Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

Chuene is SA’s scapegoat

South Africans are using Leonard Chuene as their scapegoat in one of the most sordid abuses of power by many officials and ASA. He has admitted to a trail of lies that have landed him outside the favour of the ruling party, and have resulted in the mistreatment of an excellent athlete. He has undoubtedly let South Africans down. He has unfortunately committed actions and been involved with deception that have had effects that cannot be withdrawn. He has committed dastardly deeds. South Africans and international spectators want him to pay for his sins.

I did a really great politics course a few years back. A beautiful theory of social cohesion that was shared with me discussed the ways that order was maintained in society and what happened when there was disruption to that order.

Consider a scenario where a community is living peacefully until some event happens (if we get into a mythological vibe, lets say the event was an earthquake). This event disrupts society, and causes disarray (people fight for scarce resources, people have died, people are without their homes and loved ones). There is violence and unrest and it is obvious that something needs to happen for order to be restored.

But, the people in this society are without recourse. They do not know how to come together again after this disruption. People turn on one another, rather than confronting the issue. Somewhere in this chaos, one person, or a group of people, take it upon themselves to identify the cause of the problem. Because the real problem is too big, or has too many causes to deal with, society cannot tackle it. So the cause is not located in the event, but rather the blame is placed on an individual.

This individual could not have had anything to do with the event that caused disruption. But something in his or her actions must be able to be linked to the disruption in the public consciousness (so for example, he had an extremely good crop that year, or she gave birth to triplets etc). This must make the person half guilty and half innocent. For it is clear to everyone that the person could not be fully responsible for causing the chaos, but nevertheless they have done something that renders them a waiting chess piece in the game of blame.

So they are blamed. They become the perfect scapegoat. Society rallies together to fight this scapegoat and in that act they become reunified. Society regains its bearings and is able to operate as before. The original issue is forgotten with the banishing (or death) of the scapegoat. That banishment becomes the marker for society’s chance to heal and move forward. That half-innocent, half-guilty person has allowed order to be restored.

The order is always fragile however. The issues remain bubbling beneath the surface, and sometimes the festering steaming bubbles pop, and order is briefly lost again.

It’s a beautiful theory and without too much imaginative flair we can see how this has happened over and over again. The xenophobic violence of two years ago showed elements of this theory. Certain groups were marked as responsible for the lack of jobs. These groups were then violently attacked, bringing the society of unemployed people together against the forces of evil. Foreigners were perfect scapegoats. Although they could not be held fully responsible for rising unemployment and food prices, the fact that they weren’t South African nationals and were using scarce resources made them half guilty. With the violence against them a semi-order was restored. South African unemployed people made their point. Their point was acknowledged. The violence stopped. The issue remained bubbling beneath the surface, but for the moment it has not burst.

The Semenya tragedy can be likened to this theory. South Africa constructed itself as a liberal and peaceful democracy with respect for the rights of others. This creation of the national identity has been part of the foundation of order, and the Proudly South African brand has allowed many a bridge to be built in the road to healing. But one of the bricks in that road was cracked.

The national identity was threatened when one of its shining stars of success was targeted from the outside. This caused much consternation as the average South African did not have the tools to access this problem. There was chaos. Millions of articles were written. Much mud was slung in the media arena. Regardless of the number of articles written clarifying differences between gender and sex, supporting and criticising Semenya, and rejecting Australian digs at South Africa’s stars the issue was not resolved. The secrecy surrounding the issue, and the inability of most commentators to see beyond sex binaries meant that we were left in a state of flux. The bigger issue was just too great. It is impossible for us all to challenge the IAAF. It is impossible for us to deal with the international issues of sports regulations, and cases where bodies do not fit neatly into socially accepted categories. This issue was beyond our grasp. We needed a solution to ease our pain and someone to direct our anger at. We needed a perfect scapegoat.

Enter Leonard Chuene, one knight who has very swiftly been knocked off his horse so that South Africans can have their solution. To me he is a little closer to guilty than he is to innocent, but it is fairly obvious that the responsibility for the whole saga cannot be placed only on his shoulders. He has admitted to his wrongdoing, and this makes the theory work even better. Conversation around Semenya and South African and international inability to deal with issues of sex, gender and different bodies has petered out. We are now united in our blame of Chuene, and in our choice of scapegoat. With his punishment, and public apology, order has been restored.

But let us not think now that the issue has been solved. The bubbles continue to simmer. And the waters will not settle until we admit that the blame for the scale of this attack on Semenya lies partly with ourselves, our readiness to discuss scandal and how complicit we are in the promotion of gender binaries. These issues, like the genuine issues of poverty and unemployment, are what needs to be resolved. Chuene should be held responsible for his deception and his actions, but that is all he can be held responsible for. We should bear the rest of the burden.