The skeletal remains of nine Khoisan people will be returned to their descendants by the University of Cape Town (UCT). The university is working with the community of Sutherland in the Northern Cape to return the remains of the people, believed to have been captured and forced to become farm labourers in the 1800s.
According to UCT’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, it was discovered recently that the institution’s skeletal collection in the Faculty of Health Sciences comprised of some skeletons that were obtained unethically in the 1920s. Apparently the nine members of the Khoisan community died in the 19th century according to documentation after being captured and forced to work as slaves on Kruis Rivier farm in Sutherland.
Professor Phakeng said at a media briefing that UCT was shocked by the discovery of what she termed as a “shameful chapter” in its history. She said that the university is working with the community and the descendants in a joint process to return the remains.
“While we know from our work with the national government that many skeletons of South Africans in the 19th century were treated similarly, there is as yet no precedent for returning skeletons to their places of origin. Therefore we met with the families to ask for their advice and assistance,” she explained.
Phakeng indicated that it was not uncommon for universities to collect skeletons in a securely controlled and ethical way for teaching and research purposes. UCT presently has 1 021 human remains in its collection that provide assistance to academics to understand how our species has developed over time and adapted to different environments.
“Usually these skeletons come to us as the result of a bequest – people who donate their bodies for educational purposes, or whose families do so – or as donations from the state” Phakeng clarified.
Upon the discovery of the documentation of the Sutherland skeletons the university started exploring how the remains could be returned to rest near their descendants. It was ultimately discovered that the remains were related to members of the Stuurman and Abraham families in the Sutherland area. Social development specialist Doreen Februarie helped UCT to trace the relatives.
One of the descendants, Alfred Stuurman, was relieved when the news regarding the remains broke and indicated it had solved a long-time mystery, over which his family had been grief-stricken, not knowing what happened to his forebears.
“I knew about the existence of the Stuurman family, but I could never put my finger on it. We now know where we come from” Alfred Stuurman said.
His niece Sensa Mietas, equally relieved and elated said: “It was a big shock at first. But I am very relieved. I was also very happy to realise that there are people who care.”
“We now have the opportunity to work with the community of Sutherland to see that justice is done … not just to those who were removed from their graves, but also to the descendants,” Professor Phakeng stated.
The university intends to provide the families with a biological report, to provide more information to the descendants on the lives and deaths of their ancestors.
According to Dr Victoria Gibbon, the curator of the skeletal remains, the records so far provide evidence that the remains of four men, two women and two children were found on the farm Kruis Rivier. The ninth skeleton is that of an unknown individual also found in Sutherland. The adults probably died between 1875 and 1890, while the children died some time before 1880. Gibbon said two of the adults seemed to have been elderly when they died and the children were likely to have died as a result of illness. The records further suggest that one adult may have been murdered, while another had tetanus (lockjaw), which is a serious bacterial infection that causes painful muscle spasms and may lead to death.
“We hope that this process of repatriation will go some way to restore the dignity that was stolen from them, to recognise them as fellow human beings, and to give their descendants the opportunity to remember and honour their ancestors. Thus, the finding presented a transformational moment for the institution – a moment in which we acknowledge and apologise unreservedly for an institutional mistake and ensure that we continue to forge an inclusive institution which operates under the highest possible ethical code”, Phakeng concluded.