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Sex and racism - the unsavoury link

Updated on March 21, 2011

The link

"Oh, so you want to fuck kaffir girls!"

This used to be the sort of reaction I would get when I voiced my opinion that blacks in South Africa were getting, to say the least, the short end of the stick in South African society, and that they deserved better, they deserved, indeed, equal rights with whites.

The word "kaffir" is highly pejorative and insulting in the South African context, a word hated by the people to whom it refers, namely Blacks, who regard the use of it as de facto hate speech, which indeed it is.

Somehow this statement for me epitomises the way racism seems to go together with a nasty, infantile view of sex.

The cover of the novel "The Madonna of Excelsior" by Zakes Mda. The 2002 novel centres on the infamous Excelsior Immorality incident of 1971.
The cover of the novel "The Madonna of Excelsior" by Zakes Mda. The 2002 novel centres on the infamous Excelsior Immorality incident of 1971.

The Immorality Act

This view of sex in the light of racism lay behind the infamous "Immorality Act" which caused so much misery in South Africa in the many years in which it was in force. The Act was first promulgated in 1927 in a form which made extra-marital sexual intercourse between people of different races illegal. Then Act was amended in 1950 to include all inter-racial sexual acts. Under this iniquitous Act people's lives were turned into nightmares as police spied on couples through curtains, went into houses to smell the bed sheets and shone torches into car windows, all in search of evidence with which to convict people suspected of having sex across the colour line.

In 1971 this Act wrought havoc among the conservative Afrikaner community in the little Free State town of Excelsior, when 19 of the town's leading citizens were found to have contravened the Act. The fact was that sex across the colour line was very attractive to racists. The Act was in some way an admission of that fact, that racism and sex go together, whether through fear of the other, or the attraction of the exotic.

The result was that anyone who spoke out in favour of rights for Blacks was immediately suspected of wanting to have sex with Black women.

A contemporary drawing of Sarah Baartman
A contemporary drawing of Sarah Baartman
A cartoon of the "show"
A cartoon of the "show"
Another drawing of the "Hottentot Venus"
Another drawing of the "Hottentot Venus"

The tragedy of Sarah Baartman

The fascination of the "other" played itself out in many ways in the history of Southern Africa, but perhaps most poignantly in the story of Sarah Baartman, the Khoi woman who was tricked into going to Europe to be publicly exhibited as a "freak" due to her possessing steatopygia, the accumulation of fat in the buttocks, which was a typical feature of Khoi women.

Sarah Baartman was returned to South Africa and given a proper burial in 2002, after more than 100 years of shame.

The story of Sarah Baartman is one which typifies the racist and sexual obsession with the exotic, the strange. Her story is a tragic one, a story of lewdness and racism, of deprivation and abuse.

Baartman was born somewhere in valley of the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa in about 1788, and arrived in Cape Town some years later, where she became the slave of one Peter Cezar. At her owner's home she was noticed by Peter Cezar's brother Hendrik, who saw in her a commercial opportunity instead of a person. He formed a partnership with a ship's doctor called Alexander Dunlop, who persuaded Baartman that she would become rich and famous if she accompanied him to London.

So in 1810 she left with Dunlop to make her fortune, she supposed. Instead, she was put on display, standing on a platform and leered at by the curious of London, performing whatever her master commanded he to do. Apparently the people of London flocked to see the curiosity and she became the subject of ribald jokes and bawdy ballads.

Baartman was billed as the "Hottentot Venus." The show became the subject of a court case when abolitionist groups charged that it was tantamount to slavery. Eventually the show became less lucrative and Baartman was sold to a French animal trainer who put her on show in Paris.

While she was in Paris Baartman attracted the attention of Napoleon's surgeon, Georges Cuvier. He wanted to study her as a "scientific" specimen and enticed her with liquor to pose nude so he could study her steatopygia and her so-called "Hottentot apron", an elongated labia minora thought to be indicative of the base sexual instincts of the "lower races." She posed nude but steadfastly refused to allow public examination of the "apron."

Nonetheless she descended into a hell of alcoholism and prostitution which eventually led to her death in late December 1815. At her death Cuvier managed to get hold of her body to disect and write about in a supposedly "scientific" manner. He used the body and especially the sexual organs to develop racist theories about the depraved nature of the "lower races", theories which were in common currency for a century or more.

