The healing truth
One of the important events of 2002 was President Thabo Mbeki's landmark speech on 9 August at the funeral of Saartje Baartman, the South African (Khoi-San) woman taken to Europe 192 years ago and paraded in London and Paris like a zoo animal because of her huge buttocks. When she died, the plastercast of her body (pictured right) was put on display in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris for over a century until the French parliament finally passed a law on 30 January 2002 permitting her remains to be sent back home in August (see NA May 2002). This is what Mbeki said at her funeral...
This day should be a day of celebration and joy. After all, today is National Women's Day as well as the historic day when we return the remains of Sarah Bartmann to the land she walked as a child and a young woman. Difficult as it may be, we must still celebrate.
But we could not be human and not be deeply saddened and weighted down with grief as we reflect on the short life of Sarah Bartmann who has, at last, returned to her people. This occasion can never be a solemn ceremony in which we bury her remains and bury the truth about the painful circumstances of her death as well.
To this day, 186 years after she died, we feel the pain of her intolerable misery because she was one of us and we, of her. When we turn away from this grave of a simple African woman, a particle of each one of us will stay with the remains of Sarah Bartmann. We cannot undo the damage that was done to her. But at least we can summon the courage to speak the naked but healing truth that must comfort her wherever she may be.
I speak of courage because there are many in our country who urge constantly that we should not speak of the past. They pour scorn on those who speak about who we are and where we come from, and why we are where we are today. They make bold to say the past is no longer, and all that remains is a future that will be.
But, today, the gods would be angry with us if we did not, on the banks of the Gamtoos River, at the grave of Sarah Bartmann, call our for the restoration of the dignity of Sarah Bartmann, of the Khoi-San, of the millions of Africans who have known centuries of wretchedness.
Sarah Bartmann should never have been transported to Europe. Sarah Bartmann should never have been robbed of her name and re-labelled Sarah Bartmann. Sarah Bartmann should never have been stripped of her native Khoi-San and African identity and paraded in Europe as a savage monstrosity.
As the French parliament debated the matter of the return of the remains of our Sarah to her native land, the then minister of research, Roger-Gerard Scwartzenberg said: "This young woman was treated as if she was something monstrous. But where in this affair is the monstrosity?"
Indeed, where did the monstrosity lie in the matter of the gross abuse of a defenceless African woman in England and...