Baart­man hurt in re­cent years as rel­e­vant as in past his­tory

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Opinion - CARLA LEVER

The crown jewel in the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) sym­met­ri­cally pleas­ing main cam­pus is its hall. The cam­pus lies in lin­ear reg­u­lar­ity against the iconic back­drop of Devil’s Peak. The tri­an­gu­lar para­pet of the hall reaches for the peak even as its steps cas­cade down to­wards the busy streets of Ron­de­bosch, the sub­urb be­low.

With UCT rank­ing as the top uni­ver­sity on the con­ti­nent, it has come to sym­bol­ise more than just one cam­pus, but African ex­cel­lence it­self.

The phys­i­cal view of the cam­pus changed for­ever in 2015, with the re­moval of the brood­ing statue of Bri­tish colo­nial­ist Ce­cil John Rhodes at the foot of the stair­case. Now, in 2019, the scene will change sym­bol­i­cally too. Jame­son Memo­rial Hall stands, but its name falls: go­ing for­ward, it will be known as the Sarah Baart­man Hall.

Baart­man, a Khoi woman sold into slav­ery and even­tu­ally ex­hib­ited as a cu­rios­ity in Eng­land in the late 18th cen­tury, has long been a pow­er­ful sym­bolic fig­ure.

This re­mark­able UCT turn­about moves the com­mem­o­ra­tion nar­ra­tive.

The an­nounce­ment was made by in­com­ing vice-chan­cel­lor Mamokgethi Phak­eng in her De­cem­ber 2018 rob­ing cer­e­mony.

It had, in fact, been in the works since 2015’s Fal­lism protest move­ment. At the time then-vice-chan­cel­lor Max Price cre­ated a task team and in­vited re­nam­ing sug­ges­tions.

At that point Jame­son Hall, named after Rhodes’s po­lit­i­cal ally Le­an­der Starr Jame­son, was tem­po­rar­ily given the generic place­holder of Memo­rial Hall.

This was a ges­ture to the cen­tral­ity of in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory, but strate­gi­cally vague as to what kind of mem­ory that should be.

Now, after ex­ten­sive con­sul­ta­tion both within the uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity and with Khoi com­mu­nity rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the de­ci­sion has been made. It’s one the uni­ver­sity it­self is nam­ing “po­tent” and “his­toric”. But how rad­i­cal is it?

It’s un­doubt­edly en­cour­ag­ing to see UCT nail its colours to the mast in what feels like an em­brace of struc­tural trans­for­ma­tion, not to men­tion a pow­er­ful sig­nal of a com­mit­ment to a de-colo­nial agenda. Yet I have reser­va­tions.

A much deeper prob­lem

Let us be frank: Sarah Baart­man Hall is not named as an ab­stract de-colo­nial ges­ture.

It’s not a sim­ple sym­bolic ref­er­ence to a closed chap­ter of his­tory, cho­sen at ran­dom from hun­dreds of alumni sub­mis­sions.

It is so named ex­plic­itly be­cause of the di­rect trauma that peo­ple of colour ex­pe­ri­enced from the on­go­ing cam­pus ex­hi­bi­tion of an un­der­clad statue of Baart­man from 2000 to 2018 in the sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy sec­tion of the main li­brary. The statue stood not 200 me­tres from the main hall.

These are not marginal con­cerns: in re­sponse to es­ca­lat­ing and often pow­er­fully per­for­ma­tive cam­pus protests, the UCT pub­lic art­works com­mit­tee held an in­ter­ac­tive ex­hi­bi­tion of the statue last year, ti­tled “Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baart­man: a Call to Re­spond.”

More, the hall is named be­cause of the re­peated strate­gies stu­dents adopted, in­clud­ing the use of the statue to ex­pose, as it were, the hos­til­ity of an un­der-trans­formed uni­ver­sity en­vi­ron­ment where they them­selves con­tin­ued to feel un­wel­come, a cu­rios­ity.

The statue, by Wil­lie Bester, was ex­hib­ited as re­cently as Oc­to­ber 4.

The un­easy cam­pus cul­ture is on­go­ing.

There surely can be no Sarah Baart­man Hall with­out ac­knowl­edge­ment of Sarah Baart­man’s en­twined his­tory with the land – and legacy – of Rhodes at the in­sti­tu­tion.

Yet these po­tent con­tes­ta­tions are en­tirely ab­sent from the uni­ver­sity’s an­nounce­ment of the name change.

This frames Baart­man’s “hu­mil­i­a­tion” as end­ing in 2002 with the resti­tu­tion of her re­mains from France’s Musée de l'Homme and cer­e­mo­nial in­ter­ment in Hankey.

There is no men­tion of Bester’s statue, no men­tion of the count­less protests, de­bates and per­for­ma­tive in­ter­ven­tions staged around the sym­bol­ism of Baart­man’s body that have marked the past 18 years of cam­pus en­gage­ment with the statue.

Baart­man’s name can be el­e­vated to the high­est point of the cam­pus, but if it is not ac­cepted that her legacy is built into every brick, each class­room and every in­ter­ac­tion, the hon­our is more than hol­low, it is in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

Baart­man has, after all, been the fig­ure­head for count­less ide­olo­gies, both in and out of her time. To place her his­toric name on a build­ing while elid­ing the con­tem­po­rary pain that prompted this nam­ing from its ori­gin story is to make Sarah Baart­man once again an ob­ject to gaze at in a cen­tre of learn­ing.

The al­ter­na­tive

But that doesn’t have to be the case. For this ges­ture to stand in the spirit for which it was clearly (and com­mend­ably) cho­sen, the uni­ver­sity must own its own in­sti­tu­tional com­plic­ity in Baart­man’s – and South Africa’s – loaded his­tory and in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture that con­tinue to alien­ate stu­dents and staff of colour from fully be­ing at home on cam­pus.

To move for­ward mean­ing­fully there must be a frank ac­knowl­edge­ment that Rhodes’s legacy did not end in 2015 and a clear com­mit­ment to prac­ti­cal as well as sym­bolic change.

The nam­ing de­ci­sion has gar­nered over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive re­sponses, with grad­u­at­ing stu­dents tak­ing to so­cial me­dia in droves, ex­press­ing what it meant to them to grad­u­ate in a hall bear­ing the name of Baart­man.

I cer­tainly share this joy. But we shouldn’t let the re­nam­ing of a hall over­shadow the need for care­ful in­sti­tu­tional and self-ex­am­i­na­tion.

Un­der lead­er­ship of the new vice-chan­cel­lor , the uni­ver­sity must surely be best placed to open up space for trans­for­ma­tion, not close down de­bate.

● Lever is a Re­search Fel­low at the Nel­son Man­dela School of Pub­lic Gov­er­nance, UCT

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