A Lecture by Ciraj Rassool
On April 19 2012, the handover of the human remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar took place in Vienna. After their return to South Africa, the human remains were repatriated in coffins under the legal and cultural status of bodies from the National history Museum in Vienna to Kuruman/ Northern Cape. In Kuruman they were buried as an act of state in August 2012.
The history that precedes this repatriation is an illuminating example of the entanglement of colonial rule and anthropological science: Between 1907 and 1909 the Austrian anthropologist Rudolf Pöch collected 80 skeletons and 150 skulls in the Kalahari desert in southern Africa. In Mai 2008 during a workshop about Rudolf Pöch two historians, Ciraj Rassool and Walter Sauer, intervened and restated the question of the repatriation of the skeletons of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar. After the positive identification of the skeletons in the Natural History Museum as Klaas and Trooi Pienaar, interminable negotiations finally decided on and prepared their return to South Africa.
As an attendant of the long process of negotiation in all its stages in Austria as well as in South Africa, Ciraj Rassool will explain and comment on the complex negotiation and decision making process. He will reflect the practice of such a delicate debate as the repatriating human remains of colonial provenance and will give his understanding of how this procedure can, in the best sense, contribute to “postcolonial justice”: As an act of mediation between the societies of the descendants – the so called interest groups – and the societies, whose state and academic institutions are responsible for the denial or the enactment of the repatriation. In the center of these issues is thus the question of how the state publicly deals with its history of violence and colonial perpetration. The repatriation contributes to a change of the object’s status – from one that was generated through scientific racism to a human remain, i.e. a corps.
The Charité in Berlin saw two other handovers of skulls and skeletons on the 30th September 2011 and the 4th March 2014. These were remains acquired in the colonial context of Namibia. The skulls of members of the Herero and Nama societies, killed in the German concentration camps in Shark Island, were brought to Germany as “skulls for scientific research”. The newly founded Charité Human Remains Project was able to identify their historical origins.
However, as Rassool points out, the impossibility for transformative politics hides in the details: The Charité did not repatriate these remains as corpses to Namibia but human remains – in this sense they were still “objects”. The return was enacted on a scientific level, not as an act of state. As Berlin still owes Namibia a bilateral act of state, the German government has still refrained from uttering a formal apology. These circumstances caused an éclat in 2007 as state minister Cornelia Pieper, invited as a guest to the Charité, left the building abruptly.
Ciraj Rassool, Cape Town (South Africa), is Professor of History and director of the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Western Cape. He has published numerous books and articles about museums, cultural heritage and the politics of remembrance in southern Africa. He is also chairperson of the board of the District Six Museum and former council chairperson of the Iziko museums of South Africa. Together with Martin Legassick he published “Skeletons in the Cupboard”, South African Museum, Cape Town, 2000.