Remains of ‘slaves’ to return home

At the briefing from left, are public participation consultant Doreen Februarie, UCT deputy vice-chancellor for transformation Professor Loretta Feris; vice-chancellor, professor Mamokgethi Phakeng; skeletal curator, Dr Victoria Gibbon; Alfred Stuurman and Sensa Mietas.

UCT has embarked on a process to return the remains believed to be those of slaves, to its descendants in Sutherland.

While the university has had the remains in its archives for nearly a century, it was only last year that it was discovered that 11 of the 1 021 skeletons had been obtained unethically.

This came after biological anthropologist and UCT skeletal curator, Dr Victoria Gibbon attended a meeting on ethical and unethical procurement of remains. Following the meeting, Dr Gibbon conducted an audit on the collection and made the discovery.

At a briefing on campus on Thursday October 11, Dr Gibbon said the remains had been brought to the university in the 1920s by a farmer named C.G Coetzee, who had dug them up. According to documents, the people had died in the 19th century, with nine of them believed to be Khoi people who had been captured and forced to work as slaves on the Kruisrivier Farm in the Northern Cape.

Dr Gibbon said they were in the process of conducting a full biological report to give the families, but so far the records showed that four of the remains were those of men, two women and two children, while the ninth skeleton is that of an unknown individual. She said most of the adults died between 1875 and 1890, while the children died some time before 1880.

“Two of the adults appeared to have been elderly when they died and the children likely died through illness. One adult had tetanus and records suggest that one adult may have been murdered.”

With the help of Doreen Februarie, a public participation consultant, they found the remains were likely to have been related to members of the Stuurman and Abraham families in the Sutherland area.

Earlier this month, a team from the university, led by deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, Professor Loretta Feris, visited the Sutherland community to meet with members of the Stuurman and Abraham families. They also met with community members, including local and government leaders, and traditional and religious leaders.

Professor Feris said it had been a difficult journey and a shock for the university and the Sutherland community.

“We can’t undo the injustice but we have the opportunity to work with the community to return the remains,” she said.

Alfred Stuurman, who attended the briefing, said he had always been curious about his family and what had happened to his forefathers.

He said this had been a dream come true for the family – who now knew where they came from.

UCT vice-chancellor, professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, said the university had to acknowledge its past and deal with uncomfortable parts of its heritage. “We hope that this process of restitution 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”.

Professor Phakeng said this provided UCT with an opportunity to reflect and learn from the past, as deeply distressing as the finding had been.

“While many of our discussions around transformation at UCT tend to be forward-looking and focused on where we want our institution to be, we need to have the courage and the honesty to confront our past and loosen its grasp on us.”