Cuvier pickled Baartman's sexual organs and brain in formaldehyde and these were put on display, along with her skeleton, in Paris' Musée de l'Homme. So that even in death she was the object of prying, inquisitive eyes. They were only removed from public view in 1974.

When Mandela became president of a newly-democratic South Africa in 1994 he made a formal request for the repatriation of Baartman's remains.

The French Senate eventually passed an Act to allow the repatriation of her remains in 2001 and she was returned home in 2002.

A poem written by a fellow Khoi descendant, Diana Ferrus in 1998 has been credited with raising the awareness that culminated in Baartman's return. The poem is called "I've come to take you home":

“I’ve come to take you home –
home, remember the veld?
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.

I have come to wretch you away –
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white –
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you
for you have brought me peace.”

The "buchu", Agathosma betulina and Agathosma crenulata, plant has been used medicinally for Centuries, possibly millennia, in the Cape, and is also used as a sign of respect.

Perhaps in death Sarah Baartman will receive the respect and find the peace that were denied her in life.


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    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 5 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for that, Jack, and hopping over to you Hub right now!

    • Jack White profile image

      Jack White 5 years ago from Ormeau Road, Belfast, Ireland

      Excellent hub!

      Sexual deviance and racism are obviously fellow travellers.

      Perhaps you will check out my hub, a chara?

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Laughing loon - thank you for coming by and commenting!

      Love and peace


    • laughing loon profile image

      Lynda -Bailey 7 years ago from South Los Angeles

      A powerfull story that needs to be told. Thank you.

    • profile image

      joey 7 years ago

      did you know that we are all connected to eachother by 15 people? and man this is so sad that i dont know what to say

    • profile image

      snow_white88 7 years ago

      wow..... very informative and mind opening....

    • Chris Eddy111 profile image

      Chris Eddy111 7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you for this hub. When I read about Sarah, I was so outraged even though it had taken place a long time ago.

      We may be different on the outside and that's part of our beauty but inside we share much. We are all one and until we understand that we will suffer. It takes all of us to make our world a better place.

    • no body profile image

      Robert E Smith 8 years ago from Rochester, New York

      This is the most horrifying thing I think I have ever heard. The way I love my daughter. The way I love my wife. They are my heart. It makes me ashamed to be white. My aunt did a geneology to see if the Smith's (my family) that came here were Captain John Smith's (of Plymouth Rock). She went back generation after generation and came across something that stopped her geneological hunt. A Smith (a white man) married a Smith (a black woman) that produced my family line. My aunt was a Mormon lady and of course to her that meant that the black half polluted the whole family. I am so sickened that humanity is so depraved to do these kinds of things to one another. I am greatly effected by this and thank you so much for it. I will always remember Sara.

    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 8 years ago from Ohio

      This is such a moving story. The more I learn about racism....the more I recognize the connections from then to now. The subtle promotion of racism is perhaps the most dangerous of all. The story of Sarah Baartman should be required study in all high schools.

      Great work on this. Thank you.

    • Beth100 profile image

      Beth100 8 years ago from Canada

      I am speechless. This is powerful! Thank you for sharing a piece of history that I have not read. Racism, abuse, silence and isolation...imagine the terror that she lived in on a daily basis. May her soul rest in peace, now that she is home.

    • profile image

      Mpumi Bikitsha 8 years ago

      Both Zakes Mda's Madonna in Excelsior and Alan Paton's Too late the Phalarope are a sad and painful example of emotional destruction caused by stupid policies enforced on humanity. Thanks Toni for this hub.

    • profile image

      ESAHS 8 years ago

      "Very powerful written hub and well written!"

      "Two thumbs up!"

