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Op-Ed: What is Women’s Day to me?: Re-membering Saartjie Baartman and the place of memory

7 August 2017 - (By Prof Charles Ngwena) - As we celebrate Women’s Day let us engage in more than just reciting our affirmation of the equal citizenship and dignity of women in all their shades as adults, girl-children, transgender, straight, lesbian, disabled, black, white, brown and other shades of the human rainbow. Let us also engage in remembrance so that we summon our past and draw apt lessons. Histories are an integral part of our present and futures. Especially where unfulfilled promises or continuing injustices abide, as is borne by the continuing scourge of entrenched gender-based discrimination, including sexual violence and exploitation, remembrance offers us a powerful and creative cultural resource for investing with imaginary coherence our quest to create just, inclusive societies where women count. To this end, as we honour Women’s Day in South Africa, on the African continent and across the world and as we affirm the rightness of women’s equality, among other resources, we can draw on the memory of a Saartjie Baartman (also known as Sara or Sarah). The memory of the grotesque dehumanisation she suffered during her short life can serve to strengthen our resolve.

Saartjie Baartman, who was born around 1789 in present Eastern Cape, was a poor, unlettered woman of Khoisan descent. During the heyday of colonial power, she was lured out of the Cape Colony by three men under the guise of offering her a decent job in England. She believed she was going to earn money overseas and then return home, but this not what her captors had in mind. Between 1810 and 1815 she was paraded in London and Paris in a state of semi-undress and at times caged. Though euphemistically ‘shown’ to the public in nineteenth-century Europe as exotica, in reality she was exhibited as an ‘ethnic pornographic object’. Following her death in 1815, the dehumanisation was taken to an even higher level. A French zoologist, Cuvier, dissected her body. She was turned into anatomical artefacts when her skeleton, brain and genitalia were put on display in the Paris Museum of Man. 

Saartjie Baartman’s story reminds us that, for women, denial of equal citizenship is often experienced at multiple levels. A number of power dynamics are at play in her dehumanisation. Race is one dynamic. One way of remembering Saartjie Baartman’s suffering is through being alive to the abiding modalities of racial stereotyping. Here we see black embodiment represented not as human but simply as black flesh: a category of nature and pure biology. Saartjie’s body is made into a spectacle to satisfy the need for a prototype figure for black racial degeneration: the opposite of white racial supremacy. Cuvier draws similarities between Saartjie Baartman and an ape to connect physiognomy with degenerate moral and intellectual capacities. It is from this nefarious archive of race and its violent nature that apartheid constructed its racial ideology.

Another way of understanding Saartjie Baartman’s dehumanisation is though gender. There is a gender dynamic to Saartjie’s woes and it is a dynamic that is inextricably linked to yet another dynamic – the sexual. We see Saartjie Baartman’s embodiment dehumanised in its multiplicities so that it simultaneously experiences racialised, gendered and sexualised abuse. Saartjie is not just black, but is also a woman who is treated as a sexual object by a white European, patriarchal gaze. Her body is made the site of the confluence of aggressive masculine fantasy, which is inscribed in both the economy of racial domination and gendered and sexualised patriarchal pleasure and violent desire. We see not just a gaze directed at Saartjie’s dark body but also an obsessive masculine gaze of a profusely eroticised and violent nature directed at her in ways that give licence to an impunity of unregulated voyeurism, but because she is black and because she is a woman and, therefore, does not deserve protection. She is at the receiving end of cross-cutting determinations, which today the feminist lexicon calls ‘intersectionality’.

In the end, Saartjie Baartman’s body is dismembered. She is dismembered metaphorically as she is taken out of the human category, denied equal citizenship and ascribed a sub-human status. She is also literally dismembered as parts of her body are put on public display. Her body is remade by white masculine power as part of a broader sublimated economy of imperialism that set its gaze of Africa; an Africa to be conquered and penetrated. Our task today is to build societies in which we take, as a starting point, the duty of re-membering the Saartjie Baartmans among us so that we recognise their unqualified equality and dignity to make whole again the humanity which has been broken. The memory of the palpable injustices of the past gives us a foundation for building our mission to repair injustices, but also a sense of urgency when we become sensitised about how long-standing the injustices are. 

Charles Ngwena is a professor in the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. He is the author of a forthcoming book: What is Africanness (to me)? Contesting nativism in race, culture and sexualities.

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