It was Amilcar Cabral, who once uttered these words, “hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…”
I found myself haunted by these words whilst listening to UCT press conference about the Sutherland reburial of the unethically acquired human remains that were found locked in the colonial shelves of the UCT Anatomy Department in 2017. I first would like to commend the UCT Vice Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng for taking a bold step to face this dark past and bringing along UCT community and society to address these heinous colonial crimes committed on the African people by the violating hands of men and women of ‘science’.
In a post-apartheid environment such as South Africa, where a lot of human wrongs had been committed on the African majority, it takes a lot of courage to take the nation into your confidence by looking back into the ‘darker side of modernity’ and take responsibility for the wrongs of the past. This is never an easy task, especially for institutions whose very ‘DNA’ is codified and entangled in the colonial episteme, western systems of thought and knowledge production such as universities and museums.
Whilst I fully understand the fear of what Donald Rumsfeld calls the, “known knowns, the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns” that may ensue, should other colonial institutions such as museums take the same bold step taken by UCT and begin to publicly disclose of their own past wrongs, I equally feel that the time has come. In the era of human rights, decolonization, community participation and ethics, it is clear to me that the writing is on wall for all institutions that still harbour sensitive ‘material’ such as human remains of the vanquished communities either used for ‘educational’ purposes or kept for prestige to come out clean now rather than later.
My admiration for the forward looking step that UCT has taken in order to own up to the true meaning of its creed and motto, “Spes Bona”, meaning “Good Hope”, should not be misconstrued to be suggesting that the institution has now cleansed itself from the stigma of its tainted past. Unfortunately, such deep seated colonial injustices of human wrongs committed on the bodies of those who were deemed ‘lesser’ human being cannot be easily undone or wiped off through press conferences, engagements with families, interest groups, historians, biologists, bureaucrats, executive management, council, government and the media.
The colonial wounds are far too deep and will take a long time to heal if at all they will ever be healed. The moment these remains were acquired by the university decades ago, is the very moment at which their biographies and unspoken silences became intertwined with the institutional history and memory of the University and that UCT had no right to conduct DNA sampling on remains that were acquired unethically in the context of colonial violence.
The University is bound by natural law to restore the dignity of these families in whatever way possible.
Repatriation of these sacred human remains should also translate to the repatriation of the knowledge that was produced by those who studied them and eventually this knowledge should be made known to the public. Whilst these sacred mortal remains were acquired with an intention to dehumanize and ‘specimenize’ these Africans, the process of restoration of human dignity should be that of humanizing them to give them the respect and dignity they were never afforded at the time of their violation.
Whilst the focus and media frenzy is on the aforementioned 11 unethically acquired human remains, society still awaits the detailed disclosure and way forward regarding a mass grave and other unmarked graves that still lie beneath the soil of the University. These human remains are a stark reminder of a past that refuses to be forgotten, the one that is very much part of the present. Further to this, as society we don’t know if there are other undisclosed unethically acquired human remains and casts that are still being imprisoned in wooden and metallic shelves waiting to be “discovered” by the curator at the Anatomy department. Be that as it may, one day more truth will come out. In the whole socio-political miasma surrounding the “discovery” of these Africa individuals, nothing is being mentioned about how the curator initially denied the fact that these remains were used for race ‘science’ when I approached her in 2017.
In the interest of transparency and academic honesty, it must be put categorically that I am the one who brought it to the attention of the curator in 2017 that her Anatomy department was quietly harbouring unethically acquired human remains of African people and that these remains were used for nefarious colonial reasons of race construction. This information I got from the sources I had read and all what I needed was to verify this information. At the time she denied this fact and blindly defended the institution by counter arguing in her email response that “…the collection at UCT was not used as such past or present”.
It is quite interesting and equally disturbing to observe how the very same person who denied the fact that these mortal remains were subjected to processes of race construction is now hailed and paraded as the “champion”, how hypocritical. It’s paining to observe how white scholars and researchers use the collective pain of African people to boost their professional careers in the academy without even acknowledging people who pointed them in that direction. It would have cost the University and the curator nothing to publicly acknowledge that it was through my suspicion and pressure that I exerted on the curator that she ‘discovered’ the existence of these unethically acquired remains in 2017.
And that at the time I approached her to gain access to the collection, there question of the moratorium never featured in our communication and this suggests to me that there was no moratorium at that time. But again what would it mean for the Anatomy department and University to acknowledge that in fact the curator initially denied the violent and racist context in which these remains were collected and used and that she was made aware of this fact by a black candidate? And this question borders on who gets to be acknowledged and who gets to be marginalized?
To understand the gravity of this question one should go no further than the sad story of Hamilton Naki, a surgical and anaesthetic research assistant at the university when a young cardiac surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, began to further his research into open-heart and cardiopulmonary bypass surgery” And “when Prof Barnard performed the first heart transplant in Cape Town, thus bringing South Africa, the University of Cape Town, and the J.S. Marais Laboratory, international attention, it was Naki, by then a principal surgical assistant at the laboratory, doing research into liver transplants, who served as his anaesthetist”.
The most disturbing part about this story is that only Barnard got public recognition and credit for the collective effort and Naki’s names was pushed to the margins because of the pigmentation of his skin. But what do we expect from an institution that once denied access to black students from entering into the Medical School. Is our memory failing us so badly that we cannot remember that, “from 1959 to 1985 black students were required to obtain permission from the relevant Minister to attend a ‘white’ university. The 1983 University Amendment Act replaced the permit system to attend universities with a racially determined quota that universities were required to administer. Despite this, UCT was instructed not to admit African students to study medicine, and only admitted its first African medical student in 1985”.
I shared my experience with an elder who told me that, “I remember when my late brother attended anatomy classes Medical School whenever a white cadaver was brought in, the 10% quota of students who were black had to get up and leave the room”. It is this act of standing up and leaving the room that I was made to feel when I raised my suspicions about UCT’s unethically acquired human remains in 2017.
Wanidle Kasibe is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Cape Town and a Chevening Scholar.