Repatriation of Human Remains

  • Posted: Aug 10, 2012

“Our museums must be transformed to become centres of heritage and expertise which respect all peoples and cultures. No museum must have a collection or material that depicts any section of the South African population as colonial objects, more so the indigenous people.

Therefore, all museums in South Africa need to urgently undertake an enquiry into the ethics of their human remains collection. They must ensure that none of the material was collected through dehumanizing and racist methods.

The Department of Arts and Culture will work closely with the museum sector to ensure that this important national process takes place in accordance with national policy.

We have seen some positive action already. It is encouraging that Iziko Museums in Cape Town, one of South Africa's national flagship museums, has already investigated the ethics of its collection.

The museum decided that all human remains bought from grave robbers or acquired for racial research were unethically collected and needed to be returned. We congratulate Iziko Museums for subsequently removing from their collection, all unethically collected human remains. “

Excerpt from President Jacob Zuma’s speech at the burial ceremony on Sunday, 12 August 2012

Click here to read the full text of the speech. 

In September 1909, the bodies of the KhoeSan couple Klaas and Trooi Pienaar were stolen from their graves near Kuruman in the Northern Cape at the behest of the Austrian anthropologist Dr Rudolf Pöch.  Their bodies were manhandled, placed in a large barrel, preserved with salt, and shipped to Austria for racial – and racist – research, eventually landing up in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

This incident is one of hundreds that occurred throughout southern Africa during colonial times – and even into the early 20th century.  European and South African scientists were operating in the false belief that there were different human ‘races’, the physical remains of which could be measured to ‘prove’ the superiority of Europeans over everyone else.  Today we know there is no biological basis for ‘race’, but this deeply flawed colonial science was dedicated to building this fiction by even violent means. This legacy remains with us today.  These scientists were  especially fascinated with ‘Bushmen’, whom they thought were on the brink of extinction; it was therefore the responsibility of ‘science’ to collect information and preserve the remains of ‘pure’ Khoe and San people for study in universities and museums.  This period in our history caused enormous pain and trauma that we are only now beginning to address and heal. Many people think ‘San’ to be extinct’, but there are least 120 000 southern Africans who regard themselves as San.  While they may not all live as hunter-gatherers, they retain a strong a sense of cultural identity.

Sunday’s reburial of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar – who were repatriated from Austria on 20 April 2012 - is a another step in a long process of righting the wrongs of the past; following in the footsteps of the reburial of Sara Baartmann in 2002 and people from Mapungubwe in 2008.

Learning from this painful past, museums like Iziko are proactively seeking ways to return not only the physical remains of people collected over the last 300 years, but also to restore the humanity of these people and the dignity of their descendants. Iziko is the first South African museum to have a formal policy on the dignified care and return of human remains.  This policy governs, among other things, the acquisition, documentation, storage, research and return of human remains in its collection.  Iziko Council Member, Professor Ciraj Rassool, and Iziko staff, including the Director of Social History Collections, Lalou Meltzer, and the Curator of Archaeology, Dr Sven Ouzman, have been advising the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) on the process of repatriation of human remains in the absence of a national policy.  Iziko will be one of the stakeholders involved in assisting DAC to draft this important policy.

Ciraj Rassool is a Professor of History and acting Co-Director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.  With Professor Martin Legassick, he wrote the pioneering work Skeletons in the Cupboard: South African Museums and the Trade in Human Remains, 1907-1917.

Iziko holds over 1000 human remains obtained legally from archaeological excavations and from the rescue of remains from development projects, as well as unethically collected remains taken for race-based science.  Dr Sven Ouzman and his team – Erica Bartnick, Wilhelmina Seconna and Fosche Munzhedzi – are researching the circumstances of these unethical collections and recommendations are being forwarded to Iziko and DAC on how best to go about returning the remains of these people to the communities and places from which they originally came.  This is a project of national and international significance.  At present, six Australian Aboriginal ancestral remains from Iziko are in the process of being returned to their descendant communities. The repatriation of the Pienaars and the Aboriginal Australian ancestral remains marks the beginning of a South African determination to deal with the legacy of its unhappy colonial past.

“This event is not only an opportunity to redress an injustice of the past, but it also serves to humanise persons who were deprived of their human rights.  Klaas and Trooi Pienaar were members of someone’s family and they are as important as our liberation heroes.  They represent every human being’s right to dignity and respect – in both life and death.  Iziko Museums is honoured to be a part of a process of reclaiming these rights,” says Iziko Museums CEO, Rooksana Omar.

Ms Omar, Ms Meltzer, Dr Ouzman and Executive Director: Core Functions, Mr Bongani Ndlovu will be at the reburial ceremony in Kuruman on September 12th.  State President, Mr Jacob Zuma, will also attend the event.

  • A PDF version of Iziko Museum’s Policy on the Management of Human Remains in Iziko Collections is available for download HERE.
  • An excerpt from Skeletons in the Cupboard: South African Museums and the Trade in Human Remains, 1907-1917 is available for download HERE.  Thank you to First Coast Technologies for their assistance in digitizing the excerpt for download.
  • The programme for the reburial ceremony in Kuruman on September 12th, issued by the Department of Arts and Culture, is available for download HERE.

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