On this day in 2002, the great African, former President Thabo Mbeki stood on the banks of the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape to inter the remains of an African woman, Sarah Bartmann. As it is his nature and gift, Mbeki delivered one of the most memorable and painfully beautiful eulogies in the history of South Africa. Of Sarah Bartmann’s uprooting from the land of her birth, Mbeki lamented thus: ‘Sarah Bartmann should never have been transported to Europe. Sarah Bartmann should never have been robbed of her name and relabelled 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 former president had said all those years ago, ‘Today we celebrate our National Women’s Day. We therefore convey our congratulations and best wishes to all the women of our country. We also mark this day fully conscious of the responsibility that falls on us to ensure that we move with greater speed towards the accomplishment of the goal of the creation of a non-sexist society.
‘Our work in this regard must be driven by the knowledge that the women of our country have borne the brunt of the oppressive and exploitative system of colonial and apartheid domination. Even today, the women of our country carry the burden of poverty and continue to be exposed to unacceptable violence and abuse. It will never be possible for us to claim that we are making significant progress to create a new South Africa if we do not make significant progress towards gender equality and the emancipation of women.’
Unfortunately, you and I know that almost two decades since the return of Sarah Bartmann to her homeland, the women of our country have not known peace. You and I know every well, like the despicable men of Europe who paraded Sarah Bartmann in public like a zoo animal, the men of this country treat women of this land as if they are objects over which they have absolute power and authority. Between you and I, dear reader, it is has become common knowledge that one in every three women in South Africa will be raped in their lifetime, and that every twenty-three seconds a woman in this beautiful country is raped. Yet, when the women of country make mention of these facts, we turn around and say to them: you brought it upon yourself.
We say to our women – our sisters, aunts, mothers, girlfriends and wives – without shame that they are to blame for being sexually violated because they had dared to dress as they please. You and I, dear reader, perched on our seats of comfort and privilege, we accuse our women – the guiding stars of this country – of provoking their murderers. In our speech and actions, you and I, almost seem to congratulate the rapists for visiting the ugliest of violence upon our women – the descendants of that African woman lying permanently along the banks of the Gamtoos River. Instead of condemning, in speech and actions, the violence and abuse women suffer at the hands of the men of this country, you and I assign to ourselves the authority of justices of the court of law and ask the most ridiculous of questions: What did you say to him? Why did you wear a mini-skirt when you knew were going to pass by the taxi rank? Did you really have to walk alone late at night? In our questions which is a ploy on our part not to take responsibility for our actions, our disgusting behaviour, we heap blame on the shoulders of those whose strength seem to always threaten our manhood; thus, subjecting them to abuse and violence to subdue their glory.
Dear reader, you and I, are guilty of allowing criminals who belong in prison to roam our streets freely as if they are men worthy of esteem and praise. You and I, by making excuses each time a man lays his hand on a woman, a hand filled with rage and hatred, we are saying it is okay for men to do as they desire with women. The two of us dear reader, we are culpable in the maiming of society when we turn a blind eye to the raping and killing of women.
Over this coming weekend families across the country, accompanied by friends and relatives, will form a solemn procession to march towards the cemetery to lay to rest their daughters because men decided to play God. They will stand next to their graves, struggling to suppress their mournful cries, stretching their hands to release the soil of the earth while uttering words that can only be said during a time of grief: ‘Dust to dust.’
Dear reader, once again next weekend, another family will make the same journey to the last home of the departed, to bid a final farewell to a loved one who committed suicide because she could no longer live with the shame of being a rape victim. Her tormenter will go on with the business of living as if nothing happened. This will continue to happen because you and I, my beloved reader, are the very rapists and murderers who women run away from; the bullies who rule their bodies as if they are possessions to be owned.
In his encomium of Sarah Bartmann, an African woman who died because the world led by men with cruel and callous hearts would not let her live as she pleased, former President Thabo Mbeki takes to task those who subjected the heroine now resting along the banks of the Gamtoos River to the most horrific and sickening of sadism. Disgusted by the inhumane actions of these heartless men who had pronounced themselves as leaders of the world in beauty and intelligence, he asked: ‘… where did the monstrosity lie in the matter of the gross abuse of a defenceless African woman in England and France! It was not the abused human being who was monstrous but those who abused her. It was not the lonely African woman in Europe, alienated from her identity and her motherland who was the barbarian, but those who treated her with barbaric brutality.’
Today, on the 09th of August, a day to commemorate Women’s Day in South Africa, as men we should hang our heads in shame because we are no different from the white men of Europe who labelled Sarah Bartmann with negative names because they could not handle the majestic physical appearance of an African woman. Like those monsters of England and France, our barbaric sexual behaviour towards women deserves nothing less than a chopping off of our manhood with an axe to be hung in public as a lesson to other rapists – any form of violation against will not be tolerated. Just like 18th century France, the heads of those who beat and kill women should be put under a guillotine and displayed for all to see as a tutorial reminder to the rest of the hunting pack that women are not objects.
Sixteen years ago, on this day, when he bade a final farewell to Sarah Bartmann, she who travelled the seas to eke out a better life for her family, only to be met with the vilest of human behaviour, Mbeki extended a coded apology to a strong and courageous woman of African descent. He said: ‘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.’
Today, ashamed and embarrassed to face the beautiful and intelligent women of this country – Imbokodo – because of the guilt I feel for being part of the machine that crushes you, I wish to borrow from the former president to convey a personal message: I cannot undo the damage that has been done to you, but I can at least promise that wherever an injustice, in any form, rears its head against women, I will be the first to confront it. In spite of this horror and fear you suffer every second, every minute, every hour and every day of your life, may you be granted with the power and will to summon the spirit to enjoy this day, and the rest of your days on earth. Happy Women’s Day Dikgosigadi! Kgotsong!