Re­flect on Saartjie Baart­man

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD - CHARLES NG­WENYA

Charles Ng­wena is a pro­fes­sor in the Cen­tre for Hu­man Rights, Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria

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, 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 the ap­pro­pri­ate lessons.

His­to­ries are an in­te­gral part of our present and fu­tures. Es­pe­cially where un­ful­filled prom­ises or con­tin­u­ing in­jus­tices abide, as is borne out 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 and 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 we can draw on the mem­ory of 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 was born around 1789 in the East­ern Cape. She 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 was not what her cap­tors had in mind for her.

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 19th 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. The 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’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 her 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 was 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 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’s de­hu­man­i­sa­tion is through 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’s em­bod­i­ment de­hu­man­ised in its mul­ti­plic­i­ties so that it si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­pe­ri­ences racialised, gen­dered and sex­u­alised abuse. Saartjie is not just black, but she 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, there­fore, she does not de­serve pro­tec­tion. She is at the re­ceiv­ing end of cross-cut­ting de­ter­mi­na­tions, which to­day the fem­i­nist lex­i­con calls “in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity”.

In the end her body is dis­mem­bered. She is dis­mem­bered metaphor­i­cally as she is taken out of the hu­man cat­e­gory, de­nied equal cit­i­zen­ship and as­cribed a sub­hu­man 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 on 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.

BRU­TAL LESSONS TO BE DRAWN: The 1816 com­plete cast in plas­ter of Saartjie Baart­man is dis­played dur­ing a cer­e­mony at the South African Embassy in Paris on April 29, 2002 in prepa­ra­tion for Baart­man’s re­mains to be re­turned to South Africa for burial.

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