News

UCT to repatriate 9 Khoi skeletal remains obtained unethically in the 1920s

Sakhi Dlala

Cape Town  – The University of Cape Town will embark on a process to repatriate 9 ancestral remains of Nothern Cape people believed to have been slaves whose remains were given to the University by a farmer from the area in the 1920s.

The institution held a joint press briefing, with family members identified as relatives of the remains, where it expressed its intentions to institute a process to repatriate the remains.

Background

The University said that during  a recent archiving audit of its skeletal collection, biological anthropologist, Dr Victoria Gibbon discovered that 11 of its 1021 skeletons were obtained unethically in the 1920s. Nine of these are believed to be Khoi ancestors.

The university then embarked on a process to trace the background of these remains and in a process headed by social development specialist Doreen who located the remains as people who were captured and forced to work as slaves in a farm near Sutherland in the Northern Cape.

The remains which were buried at Kruisrivier Farm in Sutherland were brought to the University in the 1920s by a farmer named C.G Coetzee. The University and the agricultural association of Sutherland have been unable to trace the descendants of the farmer.

UCT Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said: “it is not unusual for universities to receive skeletons for teaching and research purposes. Usually these skeletons come to us as a result of a bequest – people who donate their bodies for educational purposes, or whose families do so- or as donation from the State.”

Phakeng said that, although they could not confirm that the remains were left undisturbed in their storage, there was no evidence to suggest that UCT staff conducted any research on them.

Repatriation

Only nine of the eleven remains have been identified and the University is still studying the remaining two. Eight of the nine identified remains were buried at Kruisrivier farm while one was buried in Sutherland. Their names and estimated dates of death are:

  • Cornelius Abraham – 1878
  • Klaas Stuurman – 1879
  • Saartijie Stuurman – 1880
  • 1st child of Klaas & Saartijie Baartman – Before 1880
  • 2nd child of of Klaas & Saartijie Baartman – Before 1880
  • Totje – 1888
  • Jannetjie – 1875
  • Voetjie – 1913
  • One individual has not been identified but his estimated date of death is 1885 in Sutherland.

Social development specialist Doreen Februarie said that she is yet to locate the Abraham family and urged anyone with information that could assist the process to comes forward.

UCT apologizes for its ‘mistake’

Phakeng apologized for UCT’s complicity in this injustice saying: “while it is impossible to undo the the injustices that these men, women, and children received during their lifetime, we hope this process of repatriation will go some way to restore the dignity that was stolen from them, to recognize them as fellow human beings, and to give their descendants the opportunity to remember and honor their ancestors.”

“This finding presents a transformational moment for the institution- a moment in which we acknowledge and apologize unreservedly for an institutional mistake and ensure that going forward we never repeat a mistake of this magnitudes and that we continue to forge an inclusive institution which operates under the highest possible ethical code”, continued Phakeng.

While UCT describes this storage of skeletal remains as a mistake, research done by PhD student Wandile Kasibe indicates that the smuggling of remains from the graves of African people by Europeans was common practice by race anthropologists such as Felix Von Luschan as part of a bigger race eugenics project used to establish racial classifications of populations and justify oppression.

Ciraj Rassool and Martin Legassick cited in Kasibe’s column on News24 noted that Von Luschan had ordered the bones of a ‘Bushwoman’ while she was still alive. Von Luschan’s collection of African ancestral remain is held by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

In his research, while in Washington DC, Kasibe also discovered that the Smithsonian Museum held five skeletal remains of ancestors from South Africa.

“I was very troubled to see the bones of five South Africans from Port Alfred, again nameless with handwritten labels on their skulls in India Ink which sinks into the bone, permanently marking them as a number, a K-word and the fact that they are from the Cape Colony, South Africa. I just paused and looked at them for a second with a sense of numbness within me,” lamented Kasibe.

What about reparations?

Asked whether it had any plans of financial reparations for the families’ emotional and spiritual alienation with their ancestors, Phakeng said their were no engagements on that as yet. She said that any possibility of that would need to consider that the university was not involved in initiating the acquisition of the remains and that they were brought to the University by the farmer mentioned above.

Alfred Stuurman thanked the University for its efforts in repatriating the remains. He said that as consultations are still ongoing, between the University, families and traditional leaders, the possibility of reparations would need to be discussed by all relevant stakeholders but it was something he is personally not opposed to given the spiritual harm his family suffered as a result of this.

You can watch the full press conference here.

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