Hope of Saartjie's return won't die
When the Griqua people call for the return of Saartjie Baartman, they are seeking more than a load of human remains. Baartman's body, preserved in French museums since she died in 1816, has become a symbol for the marginalisation of the Griquas from colonial times until the present day.
The Griqua National Conference (GNC), a body which has represented the Griquas since 1914, has revived the call for Baartman's remains to be returned to South Africa for a proper burial. The GNC has demanded that the French government return the remains to South Africa.
On Thursday, Griqua representatives submitted a memorandum to President Nelson Mandela, calling for the recognition of the Griquas as "an indigenous or First Nation of South Africa", and of Griqua land claims. It noted that South Africa had not met its obligations as a United Nations member to protect the rights of its indigenous people.
Baartman's brain, genitals and skeleton are preserved in a back room at the Musee de l'Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris. Baartman was taken to Europe as an anthropological curiosity in the early 19th century, and displayed under the name of the "Hottentot Venus". On her death at the age of 27, she was denied a burial, and her remains fell into the hands of various museums. Although her body parts are no longer on permanent display, they were displayed to the public as recently as last year, according to the GNC. Previous requests for the return of the remains have been ignored.
Kate Cloete, secretary of the GNC, passionately condemned the museum's refusal to send the remains back to South Africa as an indication of a lack of respect both for the Griqua people and for Baartman's worth as a human being: "It's not only because we are her descendents. Has she not been mocked, ridiculed, and chopped up enough? Does she not have dignity?"
The letter which the GNC addressed to the French Embassy in Pretoria --- though the embassy has not yet acknowleged receiving it - -- invokes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in putting its case for the return of the remains.
Ironically, Baartman was born in 1789, the year of the French Revolution which inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man which is also mentioned in the GNC's submission.
The return of Baartman's remains has become a rallying-point for the Griquas, who see the issue as emblematic of the subjugation and loss of identity suffered by South Africa's Khoisan people under colonialism. Of all the people in South Africa who are of Khoisan descent, the Griquas are the only group which assert this identity and trace their ancestry back to pre- colonial times. The Griquas claim descent from followers of the 19th century leader Adam Kok I, who founded a community in the Northern Cape after being forced from their traditional home territories by settlers and Voortrekkers.
"Griqua people believe in their traditions and identity, and the government of the day must recognise that," Cloete said. The Griquas' battle is echoed in the worldwide movement for the rights of indigenous people, which form the subject of a draft UN charter. The GNC was represented at this year's UN working group for indigenous people.
Although most Griquas today speak Afrikaans, the original Griqua language survives, and Cloete believes it should receive consitutional
GNC legal representative Mansell Upham said Griquas had not had a chance to voice their needs when new land laws were drafted, and were now excluded from the provisions of the laws since their claims date from before 1913.
"I don't believe that we will get back what we lost," Cloete commented. "But we want to be
"The emblem of the Griquas is a desert plant, the kanniedood (cannot
die). I am optimistic.We are a kanniedood people."
THE descendants of Saartjie Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman known as the Hottentot Venus, have given a French museum until July to return her remains to South Africa, SABC TV news reported. Baartman was displayed as a freak in Europe at the turn of the century until she died in Paris at the age of 25. After her death her brain, skeleton and genitals were presented to the Musée de l'Homme. The Baartmans and the Cape Cultural Heritage Association will refer the matter to the United Nations working group on indigenous people if their demand is not met.
FRENCH DEBATE RETURN OF BAARTMAN REMAINS