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African Journal on Conflict Resolution

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Social cohesion, sexuality, homophobia and women’s sport in South Africa

Mari H Engh, Cheryl Potgieter

Abstract


In the post-Apartheid era sport has been consistently celebrated as an avenue for fostering social change, curing various social ills, and uniting South Africans across the divides of race, class, gender and geography. The argument for using sport to foster social cohesion in South Africa rests on two main assumptions: firstly, that direct participation in sport and physical activity promotes sustained communication, collaboration and understanding across social divides; and secondly, that the success of national teams and athletes promotes national pride and unity. In this article we raise the question of whether sport can indeed foster social cohesion in a context where women’s sports participation and symbolic embodiment of the nation give rise to regulatory schemas that enforce compulsory heterosexuality and mainstream constructs of ‘feminisation’. We explore these issues by drawing on media reports of cases in which South African elite women athletes have had their gender or sexual identities questioned, challenged or regulated according to heteronormative gender regimes. By so doing we argue that efforts to increase women’s sports participation or the promotion of women athletes as embodiments of the nation can contribute to facilitating social cohesion. To realise the potential of sport as a tool for building social cohesion, a conscious and dedicated effort must be made, we argue, to deal more directly with narrow heteronormative gender regimes and the homophobic attitudes and prejudices that these foster.

Keywords: Gender, sexuality, homophobia, sport, social cohesion, race,
South Africa




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