      CEO E.S.A.H.S. Association

    • idealjanoo profile image

      idealjanoo 8 years ago

      interesting story

    • Steve Rensch profile image

      Steve Rensch 8 years ago

      Why no men commenting? I think most of us don't know what to say in the face of this kind of brutality, which was clearly the creation of the male mind. I hope that most people make love for union, but there are certainly those for whom sex is primarily about domination and control. For those people, the link between sex and racism (slavery) is a natural one. I do believe that the domination and degradation of women is about more than just black women, just as religious persecution is about more than just Jews. For what it's worth, I will be publishing a hub in the next two days giving my explanation of those (I believe) broader manifestations of the problem.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for all the comments, which I deeply appreciate. This is an ugly subject and I thought quite hard about whether to publish this or not. I think in the end though the need for people to know these things is greater than my squeamishness. I find it interesting that so far only one man has commented!

      As for the word "kaffir" I think maybe more needs to be said. From Wikipedia I found this:

      "The word kaffir, sometimes spelt kaffer or kafir, is an offensive term for a black person, most common in South Africa and other African countries. Generally considered a racial or ethnic slur in modern usage, it was previously a neutral term for black southern African people.

      "The original meaning of the word was 'heathen', 'unbeliever' or 'infidel', from the Arabic 'kafir'.[1] Portuguese explorers used the term generally to describe tribes they encountered in southern Africa, probably having misunderstood its etymology from Muslim traders along the coast. European colonists subsequently continued its use.[2] Although it was in wide use between the 16th and 19th centuries, and not generally seen as an offensive term, as racial tensions increased in 20th century South Africa and the surrounding countries, it became a term of abuse."

      And from an interesting blog posting by South African constitutional expert Pierre de Vos this:

      "This term [i.e."kaffir"] has an ugly history in South Africa and was almost exclusively used by white racists as a gross generalisation to denigrate black South Africans. To be called a “kaffir” is to be called a lazy and stupid person. But the assumption behind the word is that by being lazy and stupid, one is merely behaving as all black people always behave — as white people expect and know all black people to behave. So even when a white person is called a “kaffir”, the recipient of the insult is being told that he or she is just as lazy and stupid as all black people are known to be by all racist white people." from

      This is a powerful and interesting blog posting by De Vos and should be widely read.Somehow the power of words to hurt and destroy people needs to be better understood so that we all think a bit before we speak.

      Thanks again

      Love and peace


    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 8 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      I would never have know if you hadn't written this, Tony. So sad. I'm feeling so choked up for her. So mad. What a most beautiful poem by Ferrus. Thank you so for sharing.

    • TheMindlessBrute profile image

      TheMindlessBrute 8 years ago from Orlando,Florida


      Thank you for telling her story and I long for the day that racism itself is put to rest.This is the perfect reminder,to me, of the reasons why.This is an excellent hub!

    • profile image

      Makiwa 8 years ago

      My heart goes out to Sarah - a good piece Tony - well done

      Interesting - it is strange that when men get together their little brains (the ones between their legs) dominate all of their thoughts. Now I am sounding sexist? well your comments are all about what men think. When a few housewives get together for morning tea, glass of wine or a gin & tonic in the evening and the topic comes up about 'the garden boy' who is having a run of bad luck. 'Ag shame man' may be heard or 'can't we do something?'. This does not mean we want to have sex with a kaffir as you so nicely put it. You are not wrong though, that is exactly what men are about. I think it is a way of distraction - just in case their own thoughts are in question. (a bit like the gay thing?)

      Perhaps you can answer a question - why is it that the word 'kaffir' is such an insulting word? my understanding is that, in the old days of the tribes and the kraals and the settlers etc. It was used by blacks to describe a person of disgrace. The law was that when a black man did a bad thing, stealing, raping or murder, they would be cast out by the chief to wander alone - a nomad, with no place to call home. They - the blacks - called these people kaffirs. This is their own word - yes it does mean a bad person (perhaps guilty without trial but a pointed stick from the witch docter?), but I think that it is not the word that is offencive it is in the manner that it is said and implied? When the farmers had missing cattle or something bad had happened they would go around questioning 'has there been any kaffirs hanging around' and this was acceptable at that time.

      Why do white people screw everything up?

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Sarah is at last at peace. Great hub, thanks

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 8 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Such a tragedy. Truly a sad case of mans inhumanity to (wo)man.

    • profile image

      Writer Rider 8 years ago

      Both cause distruction and caous.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 8 years ago from The Other Bangor

      I can't even comment on this one, Tony -- the obscenity inherent in such racism is indeed shameful. Poor Sarah!