Caster, not Oscar – An open le

Caster Semenya celebrates her gold medal in Rio.

Caster, not Oscar – An open letter to TIME Magazine from a South African

Caster, not Oscar.

Caster, not Oscar – An open le

Caster Semenya celebrates her gold medal in Rio.

By Ziyaad Bhorat

Dear TIME Magazine
On Monday March 11th 2013, you let a man named Alex Perry, born in the USA and raised in the UK, tell the story of South Africa through a man named Oscar Pistorius. You branded our country in their image, and you are wrong.

Oscar Time Magazine

As the world knows, a month before your “Man. Superman. Gunman” cover story, Oscar killed Reeva Steenkamp in their home in Tshwane, South Africa. But what they didn’t know was that a month after your story, Caster Mokgadi Semenya, the athlete internationally vilified for her gender since 2009, was told her funding for the Rio 2016 Olympics had been withdrawn. Even as you and many other global voices focused on one white South African, black South Africa was already running to the finish line for its Gold.

Caster persevered. At the Rio Olympic Games in the Women’s 800m on Saturday, she took a record 1m55.28s to shatter the subtle white border framing your March 11th issue. Born in the tiny rural village of Ga-Masehlong, not far from Polokwane in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, Caster is an excellent black, queer, woman, athlete. She is the Janusian faces of South Africa’s triumph, and South Africa’s struggle. She highlights a country so rich, textured and nuanced that diversity is just a reductive label. In Caster, we found you your cover.

Back in 2013 when you summarised South Africa as a “culture of violence”, you not only legitimized Oscar’s argument of self-defense to his murder of Reeva Steenkamp, but you whitewashed over the seeds in the soils of our earth that have now grown strong and proud. You, like many,  continued to feed the hunger for Oscar off the back of your representation of him as South Africa. But South Africa is not a white, heteronormative, cis-gendered disabled man who continues to bathe quite ably in privilege afforded to very few. All that while Caster was hiding in plain sight, preparing to prove you wrong.

We do not want to deride Perry, who has extensive experience living in, and writing quite excellently about Africa. South Africa is indeed a very violent place, and we must confront the darkness that plagues our soul. But the blackness that covers our skin is to be respected and celebrated with a voice too. Professor Jonny Steinberg’s How SA Fell Out Of Love With Oscar Pistorius should have been a lesson to you on how to tell your story and maintain the integrity black South Africans deserve. You even quoted his research. A hint: Michael Bay, Charlize Theron, and Tom Hardy are not wildly important to, or for black South Africa.

Despite the insistence of many since the fall of Apartheid, we are not lost. You see we learnt our lessons from some of the leading constitutions and legal systems- the USA, Canada, UK, and Germany. Our constitutional democracy is founded on the best elements of these, a constitution often cited as the most progressive in the world. And this constitution built very strong institutions.

We showed you this in the 2016 municipal elections. When you saw us vote the ANC, the party that negotiated our liberation, down to less than 54% nationally in its first result less than 60% (!); when we put some of our largest cities in the hands of opposition parties – we were showing you just how alive our democracy is. We may have an oligarchic presidency with patronage lines that run deep, but eish we scared them.

We’re watching, of course, how populist right-wing sentiment continues to blow across other countries. We know we are not exceptional, and we are not immune. We have plenty of work to do to fulfill the promises of our constitution – to reduce inequality, extinguish corruption, protect and uplift our most marginalised, and cultivate the integration that Apartheid deprived us of. But we are raw and honest about it. We run on the strength of the bodies that are habitually denied a voice, denied a place, and denied their finish line.

You see Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom is actually a race. We are running this race together whether you talk about it or not. And our Caster is showing you that we are winning.

Caster – not Oscar.

P.S. When you see that Olympic image of Caster holding our multicoloured flag across her back with arms outstretched… when you see it, think again when you say, “The new South Africa has turned out to be no harmonious band of colors”.