New Internationalist

They remove boulders and cross rivers’

Women in South African history traces the lives of South African women from the pre-colonial, pre-union period (mid-18th century) to the post-apartheid beginnings and present day South Africa. It is written in four thematic parts: Women in the pre-colonial and pre-union periods; Women in early to mid-20th century South Africa; War: armed and mass struggle as gendered experiences; The 1990s and beyond: new identities, new victories, new struggles.

The book is a radical departure from traditional history texts because it uses feminist analysis rather than the ‘more acceptable gender analysis’ in its approach; it examines ways in which ‘gender intersects with race, culture, class and other forms of identity and location in South African history.’

By including the present as part of history, the book shows how the past and present are inextricably linked; this allows for a much better analysis of women’s experiences over the past 300 years. The experiences of women’s struggle and their continuing hazardous journeys towards liberation are expressed through the dual metaphors of ‘they move boulders’ (challenges) and ‘they cross rivers’ (dangers).


Women in South African history goes far beyond the many well-known events and periods in which women’s participation has never been acknowledged; it feminizes them. The chapter ‘Like three tongues in one mouth’ traces the elusive lives of slave women in slave-owning South Africa; writer Pumla Dineo Gqola brings to life the slave women brought to South Africa from Southeast Asia, East Africa and Southern Africa. Despite the scarcity of historical and biographical narratives, Pumla is still able to document the lives of some slave women and, more importantly, the ways in which they resisted and revolted against their enslavement, and their central role ‘to the historical constitution of Afrikaner society’.

Other examples are women’s mass protests against carrying of passes in Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom in 1913; women’s involvement in the trade union movement during the 1930s; the participation of women in the ANC underground and military wing in the 1950s; township uprisings in the Eastern Cape in the 1970s and 1980s; naked women protests against lack of housing in Soweto in 1990; migrant women in Johannesburg and women learning to live with HIV/AIDS in present day South Africa.

The book concludes with a powerful essay by Yvette Abrahams. In it, she chronicles her experience of researching and writing on Sarah Bartman, or, rather, searching for the real Sarah Bartman, not the racialized and sexualized object constructed by white male fantasies… Sarah Bartman, ‘a living specimen of barbaric savage races’ and one who, according to Bernth Lindfors in his essay ‘Courting the Hottentot Venus’, was willing to collaborate in her own degradation in order to earn more money…

‘She allowed herself to be exhibited indecently to the European public, and she persisted in this tawdy occupation for more than five years…She may have been the victim of the cruelest kind of predatory ruthlessness, but her collusion in her own victimization was unmistakable.

To put it plainly, she may have engaged in prostitution as well as exhibitionism. Her degradation may have been complete…’

Abrahams tears these racist, sexist texts to pieces. They were written not in the 1800s, but in the 1980s. Men such as Lindfors were able to pass these lies off as academic text, approved by the so-called intellectuals.

Abrahams leads us to the convincing conclusion that Sarah Bartman was a slave, a Khoekhoe slave woman. She does this by connecting her personal herstory to that of the Khoekhoe. Born in the pre-colonial period of 1780s, she must have had a Khoekhoe name and the only way she could have lost that name at that time was through slavery. Also, the only way for her to move from her home in Western Cape to England was as a slave. Sarah Bartman lied (that she willingly exhibited herself) because she was a slave and knew very well that her words would not be believed over those of a white man and the consequences of her telling the truth would have been too horrible to contemplate…

Abrahams again makes the absolutely convincing statement without any hesitation or qualification that the ‘abuse and degradation’ of Sarah Bartman was rape. Rape not only of Sarah, but of the whole Khoekhoe nation. The white male racist and sexist texts she quotes in her essay are a form of ‘surrogate violence’ against African women, Black women, Khoekhoe women and Sarah Bartman.

‘Was it not rape of a symbolic sort to parade the degradation ad humiliation of auntie Sarah before me? Was it not a sexually violent act which expressed male power and my vulnerability to pain? Has not each male author I have brought before you been unable to resist the temptation of demonstrating their psychosexual power and auntie Sarah's inability to resist?

In the place of false witness it is time to speak the truth. I name the posthumous abuse and degradation of auntie Sarah's body, rape. The rape of her body is a rape of my mind.’

As Abrahams writes, Sarah Bartman, whose real name and real self was stolen like that of millions of other slaves and their descendants, is dead, therefore she can no longer feel the pain. But Abrahams feels it, I feel it and Black women throughout the world feel it. Every racist, sexist, misogynist text by whiteness against Black women is felt by me, by all of us. The symbolism of this sexual violence is explained by a more ‘refined and broader’ definition of rape.

‘…The element of sexual abuse is the violation of a person's integrity by force and/or threat of physical violence, dishonouring the ethic of mutuality and care in relationships of domination, and an infraction of one's psycho-spiritual-sexual integrity. Sexual abuse is sacrilege of God's spirit in each of us.’

(TM Eugene, If you get there before I do!: A womanist ethical response to sexual violence and abuse in J Grant (ed), Perspectives on womanist theology)

In reviewing South African Women in history, I chose to focus on Yvette Abrahams’s essay because the story of Sarah Bartman speaks of the book as a whole and speaks to me personally. It is about both the pre-colonial beginning and the present; it is both about continued racism and resistance to it. Sarah Bartman’s agency was expressed in her act of survival against all odds. For me, Sarah Bartman, this Khoekhoe woman, represents the loss that came with slavery and colonialism as well as the struggle for liberation and emancipation.  

Women in South African history is a ‘transdisciplinary’ interrogation of events and periods in the history of South Africa from a feminist perspective. The narratives bring to life the daughters of Africa in their quest for emancipation, sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families, particularly their children. But always there is an unflinching determination – choices are laid bare and the choice is still emancipation.

Nomboniso Gasa (ed), Women in South African history, HSRC Press, Cape Town, 2007.



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