Internationally renowned South African poet, writer, and activist for marginalised groups, Diana Ferrus, was born on 29 August 1953 in Worcester, Cape Province (now Western Cape), as the third of six children. The daughter of Ann and Jacobus Ferrus, she is of mixed heritage, including Irish and Khoisan.
Ferrus attended the Dutch Reformed Mission School before going to Esselen Park High School, where she matriculated in 1972. She then enrolled at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 1973, however, the university was closed later that year in June as a result of protests. When it finally reopened, Ferrus was unable to return due to financial constraints. Consequently, she started working but later managed to resume her studies, part-time, in 1988.
In 1991, Ferrus started working as an administrator in the Department of Industrial Psychology. Two years later she completed her BA degree with Industrial Psychology and Sociology as her majors before studying for her Honours in Women’s and Gender Studies in 1997, completing it in 1999. She then pursued her Masters; her thesis topic was Black Afrikaans women writers: the joy and frustration of the writing process.
Ferrus began writing poetry at the age of fourteen. Her poems focus on personal, political, social, and historical themes.
Her poem, I’ve come to take you home, is a tribute to Sarah Baartman, the Khoi woman who was taken from her country of birth (South Africa) under false pretences to be displayed as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe. Ferrus wrote the poem while studying at Utrecht University in Holland in 1998. Feeling incredibly homesick, she started thinking about how Baartman must have felt being in a foreign land far away from her home and this prompted her to start writing.
The poem became a catalyst for the return of Baartman’s remains to South Africa, persuading the French government to finally transport her remains back to her home country after 192 years. It was so impactful that it was included in the bill that allowed for Baartman’s remains to be repatriated, and was thus published in the French law (a first in French history) that made it possible for her remains to be returned. Ferrus, along with a delegation from South Africa, left to collect Baartman’s remains and in early 2002, Baartman arrived in Johannesburg, Gauteng, and was at last laid to rest on 9 August 2002.
In 2018, an exhibition titled Inter-resting times was held at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, Western Cape, in which Ferrus’ poem was translated and placed next to the crate that Baartman’s remains were once carried in.
Keeping with the theme of slavery, Ferrus also took part in a ceremony organised by the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) in 2015, which was in honour of the Mozambican slaves who lost their lives (as well as those who survived but were later sold into slavery) while on-board the Portuguese slave ship, São José, which ran aground off the Cape coast in 1794. Ferrus wrote the poem, My naam is Februarie (My name is February), as a tribute to the slaves.
Ferrus’ other works include an anthology called Convergences (2005), which she co-wrote with Sipho Mathathi and Wendy Woodward, Kyk, dis my pa (Look, this is my father), also published in 2005, is a collection of short stories on fathers and daughters – a project by White and Black women – an Afrikaans collection of poetry, Ons Komvandaan (We come from there) published in 2006, and an English collection, I’ve come to take you home (2011). Included in this collection are Dark red flowers (a poem dedicated to her mother who died in 1997), The African drum, as well as For Sarah Tait, a poem dedicated to her Irish great-grandmother who came to South Africa as an indentured servant.
Ferrus joined a women’s writers group called WEAVE (Women’s Education and Artistic Voice Expression). The group published a collection of works in 2002, and in it, Ferrus’ short story, Sarah will be home, a story of restoration, and the poem, I’ve come to take you home, were included. Ferrus is also a founder member of Bush Poets (an all-women poet group from UWC – ‘Bush’ was the derogatory name given to the university in the early 1960s), the Afrikaans Writers Association (Afrikaanse Skrywersvereniging), as well as the women’s writers association, Women in X-chains.
Ferrus has read at various public occasions, rallies, and community celebrations all over the world. In 2007, she received the Minister’s Award for Women from the Western Cape Provincial Department of Arts and Culture in honour of her contribution to the empowerment of women. In April 2012, the Diana Ferrus Writing Project was launched by the Metro East unit of the Western Cape Education Department.
- Ekine, S. (2012). I’ve come to take you home: interview with Diana Ferrus. [online]. Available at: http://blacklooks.org/2012/09/ive-come-to-take-you-home-interview-with-diana-ferrus/. (Accessed on 15 April 2021)
- Ferrus, D. (2005). Profile: Diana Ferrus. [online]. Available at: http://dianaferrus.blogspot.com/2005/07/profile-diana-ferrus.html. (Accessed on 14 April 2021)
- Syracuse University. (2014). South African poet, activist Diana Ferrus to Lecture Sept. 29. [online]. Available at: https://news.syr.edu/blog/2014/09/19/south-african-poet-activist-diana-ferrus-to-lecture-sept-29-86612/. (Accessed on 14 April 2021)
- The Journalist. (2015). Not just a shipwreck: poet Diana Ferrus. [online]. Available at: http://www.thejournalist.org.za/spotlight/not-just-a-shipwreck-poet-diana-ferrus/. (Accessed on 14 April 2021)
- The Journalist. (2018). Saartjie Baartman’s final resting place. [online]. Available at: http://www.thejournalist.org.za/spotlight/saartjie-baartmans-final-resting-place/. (Accessed on 14 April 2021)
- The New Black Magazine. (2007). A poem for Sarah Baartman. [online]. Available at: http://blacklooks.org/2007/10/a_poem_for_sarah_baartman/. (Accessed on 14 April 2021)