One of my favourite poems by a South African poet, ‘Swartjie Bartman’ by Lesedi Thwala, is about women’s experience of street harassment, particularly black women. It is powerfully written, and makes reference to Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman put on display for entertainment in England and France during the 1810s due to her large buttocks. She was displayed in several circuses, and wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her. Thwala’s poem is about the sexual objectification of black women’s bodies, particularly by white men, drawing parallels with the ways in which Baartman’s body was perceived.
‘Swartjie Bartman’ by Lesedi Thwala
Jinne, hoekom het julle swartjies sulke mooi boude?
You hideously hiss and hoot while your
Tongue turbulently twirls twixt your teeth and your
Bulge bulbously bulges between your legs
Claiming that I should take it as a compliment
and be an accomplice and acquiesce you
a slice of the sjokolade-koek
because I am too beautiful for a black girl
and therefore should not be wearing a doek
en ek moet bly ommie-hoek
so that jou vrou en kinders don’t see
that you do not play by die boek
want swart en wit moet nooit meng nie
maar jy wil nou kroek
and I should know that my behind is all I am good for
en glad nie meer as dit ooit soek
ag nee! My skin is too dark
my English isn’t sharp
and my hair is so coarse!
But my butt…
My butt does wonders for you, of course!
So you drive past dark alleys hoping I will be there
So you can feed your fetid fetish and hope and wish that Oom Hans
Of Tant Sallie don’t see you met ‘n swartjie in jou bakkie
En as jy my sien,
You slow down and slobber
And flash me a twee-honderd-rand noot
And scream: “Kom vat meisietjie, gaan koop vir jou brood”
And you disclose your disgust
At my disapproval and drive past, while people stare at you aghast
Want jy kry dit nie man!
Dis duidelik dat ek is jou Swartjie Bartman
You can find out more about Lesedi Thwala here, where you can also hear the poet give a reading of ‘Swartjie Bartman’.
Women stand in small groups, sometimes even alone, silently holding placards: “REJECT SLUMS, SQUATTERS, GROUP AREAS BILLS” and “RELEASE OR CHARGE ALL DETAINEES”. People pass and stare, sometimes yelling angrily, or spit on them, or even driving up on the pavement to try and run them over. It’s the 1950s. The South African government is pushing one law after another through Parliament (more than 25 in that decade alone), with the aim of expanding the reach of white supremacy into every aspect of the lives of South Africans.
Four women stand in front of a room of the country’s most powerful people, silently holding pieces of paper which read “#1in3” and “Remember Khwezi”. People stare, and eventually the women are shoved out the door. It is 2016. The results of South Africa’s local elections are being announced to South Africa and the political elite, and four black women remind us that despite numerous allegations of sexual violence against him, our President has managed to dodge conviction while one of his accusers has to go into exile.
I’ve always enjoyed novels far more than short stories. I like to really sink my teeth into a characters and a narrative, and spend some time with them. Recently, however, I have found myself reading more short stories and poetry than usual. That could be because reading preferences are not static, and change over time. It could also be that it has just been too damn hot to do any one thing for too long. Reading in puddles of sweat on my couch is not exactly enjoyable, and my attention span seems to have taken a bit of a nose dive. So instead of my thoughts on a novel (of which I have only read three in 2016 thus far), here are three short stories I read recently that I’ve really liked. Minor spoilers (but not the endings).
Click the titles to open the story in a new page.
For my favourite fiction books of the year, go here.
I have always enjoyed reading non-fiction, particularly history books, memoirs, biographies and socio-political analysis. These are my favourite five from 2015 (in no particular order).
Rape: A South African Nightmare by Pumla Gqola
Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend by Arianna Stassinopoulos
The Dressing Station by Jonathan Kaplan
Goodbye Sarajevo by Akta Reid and Hana Schofield
Seminary Boy by John Cornwell
Twenty years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, Chantelle de Nobrega explores what we can we learn about sex, gender and morality in democratic transitions.
Read it all on OpenDemocracy