South Africa has a new icon: Sarah Bartmann. In only a few years she has become an important symbol of the struggle against colonialism, racism, sexism and exploitation. In March 2009, the Ministry of Culture launched a contest for the design of a memorial centre focusing on Sarah - Saartjie - Bartmann and her people, the Khoi San.
As the 21 year-old slave of a Dutch farmer, Sarah Bartmann was taken to London where she became famous as the Hottentot Venus. According to her owner, her only virtues were her enormous behind and large labia. The intelligent young woman who spoke fluent Dutch was enticed to Europe by the promise of large earnings. The man who took her to Europe, however, did so for his own profit. He put her on display as a freak fairground attraction and then sold her to a French animal trainer. She was forced to display her body in a cage like an animal to the Parisians, who mocked her. She eventually sought solace in liquor and died of an infection in 1815.
But Sarah was even exploited after her death. Her brain and genitals were preserved and displayed in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris together with her skeleton until 1974. She was subsequently put away in the museum's storage space. She was not forgotten by South Africa, however. The return of her remains had been repeatedly requested starting in 1940. It was not until 2002 that she was returned to her home country, at the request of Nelson Mandela and after debates in French parliament, to be buried there in the same year on 9 August: South Africa's Women's Day and the international day of indigenous peoples.
Her grave was added to the national heritage list in 2008. The South African Ministry of Culture is now planning a memorial centre right next to her grave. The memorial is intended not only to remind visitors of the cruelty of the past but also as a place where they can learn about the ancient culture of Sarah Bartmann's people. The centre will also mark the beginning of a Khoi San Heritage Route.