You are here: Home About Lana Jacobson Feature Writing The Third Sex

The Third Sex

Nthabiseng Mokoena (25) knew from a tender age that she was different. Her mother would tell her never to dress in front of others, saying, “Nthabi, you are very special, but you are not the same as the other little girls.” When she was old enough Nthabiseng understood that she was one of an estimated 2 million South Africans born with an intersex condition- neither clearly a male nor female, but with ambiguous genitalia. 

She explains, “I was born in the rural town of Coligny in the North West Province , where the shocked midwife and my mother saw my genitals were female, but my clitoris resembled a tiny penis.  The perplexed midwife told my mother to take me to a doctor when I was six months old, which my mother did.   He advised immediate “genital normalisation” surgery to remove the phallus, making my genitals unmistakably female in appearance.  My mother refused, and when at two years old I started showing female signs, playing with girls, she dressed me in dresses, finally classifying and registering me with the authorities as a girl.”

Nthabiseng’s childhood was blissful despite having to keep her dark secret, never undressing or bathing in front of anybody, until to her horror at the age of 13, instead of beginning to grow curvier, developing breasts like other girls, she began showing signs of masculine development, and her penis grew a little larger. 

Nthabiseng shrugs, “I was clearly different. My living nightmare started when friends teased me about my boyish appearance and flat chest.  My mother took me to a totally uninformed doctor, who said he had never come across the phenomena, would consult other doctors and we should return in two weeks time. On our return, he said I must have surgery, which my mother flatly refused, saying I could make up my own mind when I turned 18 if that was what I really wanted.  It was also the first time my mother told my father that I was an intersex child.  Even as a baby, he had never seen me undressed or bathed. He ignored the subject, and carried on as if he never knew.  In any event they divorced a few years later, and my sister and I have never seen him since.”  

Nthabiseng was an 18 year-old woman when her breasts suddenly began to develop. Her boyish figure became a huge issue, particularly when she visited the rural areas; villagers were puzzled about why such an extremely attractive woman never resembled the body curvaceous structure of a typical African women’s figure.  

She excelled at school, obtaining a bursary to study metallurgy at Wits, where she was doomed to sharing student accommodation with two other girls.

Nthabiseng could never dress or undress in front of her room mates like ‘normal’ teenagers. There was a shortage of warm water, and the girls had to share a bath, or bath immediately after each other, but Nthabiseng never joined in.  She would wake at 5am and shower before anybody else was awake. The girls talked about it and questioned her. “Life became unbearable and after a year I had to move into a flat of my own,” she admits.  

Nthabiseng dated boys at Varsity, but only on one occasion allowed a boy to have sex with her in pitch darkness.  She says, “He was very naïve, and he had serious withdrawal issues from me afterwards. I subsequently began dating women, feeling more comfortable as a lesbian”.

She says, “At that stage I hated my mother for not allowing surgery on me as a baby. “I couldn’t afford private medical care and whenever I went to a Government hospital and explained I was intersex the doctors were shocked. They would call colleagues and students to examine me. It’s so very degrading and insensitive. I used to feel I was inhuman, and even if I had flu, I was too terrified to see a doctor. To this day I have not overcome my fear of doctors.”

“I fared no better at Church, where as a youth pastor I desperately tried to find a sense of belonging. When I told the pastor I was intersexed and probably wouldn’t have children I learnt that in Christian belief they deny intersexed people are not created in the likeness of God.  We are a variant of sexual development, as are homosexuals.

Nthabiseng’s life took a fortuitous turnabout one night when she accidentally switched to a television programme highlighting the plight of black intersex people.  “I learnt about Transgender and Intersex Africa an organisation specifically working with black gender issues, and the next morning phoned the organisation. I asked if they could recommend an informed and sympathetic doctor as I was terrified my clitoris would grow into a full penis,” she openly reveals.   I told the doctor I hadn’t ever had periods, and the tests revealed that I was permanently infertile. I was told that I had under-descended testes in the abdominalThe doctor even said he would do the surgery for free make my clitoris totally feminine but he wanted to use me as a case history.  I flatly refused to be exposed in that degrading way.”

In 2011 Nthabiseng joined Transgender and Intersex Africa, where she is employed fulltime now as Advocacy Coordinator. She started meeting and mixing with many intersex people, and has learnt to be comfortable with her body.  She is typically feminine, but feels fine often even dressing androgynously.

She says, “I am so pleased I never had surgery. The people I met, most of them, black and white, who have had surgery as babies, usually have confused parents who the doctors incorrect informed, and the children were subjected to surgery which has ended up being far more traumatic and confusing.”

“We have been raised in a world that makes us feel like monsters.  My advice to other intersex people is to love and accept

Only then will you make the right decision about surgery. Read and research the situation, meet others like yourself and get in touch with an intersex support group.  Surgery is not a magic pill that has no consequences. One cannot be told to become a boy or a girl and have surgery to make them so.  Our sex and gender are determined by nature.

Nthabiseng is now engaged to a woman with whom she has had a long term relationship.She throws back her head and laughs, “But, now I have to explain I am a lesbian to my relatives. My mother would have been accepting, but she passed away.  Half my family don’t accept the situation, and the other half asked for lobolo.”  


  1. Many intersex people are told they are hermaphrodite.  This is incorrect and stigmatising as hermaphrodites are born with both fully functioning male and female organs, as is often in the case of fish, and they do not need to have a partner to conceive, unlike humans.
  2. In black culture, many people, especially in the rural areas, believe that children born intersex are the product ofwitchcraft and therefore their families are cursed. In the Northern Cape Kurumen District the director of an activist organisation LEGBO, said that 88 out of 90 midwives had delivered babies born with ambiguous genitalia. They allegedly reportedit was their practice over the years to break the necks of such babies while the mother was unaware of what was happening, and tell the mothers that their babies had been still born.  Transgender and Intersex Africa(TIA) is an organisation that has been initiated by black transgender individuals to focus on black transgender and intersex issues in South Africa, especially in therural areas and black townships. 
  3. It is commonly believed that South Africa has more intersexed people than most countries in the world, particularlyamong the black population.  Although it is rumoured that 1 in 500 people in SA is intersexed there is no scientific collectionof the statistics because of the stigma surrounding it.
  4. According to Sally Gross co-ordinator of Intersex South Africa, there is a prevalence of intersexed babies born in the rural areas of Southern Africa where there are specific incidences of malaria infestation; (Limpopo, Northern Cape, Botswana)  This is said to be linked to the insecticide DDT, which is highly effective in treating malaria.  However, DDT, which is banned internationally, makes its way into rivers and drinking water (*Leading the South African study Dr. Riana Bornman, University of Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital, and Prof Henk Bouwman at North-West University.) The studies have caused controversy in scientific circles, and many scientists refute the claims.

Transgender and Intersex Africa (TIA) aims to: raise awareness about transgender and intersex issues in the community, increase access to appropriate medical care for black transgender and intersex people and to lobby and advocate for transgender and intersex human rights.

TIA Contact details: 0127972612
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Facebook: Transgender and Intersex Africa Toll free number: 0800 282842  

Intersex South Africa (ISSA)

An organisation devoted only to intersexed issues, operates nationally, and was the first organisation established to spread knowledge about intersex, and to provide the space for the development of an intersexed voice in Southern Africa, and to combat discrimination on grounds of intersex.

Tel: 021 447 3803
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Cell:  082 788 4205


Contact Lana @ The Writer Studio

Get in touch if you would like Lana to write for your business or publication