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Why is Caster ‘our little girl’ anyway?

Poor Caster Semenya, magically transformed into a political football nearly a year ahead of the World Cup. Suddenly she finds herself a symbol of the injured womanhood of the nation, under attack by cynical and racist white people, both South African and Australian.

What’s interesting is the repeated reference to Caster as “our little girl”. That’s what Julius Malema called her, when he wasn’t saying she was a “well-relaxed” woman. (What is a “well-relaxed” woman anyway? One who has breakfast and asks for taxi fare the next morning?)

Several thoughts occurred to me at this juncture.
1. Caster is 18 years old. Legally, she’s entitled to drink, vote and drive. So, not so little in the metaphorical sense.
2. Technically, she isn’t little at all. She’s quite a well-built woman. Quite tall, too.
3. Can you imagine referring to an 18-year-old male athlete as “our little boy”?

It’s that last point that really got me thinking, because, in itself, referring to male athletes as “boys” is very common (common, too, as a term of endearment for soldiers. The link to war is obvious). Nobody minds, for instance, when we refer to the Springboks or even Bafana Bafana as “the boys”, even if there’s a possibility it might bring up awkward apartheid-era associations. No, when it comes to sport there’s something back-slappingly, thigh-squeezingly chummy about “our boys”. This brings to mind the work of the American anthropologist Michael Herzfeld who in his work on what he defines as “cultural intimacy” notes that the state

“lays claim to intimacy and familiarity in a series of rather obvious metaphors: the body politic, ‘our boys and girls’, mother country and Vaterland… and the tourist as a family guest.”

Using references to “girls” and “boys” is a way for the state to disguise itself, sanctimoniously, as the idealised nation, and to personalise perceived threats against itself as threats against ourselves in our personal capacity. Nobody insults a member of our family. We’ll moer you if you check us skeef.

There’s a possessiveness, a protectiveness in the reference to “our little girl”. But also a distinct element of the patronising. Girls are little. They need protecting. They can’t stand up for themselves, which means you’re not supposed to pick on them. Which is fair enough, but how does this accord with the ideals supposedly promoted by women’s month?

Overall, the rhetoric surrounding Semenya is a repulsive admixture of sexism and nationalism of the sort which Hitler and his cohorts would have approved of. (True, Hitler was more concerned about strictly Aryan physical beauty, but the Nazis were not above having men compete while posing as women in order to advance their cause.)

Naturally, those who have picked on Caster are not South African — either literally (as in the case of the Australians) or figuratively (in the case of the whites who failed to show up at the airport to cheer her on). It’s yet another instance of the worryingly regular display of the scapegoating of a minority — in this case the so-called “white media” — that seems to characterise politics these days. In their usual sardonic fashion, offered a solution to the need for someone to blame for any and all future evils.

In this family, the one that is so defensive about insults to “our little girl”, it’s clear that only some of us get to belong to it.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.