UCT has embarked on a process to return human remains, believed to be those of slaves, to their 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 conducting a full biological report to give the families, but so far the records showed that four of the skeletons were those of men, two women and two children, while the ninth skeleton was that of an unknown individual. She said most of the adults had died between 1875 and 1890, while the children had died some time before
“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 it was a chance for UCT to reflect
and learn from the past, as deeply distressing as the finding had
“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.”