Cape Town – The Council of the University of Cape Town has made the historic decision to rename the institution’s Memorial Hall after Khoi woman Sarah Baartman.
In a joint statement released by Chair of Council Sipho Pityana and Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the university announced that its Council, at a meeting on 8 December, decided on the name change to honour Baartman’s family and restore her dignity that was brutally stolen from her in the 19th century.
Problematizing Jameson Hall, Who Was Jameson Anyway?
UCT said that the renaming of the Memorial Hall will help to reflect the history of all the people of our country. The Hall was previously named after Sir Leander Star Jameson, who was a former Prime Minister of the Cape, Chief Administrator of the colonial British South Africa Company as well as Chief Administrator of Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe). Jameson is best known for leading the Jameson Raid, an ill-fated military expedition conceived by Cecil John Rhodes, who was at the time the Premier of the Cape. The Raid was a crude attempt to gain control of the Johannesburg mining area in the 1890’s by overthrowing Paul Kruger’s South Africa Republic, with the help of the English-speaking Uitlanders of Johannesburg and the Rand, and establishing a pro-British government in its place. The plan was a disastrous flop as Jameson’s troopers of Rhodes’ British South Africa Police Force were easily rounded up by the Boer Commandos, and the Uitlanders uprising failed leaving British policy in South Africa lay in ruins in 1895.
In April 2015 the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the institution called for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that had occupied a prominent position at the entrance of UCT’s Upper Campus.
On 20 September, just days before the Steve Biko Memorial Week, the RMF movement released a statement problematizing the naming of the Memorial Hall after Jameson, who it described as “one of the many racist colonialists proudly celebrated at this public institution”. The group proposed Marikana Memorial Hall as a fitting name change in honour of the 34 Marikana mine workers who were massacred by the South African Police Force. The Marikana Memorial Hall proposition was motivated by UCT’s own admission, a month earlier, to owning shares in Lonmin, the company responsible for the protracted labour strike that led to the massacre.
In its statement announcing the renaming of the hall, UCT said that “following the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in 2015, renaming Jameson Hall was a logistical step”, a vague statement that makes no mention of the political labour of the student movement and in so doing attempts to position the university as the initiator of the call for change.
Towards an inclusive university
Again it was the political labour of the Rhodes Must Fall movement that shone the spotlight on the names, artworks and other displays at the university that needed to be transformed. In its 25 March 2015 statement the movement made, among others, the following demands;
- Rename buildings and roads from names commemorating only white people, to names of either black historical figures, or to names that contribute to this university taking seriously its African positionality.
- Replace artworks that exoticise the black experience (by white, predominantly male artists) which are presented without context, with artworks produced by young, black artists.
The student movement continually problematized artwork on campus. On 25 April 2015, activists from the RMF group problematized the naked sculpture of Sarah Baartman at the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library. The sculpture was donated by Willie Bester to the institution in the early 2000s.
This critique was expressed through an art installation that was performed inside the library, right where the sculpture was positioned. On the same day the sculpture was clothed by the students in an effort to dignify the body of Baartman. Following this the sculpture was subject of much debate around the display of offensive art at the institution.
In February 2016 students protested and burned artworks deemed as offensive to the black people at the institution.
On that same year UCT invited students, staff and alumni to suggest possible names for the memorial hall.
“In June 2016 Council passed a resolution to rename the hall, and in October 2017 Council agreed to call it Memorial Hall in the interim. Meanwhile, the Naming of Buildings Committee (NOBC) had proposed Sarah Baartman as the new name and had initiated the appropriate procedures and consultations with members of UCT and the Khoi community.”
“This process of consultation commenced in March 2018 with community, faith, political and cultural organisations, and led to the establishment of a core working group led by the Centre for African Studies that engaged in meaningful collaboration with the Khoi community as part of the renaming process. It ended in November with the official mandate granted for the renaming,” said UCT.
Who was Sarah Baartman?
According to South African History Online (SAHO) Sarah or Saartjie Baartman was a Khoi woman born in 1789 at the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape. Baartman grew up during the colonial era where she and her family worked as servants in white owned farms.
Sarah was orphaned during a commando raid and thereafter enslaved by Hendrik Cezar, a Dutch farmer in Cape Town. White colonialists exoticised Baartman’s body for its remarkable physical features that pronounced her black femininity. Cape Town based military surgeon William Dunlop exploited this and drew up a ‘contract’ that would see Baartman traveling the world with him and Cezar to Europe where she would become an oddity for display to the fascination of Europeans who were at the time convinced that they were a superior race. The grotesque display of Baartman did not stop when she died as her remains were subject of racial science by European scientists and museum practitioners who made a plaster cast of her body, pickled her brain and genitals and placed them into jars which were placed on display at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in France until 1974.
Following the end of formal apartheid, the South African government requested the French to return the remains of Sarah Baartman so that she could be laid to rest. Baartman returned home in March 2002 and was buried in Hankey, Eastern Cape on 09 August 2002.
“It is fitting that a woman who was treated as a slave should be honoured by UCT, where some buildings have been constructed over the graves of past slaves and many of our communities have been affected by its legacy.”
“This is one way we can pay homage to the lives that were lost through slavery, and the consequences of that evil practice in modern-day Cape Town. We acknowledge our responsibility to not only the Khoi community but all communities to uphold Sarah Baartman Hall as a place of restoration, healing, growth and compassion”, said the UCT statement.