Diana Ferrus - Cultural treasure at the University of the Western Cape
Sarah Baartman was born to a Khoisan family in the late 1700s in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa. She spent her early years on settler farms, living alongside slaves in several white households, and was finally exhibited in Europe as a freakish curiosity. Even after she died in 1816, her bones were displayed in public museums in France as an exhibit of what they considered the strangeness and deformities of her people.
And there she remained until UWC’s own Diana Ferrus wrote A Poem for Sarah Baartman in 1998 (included in her English poetry collection,I’ve Come To Take You Home) while studying at Utrecht University - a poem that stirred the hearts of poetry lovers and decision makers alike.
The poem ends with the powerful words:
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.
This powerful and moving poem helped lead to the decision to return Baartman’s remains to South Africa in 2002, where they rest in a grave in Hankey in the Eastern Cape - a blow to the dignity of a woman who died far from home, a stranger in a stranger land. The poem serves as a demonstration of the power of words to affect change in the world.
Ferrus, who lives in Kuils River, Cape Town and works at UWC’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, writes in both English and Afrikaans about matters of race, gender, class and reconciliation. She’s written several poems and books, and she is a popular performance poet, seen at many local and large out-of-province arts festivals. She strives to make sure her words have a real impact on the world.
The Heritage of Hankey: Remembering Sarah Baartman
In the town of Hankey in the Eastern Cape, there are new developments planned to improve Baartman’s grave and turn it into a worthy tourist destination. Executive Mayor Elza van Lingen confirmed a R164 million multi-purpose Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance building project was started around the gravesite, with arrangements to erect an auditorium, accommodation and a museum. Also on the cards - and of particular importance to UWC and Ferrus - Ferrus’s poem will shine through from the bottom of a pond in a symbolic garden once everything is completed.
Recently, Ferrus was asked to accompany a Dutch camera crew, NTR, to Hankey, where they were producing a documentary series (set to be broadcast in 2017) about the historical ties between South Africa and the Netherlands - from first contacts to slavery, the Groot Trek, Boer Wars, Apartheid and beyond.
Sarah Baartman is one of the topics they are devoting time to, and when the team stumbled upon Ferrus’s beautiful poem, they knew she had to be part of the film.
Ferrus is proud to be featured in this documentary, and even prouder of the way the community of Hankey responded to her presence.
“We visited a local primary school where I read a poem to them and we just informally started chatting about the history of the region, and of course about Sarah Baartman’s grave being part of the historical area,” she says. “We really bonded quickly, and the children seemed quite pleased that such an important landmark was part of their region.”
A Legacy of Literature
A UWC alumna as well as a staff member (she holds a Bachelor of Arts and BA Hons from the University), Ferrus believes in sharing the power of literature, leading writing workshops all over Cape Town. She is interested in recording the stories of black Afrikaans women. Her publishing company, Diana Ferrus Publishers, promotes local creatives in a number of languages, and as a founding member of the Afrikaans Skrywersvereniging (ASV), Bush Poets and Women in Xchains, she promotes Afrikaans creative writing, women poets and grassroots women writers respectively.
“Diana Ferrus is a dear friend who tirelessly empowers young people and adults in many marginalized communities to use the word to express themselves more effectively, countrywide, helping to restore and heal countless painful and evoke happy memories,” says fellow UWC alumna Belinda Jackson. “We are privileged to have Diana Ferrus in our midst on the campus of our beloved university. I call her ‘Angel of the Word’ - because that's what she is.”