A large investment has been made by the Department of Arts and Culture in the Saartjie Baartman Centre of Remembrance.
It has allocated R168-million (US$22-million) for construction of the centre, which will be built in Hackney, in the Eastern Cape. It will be developed on 80 hectares of land next to her grave, and will feature a library, exhibition spaces and an indigenous plant garden and nursery.
On 22 August 2002, the former president, Thabo Mbeki, declared the grave of Baartman – who is also known as Sarah – a national heritage site.
At the unveiling of the centre’s architectural design in 2010, Lulu Xingwana, who was the minister of arts and culture at the time, said: “Sarah Baartman is in the league of a very significant group of South African women who before her and after, have shaped the history of this land.
“She, as part of her people who lived here in the Gamtoos Valley, left a legacy which stretches into the present. There are many women who were similarly abused, raped, beaten and humiliated under apartheid.”
During construction, there will be business and employment opportunities for the Hackney community and region. Once finished, it will be declared a national cultural institution with a council, chief executive officer and professional and support staff.
“In the long term, the centre’s heritage value will be strengthened by exploring the declaration of the site as a World Heritage Site because the story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the world. The memory of Sarah Baartman is the memory of the world,” said Xingwana.
The human rights factor
With Human Rights Day on 21 March, it is a pertinent time to focus on Baartman’s legacy, given the injustices she suffered in life and in death. Human Rights Day celebrates the Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution, which is the cornerstone of democracy in South Africa.
In turn, the Bill of Rights provided for the establishment of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on 21 March 1996, 35 years after the fateful events of 21 March 1960, when anti-apartheid demonstrators in Sharpeville, in Gauteng, were gunned down by police.
The commission promotes respect for human rights; the protection, development and attainment of human rights; and monitors and assesses the observance of human rights in South Africa.
In 1810, Baartman, who was in her early 20s, was persuaded by an English ship's doctor, William Dunlop, to travel to England where she would make a fortune. However, when she arrived in England she was exhibited as an anthropological freak because of her particular physical characteristics.
As a Khoi-Khoi woman with accentuated buttocks, she was put on exhibition, displayed as a sexual curiosity and called The Hottentot Venus. She was such a popular exhibition in Britain, that she was taken to Paris in 1814, where she continued to be exhibited as a freak.
“The lessons we have learnt from Sarah Baartman’s life is that we must not allow gender oppression, de-humanisation and objectification of women, stereotyping or racism to occur. Her history affects us all as women, because of the severe exploitation she underwent,” said Xingwana.
And her suffering didn’t end with her death in 1816. After she died, the Musee de l'Homme in Paris took a death cast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals in jars, which were displayed at the museum until 1985.
Baartman’s remains were eventually brought back to South Africa after five years of negotiations between the French authorities, the South African government and the Griqua National Council, which represents South Africa’s 200 000 Griqua people, who are part of the Khoi-San group.
Xingwana said: “Sarah Baartman has become an icon of South Africa as representative of many aspects of our nation’s history.
“The proposed centre will therefore serve a very important function in our lives as an institution that interrogates all these aspects and provides us with a shared national understanding of how we consciously affirm a human rights culture at all times.”