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Sarah Bartman & other herstories of South African women

Review by: Sokari Ekine

“Women in South African History” by Nomboniso Gasa (Ed) published by HSRC Press, 2007.

Women in South African History traces the lives of South African women from the pre-colonial, pre-union period (mid 18th century) through to the post-apartheid beginnings and present day South Africa. It is written in four thematic parts: Women in the pre-colonial and pre-union periods; Women in early to mid-twentieth century South Africa; War: armed and mass struggle as gendered experiences; The 1990s and beyond: new identities, new victories, new struggles.

The book is a radical departure from the traditional history texts in that it uses a feminist analysis rather than the “more acceptable gender analysis” in it’s approach by examining “the ways in which gender intersects with race, culture, class and other forms of identity and location in South African history“. By including the present as part of history the book shows how the past and present are inextricably linked and thus better examines women’s experiences over the past 300 years. The experiences of women’s struggle and their continuing hazardous journeys towards liberation are expressed through the dual metaphors of “they move boulders” – challenges; and “they cross rivers” – dangers.

Women in South African History goes far beyond the many well known events and periods by feminizing those events and periods where women’s participation has never been acknowledged. In the chapter “Like three tongues in one mouth”: Tracing the elusive lives of slave women in (slavocratic) South Africa, Pumla Dineo Gqola, brings to life the slave women brought to South Africa from South East Asia, East Africa and Southern Africa. Despite the scarcity of historical and biographical narratives, Pumla is still able to document the lives of some slave women and more importantly the ways in which they resisted and revolted against their enslavement and their central role “to the historical constitution of Afrikaner society“. Other examples are women’s mass protests against carrying of passes in Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom in 1913; women’s involvement in the trade union movement during the 1930s; the participation of women in the ANC underground and military wing in the 1950s; township uprisings in the Eastern Cape in the 1970s and 1980s; naked women protests against lack of housing in Soweto in 1990; migrant women in Johannesburg and women learning to live with HIV/AIDS in present day South Africa.

The book concludes with a powerful essay by Yvette Abrahams in which she chronicles her experience of researching and writing on Sarah Bartman. Or rather searching for the REAL Sarah Bartman not the racialised sexualised object constructed by white male fantasies …a “living specimen of barbaric savage races” one who according to Lindfors [Courting the Hottentot Venus]
was willing to collaborate in her own degradation in order to earn more money…

she allowed herself to be exhibited indecently to the European public, and she persisted in this tawdy occupation for more than five years….. She may have been the victim of the cruelist kind of predatory ruthlessness, but her collusion in her own victimisation was unmistakeable…. he concludes
To put it plainly, she may have engaged in prostitution as well as exhibitionism. Her degradation may have been complete..

Abrahams tears these racist, sexist texts to pieces written not in the 1800s but in the 1980s. Men such as Lindfors were able to pass these lies off as academic text by so called intellectuals. Abrahams leads us through to the convincing conclusion that Sarah Bartman was a slave – a Khoekhoe slave woman. She does this by connecting her own personal herstory to that of the Khoekhoe. Born in the pre-colonial period of the 1780s, she must have had a Khoekhoe name and the only way she could have lost that name at that time was through slavery. Also the only way for her to move from her home in the Western Cape to England was as a slave. Sarah Bartman lied (that she willingly exhibited herself) because she was a slave and knew very well that her words would not be believed over that of a white man and the consequences of her telling the truth would have been too horrible to contemplate such as life imprisonment and even more degradation and abuse.

Abrahams again makes the absolute convincing statement without any hesitation or qualification that the “abuse and degradation” of Sarah Bartman was rape. Rape not only of Sarah but of the whole Khoekhoe nation. The white male racist, sexist texts she quotes in her essay are a form of “surrogate violence” against African women, Black women, Khoekhoe women and Sarah Bartman.

“Was it not rape of a symbolic sort to parade the degradation and humiliation of auntie Sarah before me? Was it not a sexually violent act which expressed male power and my vulnerability to pain? Has not each male author I have brought before you been unable to resist the temptation of demonstrating their psycho sexual power and auntie Sarah’s inability to resist?

In the place of false witness it is time to speak the truth. I name the posthumous abuse and degradation of auntie Sarah’s body, rape. The rape of her body is a rape of my mind.

As Abrahams writes, Sarah Bartman whose real name, real self was stolen like that of millions of other slaves and their descendants, is dead and therefore can no longer feel the pain. But she (Abrahams) feels it – I feel it and Black women throughout the world feel it. Every racist, sexist, misogynist text by whiteness against Black women is felt by me, by all of us. The symbolism of this sexual violence is explained by a more “refined and broader” definition of rape.

…the element of sexual abuse are the violation of a person’s integrity by force and/or threat of physical violence, dishonouring the ethic of mutuality and care in relationships of domination, and an infraction of one’s psycho-spiritual-sexual integrity. Sexual abuse is sacrilege of God’s spirit in each of us [Eugene, TM “If you get there before I do: A womanist ethical response to sexual violence and abuse. In J Grant (ed) Perspectives on womanist theology”

In reviewing South African Women in History, I chose to focus on Yvette Abrahams essay because the story of Sarah Bartman speaks to the book as a whole and speaks to me personally. It is both the beginning – pre-colonial and the present, continued racism but always resistance. Sarah Bartman’s agency was expressed in her act of survival against all odds. Sarah Bartman, Khoekhoe woman represents the loss of mother and land that came with slavery and colonialism as well as the ongoing struggle for liberation and emancipation.

Women in South African History is a “transdisciplinary” interrogation of events and periods in the history of South Africa from a feminist perspective. The narratives bring to life the daughters of Africa in their quest for emancipation, sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families, particularly their children. But always there is an unflinching determination – choices are laid bare and the choice is still emancipation.

Some other non-fiction from Southern Africa which may interest readers:

The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court: Reflections on the Trial of Jacob Zuma by Mmatshilo Motsei [Khwezi One Year On]

Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female Same Sex Practices in Africa by Ruth Morgan & Saskia Wieringa.

AND BESSIE HEAD Imaginative Trespasser Letters between Bessie Head and Patrick and Wendy Cullinan: 1963 – 1977. An insight into this brilliant and complex woman and the politics of colour and gender not just in Southern Africa 40 years ago, but as it is still played out today across the continent.

sokari ekine is a Nigerian living in London. She is the founder and editor of Black Looks blog which has been running for 3 1/2 years.

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