Rhodes University lights up in talk on intersex politics

The Trial of Caster Semenya panel
The Trial of Caster Semenya panel

By Boitumelo Nte, Journalism & Media Studies student


In its closing event for the year, Rhodes University’s Office of Equity and Institutional Culture, together with Department of Political and International Relations, held ‘The Trial of Caster Semenya’ seminar at Eden Grove.

The Semenya seminar was contextualised on the backdrop of elite athlete Caster Semenya’s battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) rules on lowering testosterone levels in female athletes. The latest on this including the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) ruling against Semenya’s IAAF discrimination case.

The seminar sought to highlight Rhodes University’s commitment to promoting gender awareness and gender equity, including LGBTQI++ issues within the context of the University's Equity Policy and transformation initiatives, which are overseen by, among others, the Equity and Institutional Culture Office.

Director of Equity & Institutional Culture Noluxolo Nhlapho introduced the panel, which included Professor Steve Cornelius of the University of Pretoria and former member of the IAAF Disciplinary Tribunal, who notably resigned from the body in protest over the testosterone rules in mid-2018.

Prof Cornelius spoke about the intricacies of Semenya’s case, as well as the case of Burundian athlete Francine Niyonsaba, a close rival of Semenya’s in the 800-metre races at the 2016 Olympics and the 2017 IAAF World Championships. Niyonsaba was flown to Europe, tested, medicated, and when the treatment didn’t work, she was sequestered to a camp in Kenya. “Surely this sort of thing should be considered a crime against humanity?” he declared.

Niyonsaba revealed earlier this year that she has hyperandrogenism – a condition that results in high levels of naturally-occurring testosterone in the female body –and this added voice to Semenya’s discrimination case against the IAAF. Prof Cornelius reminded the audience that Semanya’s case continues at the Switzerland Supreme Court, which has issued a short-term suspension on the IAAF’s rules to regulate excessive testosterone levels in female athletes.

Also speaking as well on the panel was Babalwa Mtshawu, intersex activist and PhD candidate at the University of the Free State. Mtshawu said that Semenya’s case specifically resonated with her as it speaks of a black female from a previously-disadvantaged background, who could not have initially understood gender distinctions like intersex, and was therefore not prepared for the magnitude of the gender war she was to face.

“For me, this case has been way bigger than what it is for other people. I look at Caster Semenya as the girl from a disadvantaged background, fighting against the world’s governing [sports] body all by herself. Fighting issues of gender politics, human biology, athletes’ rights, and racism all packaged together. It is a lot to deal with for one person,” she said.

According to Mtshawu, the IAAF’s Eligibility Regulations for Athletes with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) are exclusionary, as they only categorise ‘intersex’ into five groups. For instance, Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) is not included in the IAAF’s regulations. CAIS is a condition where a person is genetically male, but possesses the physical traits of a woman.

The last of the three-member panel was Shingi Mtero of Rhodes University’s Political and International Studies Department. Mtero, a lecturer and researcher in topics including African Feminisms, entitled her speech ‘Caster Contesting Constructed Identities’, challenging the hegemony of constructed sexual identities.

“When we discuss who should be included in a ‘category’ depending on whether they are male or female, man or woman; we should also discuss the ways in which these identities were constructed – out of particular histories, and particular contexts. And that these [categories] were universalised in a way which has created meaning for everybody. But in reality, not everybody was included in creating that meaning,” she said.

Mtero argued that Semenya embodies disruption and contests gender segregation in sport, prompting us to question whether this separation “is still fit for purpose”.

In conclusion, Mtero, in reference to Mtshawu’s point on the DSD regulations, said: “It defies all logic to exclude people on tests that cannot be replicated, and tests that cannot definitively tell whether a person is a woman or man. If the international sports mandate is to display the best athletes in the world, we cannot exclude people simply because we cannot ‘fit’ them within the gender binary. Rather, we should expand these categories to allow the best athletes to continue to compete.”