/ 8 November 2019

Restoring dignity to Khoe, San remains

UCT’s Dr Victoria Gibbon
UCT’s Dr Victoria Gibbon, curator of human remains at the faculty of health sciences. (David Harrison/M&G)



A University of Cape Town (UCT) project set up to identify and rebury the remains of several Khoe and San individuals could set the benchmark for how universities and museums reconcile their roles in holding unethically obtained human remains in their property.

This week UCT announced results of its Sutherland Project, a programme two years in the making, during which the skeletal remains of nine people were identified in the university’s collection. Permission from their community was sought and the bodies were then analysed and identified. There are plans to return the bodies for reburial.

The remains were identified during an audit of the university’s skeletal collection in 2017 by UCT’s Dr Victoria Gibbon, curator of human remains at the faculty of health sciences.

The remains came into the university’s possession after being donated in the early 20th century by a medical student from the Kruisrivier farm in Sutherland. These bodies are believed to have been dug up from a cemetery on the farm. “The only thing that we know is that they were known by the donor and that they were buried, dug up by the owner of the farm and brought to the university,” Gibbon said.

Available records identify seven of the remains by their first names, and two by their surnames. This meant university staff could return to Sutherland, trace remaining relatives and engage in a consultative process on how to go about analysing the remains — eventually returning them to the area.

Gibbon said there is no legislation to govern the reburial of human remains unethically obtained for research purposes. She said UCT had established its own practices to engage with the Sutherland community, while retaining the dignity of the individuals. “We had an administration that was ready to proceed with the restitution on their own without waiting for government … We didn’t study the remains. The remains had been sealed when we realised [how they were obtained], so the decision to study the remains was in the power of the community and, particularly, the family,” Gibbon said.

“What took place here in the 1920s was taking place all across the country at that time. It’s not [just] a UCT story. At that time [although] it was … unethical it wasn’t illegal and this was common practice across the country. We acknowledge that was wrong and today we absolutely don’t engage in those processes,” Gibbon said.

This project has brought to light the scores of unethically obtained human remains in the custody of academic institutions and museums.

Dr Bongani Ndhlovu, an executive director at the Iziko South African Museum, said currently the museum has about 160 unethically obtained remains of human beings in its care.

These had been collected by scientists from the late 1800s. The remains are mostly of indigenous black people of South Africa and were used for the purposes of now-debunked race science. “The main objective was to prove that some individuals were lesser than [others]. It was based on the theory of white superiority … The objective was to prove that Khoe and San people were less than white people,” he said.

The museum is now engaged in a process with the government to develop legislation that will assist institutions with guidance on what to do with remains that have been unethically sourced. This is being coupled with consultations with local communities about how to not add further indignity to the remains.

“In 2001 the museum started engaging in a process with a number of communities [about] what needed to be done. We had a conference [attended by] 500 people; 441 of those people came from 36 Khoe-San communities,” he said.

But Ndhlovu said there is complexity in engaging with various communities, which may have different views on what to do with the remains. “There are strong arguments … that say subjecting these remains to DNA testing is subjecting them to the same processes that dehumanised those individuals. They’re saying that by … testing those bodies they are reinscribing their inhumanity,” Ndhlovu said.

“We need to be guided by communities. We need to take their lead in what they would like us to do. We need to find mechanisms [through which] communities are able to find closure.”