SOUTH Africa’s minister of sport, Makhenkhesi Stofile, threatened war last week. Ironically, he did so a fortnight after 3 000 of the country’s soldiers mutinied in a violent demonstration outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which was dispersed by police using teargas and rubber bullets. Stofile’s conflict, though, is with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) over the questionable eligibility of South Africa’s 800 metre gold medal winner at the World Athletics Championship in Berlin, Caster Semenya.

On the face of it, this is just another instance in the long saga of physiological acceptability in women’s athletics. The association says it has dealt with eight other cases in recent years: four athletes were advised to retire from the sport and there was little publicity. Semenya exploded onto the athletics scene at the World junior championships in Mauritius this year and questions about her femininity were voiced after an amazing improvement in her performance. She then appeared in Berlin and decimated the opposition as an 18-year-old in what is probably the most testing of track events, though the world record remained intact.

The news from the association that she would need to undergo physical examination was met by rage in South Africa. The recent leak reporting that tests have shown her to be intersexed – with three times the normal level of testosterone for a female – has raised the rage to apoplexy. Exactly why an athletics technicality has become a matter of such national anger says a great deal about the current state of the South African nation.

The most obvious explanation is that large swathes of South African sport are managed by politicians whose public statements show them to be deployees of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Athletics South Africa (ASA) has a reputation stretching back years as highly politicised and badly administered. Semenya’s coach has resigned, apologising to her for the way she has been treated. There are strong suspicions that ASA knew full well about her sexual ambiguity, but recklessly retained her in the team for Berlin in their desperation for a medal – there was ridicule when the entire team at the Beijing Olympics produced a single silver medal. Yet the president of ASA, Leonard Chuene, claims patronisingly that ‘this is a sinister agenda to destroy that little girl’.

When she returned to South Africa from Berlin with a cloud hanging over her head, she was met by what amounted to an ANC rally and demagoguery of a level that is becoming a South African norm. ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, in a passable imitation of Josef Goebbels, castigated whites for their absence from the welcome home reception. Other speakers cast the controversy as a simple racist plot against a black African victim. Almost all of Semenya’s rivals, and likely complainants, are black (and African) as is the IAAF president, Lamine Diack. And the fact that leaks about the Semenya affair appear to originate in Australia have led to a wave of anti-Australian rhetoric. A senior sports presenter on the national radio service, SAFM, described Australia as the enemy and implied that its media are untrustworthy.

This furore must be put in context. South Africa’s admirable constitution and its labour laws require that the country’s institutions should be transformed to become broadly representative of the country’s population. No reasonable South African disagrees with this. But since the demise of President Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation, the concept of demographics has dominated with racial percentages applied to every situation. A crude African nationalism has taken hold, potentially marginalising even South Africans of mixed or Asian ancestry discriminated against in the past. And a shrill politics of victimology is applied whenever there is a setback.

This is being played out at present in another sport. The presidency of the national football body is being contested between Irvin Khoza and Danny Jordaan, with supporters of the former dismissing Jordaan as coloured (mixed). And even the term African is contested with the marginalisation of those derided as ‘coconuts’ (black outside, but white inside) because they support an inclusive South African nation and its liberal constitution, and are unprepared to endorse a strident black nationalism that blends power and a strong sense of victimisation.

Football is effectively becoming the sports department of the ANC, expropriated in the name of nation building that is hardly distinguishable from party politics. It is all too reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But there is another parallel closer to home: the determination of white, apartheid South Africa to show two fingers to the world over its racist sports policy. The tradition of South Africa as an aggressively different nation lives on.

Semenya’s case has, however, a further contextual twist. Overnight she became a symbol of violated black South African womanhood. The claimed violators – improbably – are racists and foreigners, yet a South African woman is raped every 17 seconds. South Africa also presents horrific figures of child rape. A pregnant woman who was gang raped by seven young men at Tembisa, and emotionally and physically scarred for life, took four years and two dozen court appearances to achieve justice amidst substantial community abuse, especially from young men. The sentencing means that her unrepentant attackers could be free in ten years.

The politicians are uninterested. Their attention is focused on sport and the supposed conspiracy around the athlete Chuene patronisingly calls a ‘little girl’.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 16 September 2009 and entitled ‘South Africa’s victimology spawns a new apartheid’.