Stolen slave bones to go back to their Khoi families
The skeletons of 11 enslaved farmworkers were ‘donated’ to UCT 100 years ago
For a hundred years, the bones of 11 enslaved Khoi farmworkers lay silently in a university collection, deaf to debates of transformation and restorative justice unfolding among the living.
They had died in the 1800s, and around 1920 a farm owner near the tiny Karoo town of Sutherland “donated” them to the University of Cape Town.
There, they have been part of a collection of 1,021 skeletons procured over more than a century for the purpose of research and furthering scientific knowledge.
But recently, biological anthropologist Dr Victoria Gibbon was tasked with digitising the collection’s data and noticed something unusual: while most skeletons had been ethically procured, 11 had seemingly made their way into the archive in an unethical manner.
Now, the university wants to return the bones to their rightful resting place, where their descendants still live.
“The skeletal collection is tightly controlled at UCT,” vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said on Thursday. When the discovery was made earlier this year, “research immediately began on finding the descendants”.
Phakeng said it would be “impossible” to undo the injustices of the past, but the university wished to “restore dignity” to those from whom it was stolen a century ago.
According to Loretta Feris, deputy vice-chancellor of transformation at the university, it has been a “very difficult journey” for UCT, as it had to “recognise that when the university received and stored the bones in the 1920s, it became implicit in the injustice to this community”.
Last week, representatives of the Sutherland community had met UCT and reported they had no knowledge of the bones of workers on the farm Kruisrivier being dug up by farmer CG Coetzee and “donated” to UCT.
The incident stands in sharp contrast to the 1,000-plus other skeletons in UCT’s collection, which were either donated by individuals in their wills, or by their family members, or which appeared due to erosion (by wind, water and tides) or through development.
While a long and careful journey lies ahead, the “informal process of meeting with community members and paying respects and apologising for UCT’s role” was under way, said Feris.
Andre Stuurman, who still lives near Sutherland and has been identified as a descendant of the deceased, said it was “a dream come true” for him and his community when parts of their past came to light through this process.
Nine of the 11 skeletons have been identified as coming from a single farm, and four of them are Stuurmans — including a couple called Klaas and Saartjie Stuurman and two of their children.
Another is named as Cornelius Abraham, while three (Totje, Jaanetjie and Voetjie) do not have their surnames recorded. The last of the nine has neither a name nor surname recorded.
From the limited documentation, it appears as if one died of tetanus, two from old age, and one from being murdered. The children are likely to have died from the illness.
When the 11 skeletons were discovered, said Gibbon, they were immediately “sealed and separated” from the rest of the collection. Fortunately, they had not been used for research.
Public participation consultant Doreen Februarie was brought in, and she described how “shocked and stunned” the community was on hearing the news.
She said the next step will follow section 36 of the Heritage Act, which says a public advert must be sent out “to find affected families in Sutherland and beyond”. After that, the process of returning the skeletons to their place of origin can begin so that they can “rest near their families”.