Strikes and vandals have left proposed Sarah Baartman heritage site in a mess

The Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance in Hankey was meant to be unveiled today Picture: Brian Witbooi
The Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance in Hankey was meant to be unveiled today
Picture: Brian Witbooi
The plaque at the Baartman grave was defaced last year and is still covered in paint Picture: Brian Witbooi
The plaque at the Baartman grave was defaced last year and is still covered in paint
Picture: Brian Witbooi

Even in death, with her remains buried in her home town, legendary Khoi woman Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman cannot find peace.

Today was meant to be a day of celebration for the community of Hankey as the long-awaited Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance was to be unveiled.

But as the country celebrates Heritage Day, the mood is sombre in Hankey as the monument meant to honour Baartman is not even halfway complete, two years after construction began.

Adding to the gloom, a plaque at her grave is still covered in paint 17 months after it was defaced.

Protesters hurled paint on the grave in April last year at the height of a national outcry over colonial statues.

Baartman was a Khoi woman who was taken to Europe by a British doctor in the 1800s and paraded around in freak shows and exhibited to Europeans.

Construction on the R164-million Centre of Remembrance in her honour started in 2014. The massive project is expected to attract throngs of tourists.

It is a national project meant to be one of South Africa’s prime heritage sites.

The project, once complete, will house a museum displaying Baartman’s story, a library, a multi-purpose centre and an auditorium.

It will also include a “genocide wall”, displaying the experiences of the Khoi-San people, and a nursery of indigenous plants.

However, due to ongoing protests by local construction workers – who want to be paid the same salaries as their colleagues from Johannesburg and Rustenburg – the project is currently at a standstill.

The dispute has disrupted construction sporadically since last year.

It is a bitter pill to swallow for the Gamktwa Khoi-San tribe, who say that Baartman has been forgotten and so has the Khoi nation.

A member of the Gamktwa Khoi-San tribe, Hester Booysen, 76, sobbed as she spoke about how tourists were shocked when they visited Baartman’s grave.

“It makes me feel bad every time I take tourists to the grave. I cry and feel that pain and everything she [Baartman] went through,” Booysen said.

“I recently took a group of Chinese students to the grave. I was heartbroken to see that mess. The students were also crying when they saw the paint smeared on the plaque,” Booysen said.

She said after the pain Baartman had gone through, her place of rest should not be messy. She should be at peace.

“I know the things that happened to her. How they cut her body parts and she died in that state. What she went through was horrible , ” Booysen said.

When the national Department of Arts and Culture unveiled a plan to build the centre in honour of Baartman, Booysen said, the Khoi people had not been involved.

“We just saw construction happening near the grave site. Nobody came to us from the government or the municipality to explain what they wanted to do.”

“It shows how we are not taken seriously. But we know the history of the Khoi,” Booysen said.

When Weekend Post visited the area this week, the team saw building rubble next to where the centre is being constructed.

Climbing up the hill to access the grave site was difficult as there is building material scattered everywhere.

Booysen said today would be one of the toughest Heritage Day celebrations for their tribe.

“What makes me feel very sad, especially this year, is that every time I go there, there is no peace. “How can a person like Sarah Baartman, our mother, be ignored like that?”

“She is ours. How can any Khoi-San person feel good when they go up on that mountain and see the rubble and the mess around her grave?”

Booysen, who is married to chief Ronald Booysen of the Gamtkwa Khoi-San Council, said although she felt their culture was ignored in the province, they too were to blame.

“Khoi people are not united. We don’t own our culture. Some of the things were not going to happen if we stood together,” Booysen said.

Eastern Cape MEC of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture Pemmy Majodina rubbished claims that the Khoi-San culture had been ignored.

“That is not true. Why are they lying? “Did we not bring back the remains of Sarah Baartman? Did we not name a municipality after her? “How have we ignored their culture?”

“People need to stop complaining and appreciate the little government does. We cannot please ever ybody,” Majodina said.

On the state of the grave, Majodina said: “How did we know that people were going to deface the grave? That is not our fault, and it is not our responsibility to [clean] the grave. The South African Heritage Agency is responsible for that.”

Businessman Dawie Meyer, who owns the Local is Lekker pub and grill in Hankey, said they had been told the centre would be completed this month.

“Those workers have been on strike more than at work. “It has been almost three years since they started construction. We are losing business also because they have blocked off traffic into the town,”Meyer said.

Kouga municipal spokesman Mfundo Sobele said they had alerted the SA Heritage Resources Agency about the state of Baartman’s grave site, but nothing could be done as construction was in progress at the centre.

“We are gravely concerned about the delays of the project, “We hope the parties involved can reach an amicable solution soon,” Sobele said.

Department of Art and Culture spokeswoman Zimasa Velaphi failed to respond to questions, despite promising to do so over the past two weeks.

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