Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

The ‘Sarah Baartmanisation’ of the black body

Dear Ferial

You did well by relenting to the people’s wishes, because it is not just the ANC or President Jacob Zuma who felt “Sarah Baartmanised”. As an artist who respects freedom of expression I understand the responsibilities that come with that freedom.

Yes, Zuma is the worst president and he has set back the feminist movement, but we can’t sacrifice one struggle for another. The denigration of black bodies is a sign of a deeper disease in our psyche and has serious implications.

That it can be equated to freedom of speech and be protected by the Constitution is in itself unconstitutional and raises lots of questions about our “precious” and “perfect” Constitution. Could it be that the Constitution is not custom made for us? Shouldn’t it take into account the sensibilities of its people? As the editor of a black newspaper I commend you for listening to our wishes.

On the issue of people taking to the streets and boycotting your newspaper: I’m baffled that it is seen as bullying. During apartheid people boycotted so their voices could be heard. They used the might of the number of their wallets, they took to the streets to protest against their dehumanisation.

Isn’t that their right? This seems to be a way to further silence the voice and wishes of the people. This is a great concern.

People are angry at Brett Murray at daring to think that he, as a white man, a descendant of an oppressive regime of slave owners and land thieves, the cause of our dehumanisation, has a right to depict us in a dehumanising manner under the guise of free speech.

I vaguely remember at the height of the Zimbabwe uprisings, there was an online game depicting Mugabe as a baboon being fed bananas. It was a personal affront to me; it blatantly played into evil colonial stereotypes. Such is the case here as well.

I have noticed also how dismissive those fighting for freedom of speech have been of the black pain. This speaks volumes and we are listening. Talking of extending an olive branch, black people did that in 1994, they put a hold on their pain and celebrated a new day of possibilities.

To be insulted with poverty, non-transformation of the business sector, and liberal ideas that purport to speak for us, even as they deliver us as cheap labour to state capital, and now this painting.

To call this painting a Sarah Baartmanisation of the black body is valid. It evokes those memories. Why Murray found it proper, as a depiction of Zuma, because of his character, is devoid of relevance. It was demeaning in the highest degree. Do we know if Sarah Baartman was a good person with high morals? Could it be possible she ‘deserved’ it because she did something society saw as despicable? Did we care to find out? No, we didn’t. Because it was not important.

Animalistic howl
What was important was the image of her beautyful black body on display, a vile social experiment. This is the image we have carried with us and it has shamed us, humiliated us. The image of a black man with his penis hanging out on display in galleries, plastered all over the internet, in your newspaper for our children to see, for the whole world to see, shifted something in me.

An animalistic howl died in my throat, perhaps a gene memory flashback coupled with the reality of my existence today. It felt like giving birth to death. Like this new SA is stillborn. This hurt is deep.

Now let’s equate the image of Zuma’s penis hanging out with the Reed dance where you see girl’s breasts out for all to see. You see, to say nudity is not a part of our culture is false, though it has never been to the extreme of seeing people’s privates. There are also Afrikan cultures where married women use nudity as a sign of protest. This is regarded as the highest form of protest.

The way of the Afrikan people has been regarded with ridicule since time immemorial. It has been seen as deplorable. It has been used as an excuse to see us already dehumanised by virtue of our ways. We have still been seen as a threat, like a lion, or maybe a hyena, or, come to think of it a baboon would be a threat. This has been used as a reason to, wipe us out, bring us to heel or civilise us.

Too many times I’ve read on social networks that we would still be in the bush without colonialism. As if our natural way of living was regressive. We, the Afrikans, have internalised these feelings of shame imposed upon us, which is why we find it easy to assimilate into the white culture and mostly pay lip service to our own today.

What I find most intense is our own chuckles at this painting as black people. The jeers from all sectors saying Zuma deserved it. I don’t see how him deserving to be ridiculed for his ways correlates with the painting.

Because I don’t see Zuma when I look at the painting. I see a black man with his penis hanging out; as much as I didn’t see Mugabe in that online game, but saw a black man being portrayed as a baboon. Have we become so desensitised that we don’t see this?

I don’t think the issue is culture here, but dignity, and sensitivity to a horrid past full of dehumanisation and other injustices. We as citizens of South Africa should own this pain collectively if we are serious about nation building. I am indignant.

This column first appeared on

Follow Simphiwe Dana on Twitter @simphiwedana

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

The Democratic Alliance and illiberal liberalism’s glass ceiling

The DA appears to have abandoned its ambitions of 2016 and is set to lose further ground in the upcoming elections

Canna-business deal for Ingonyama Trust land

Foreign investment has been lined up for a joint venture with the Ingonyama Trust Board, which administers tribal land for the Zulu monarch

More top stories

The Democratic Alliance and illiberal liberalism’s glass ceiling

The DA appears to have abandoned its ambitions of 2016 and is set to lose further ground in the upcoming elections

ANC Durban election candidate shot dead while on door-to-door campaign

One other man was shot dead and two others were rushed to hospital with gunshot wounds

Rule of law drops globally, including in South Africa

Security and corruption prevents the country from ranking higher on the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index for 2021

Slice of life: ‘I can read nine or 10 books...

David van der Westhuizen, a street bookseller based at the KwaZulu-Natal Society of the Arts Gallery in Durban, tells Paddy Harper how he survives unemployment

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…