global glare. The gaze upon her by the white supremacist media (representing European and right-wing thought, conservative religious teachings) is filled with the hateful intent of breaking this black sportschampion’s body.
For those criticising and attacking her body, it’s not a gaze of praise and respect. It’s intention is to ridicule and criticize, yet again, a strong and proud black woman.
Black women around the world know this pain and this struggle. But black women have also found their strength and power to challenge, throw out and discard these attacks on their bodies. And we do this showing up with achievements like #BlackSportswomanProwess, as exemplified by Caster Semenya.
The hate Semenya’s black body has been bludgeoned with, is one experienced by women in South Africa, from centuries ago up until this juncture. We’ve already written about the athlete Caster Semenya not being representative of whiteness and its white privilege, its heterosexism and notions of femininity, and how she survives in a patriarchal, hetero-normative society.
Semenya’s athletics prowess throws out the hate and condemnation of black women’s bodies. Black women have participated in organised sport in South Africa for over a century. Anti-apartheid and human rights activist, Albertina Sisulu, told me in an interview in the 1980’s that she loved sport and was a high jump champion at school in the Transkei. This participation by black women in sport has never been supported by corporate sponsors and it’s been largely ignored by media, until the last decade when black women in sport have begun to be celebrated and acknowledged in the media.
I write about this because the participation of black women in sport, especially in the apartheid era, has been characterised by struggle; these struggles occurring as black women in society and as black women in sports structures.
We have supported and celebrated white sportswomen’s feats and achievements but we have longed for our black sports warrior. She arrived a few years ago, straight out of her rural village in Limpopo, through the junior athletics ranks and ran her way to world champion status.
For all the black women’s bodies that are ‘shamed’ and ‘attacked’ by those representing patriarchy, whiteness and fake white superiority Semenya runs with all those chains and still she triumphs with amazing feats.
Even within organised sport in South Africa, Caster Semenya has had to fight back with her athletics prowess. SA’s sports structures and controlling officials are men who are not feminists and have no record of speaking out against attacks on black women’s bodies. They are largely conservative and operate sport within the framework of patriarchy and male control of the sports network.
These male officials, from the Minister of Sport and his department to the president of SASCOC and his officials, are seemingly quite satisfied to have SA’s sportswomen struggling to participate in elite sport. If they were concerned and had a gender equal policy in sport, the 2016 Olympics Team South Africa would never have been so male-dominated.
Caster Semenya demands that we ask where are the elite black women in sport and why are they not performing world class achievements. Caster Semenya not only shows us the talent of black women in sport, she also reminds us that we are not supporting young black girls in sport to become elite participants in world sport.
And then she does much more. She places black, queer, woman beings out there and says ‘here we are’. To be black, queer, non-feminine is a black woman’s right. This right is still a struggle for black, non-heterosexual, non-feminine queer women. In SA’s conservative sports forums, where the emphasis is on winning and male sports prowess without inter-relationships across society, this is a battle for black women. But Caster Semenya knocks down these barriers and tells black girls and women they can compete in sport and achieve.