When the stolen bodies of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar left their country of birth, South Africa in 1909, it was under the cover of darkness. Their dis-interred remains were packed into a container of salt in order to preserve their bodies and smuggled out of the country to their destination in Austria, where they were studiously examined in the name of science and later housed in a Museum in Vienna.
Even more remarkable, was the fact that their remains were not classed as human, but as cultural artifacts and were labeled in accordance to the specifications of such deemed objects.
In April, the remains of the married Khoisan couple returned to South Africa in a more dignified manner than when they first left the country. Klaas and Trooi Pienaar returned as citizens of a democratic South Africa. Their ancient bones were carried in two individual caskets, each draped with the new South African flag. Upon arrival at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, relatives of the couple along with Khoisan leaders welcomed them back in an emotional ceremony.
Klaas and Trooi Pienaar's journey home to South Africa, is like re-opening the wound of the racist colonialist era that deemed Indigenous Peoples a sub-human species.
In 1909, the bodies of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar were illegally exhumed from the farm where they had worked as farm laborers and were later buried after they had died, just a month apart from “malarial fever.”
According to the historian, Professor Ciraj Rasool whose research uncovered the Klaas and Trooi Pienaar story, a certain Mr. Mehnarto visited the farmer, claiming he had permission to exhume the bodies of the Khoisan couple. Mehnarto worked for Rudolph Pöch, a prominent Austrian anthropologist and racial scientist. Pöch collected San remains for his studies in racial science which set out to prove that people of color were inferior. It was this science that reportedly fed much of the Nazis’ racial thought.
Rasool said that the remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar were among at least 80 such remains that were stolen in the time that Pöch was in South Africa and shipped to Austria. Rasool pointed out that what set the Khoisan couple apart from the other stolen human remains, was that they left the country as whole bodies and were thus identifiable.
Rasool explained why the remains of Indigenous Peoples were so sought after by scientists in the past.
“Their bodies were studied for anthropometric studies by European scientists because there was a desire to place a question of race through a scientific basis. It was done in incredible detail. These studies were done even in 1930,” explained Rasool.
It was through research done by Rassol and his colleague Professor Martin Legassick that the discovery of the remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar was revealed. Rasool recalls vividly the day they had revealed their research findings to a stunned conference in Vienna in 2008; it had rendered some of the conference delegates to tears.
Pöch, the man who orchestrated the theft of the remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar and other Indigenous Peoples, is regarded as a pioneering scientist in his native Austria and according to Rasool, collected all kinds of cultural artifacts and all of these collections, human and otherwise, can be found in museums in Vienna.
The repatriation of the remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar represented a difficult and emotional negotiation spanning four years, between the South African Arts and Culture Ministry and their counterparts in Vienna.
While the Austrian government has issued a public apology over the remains of humans found in its museums, repatriation of human remains from museums is not as straightforward as the process might suggest.
In the case of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar, the museum had to begin a process of de-accessioning followed by a process of humanization of the remains. This meant that while they were initially classed as cultural artifacts, they were to be returned as humans and as citizens of South Africa.
Klaas and Trooi Pienaar's homecoming is viewed as the first step in having all South African cultural artifacts returned.
Rasool said: “This is only the beginning. Now together with our Austrian colleagues, we are putting together an inventory to see who else must be returned. There are South African remains in other parts of the world. It just so happens that we did research into this.”
It is not only European Museums which are being taken to task for their collections of human remains, local South African Museums have similarly begun a process of introspection and developed guidelines on the sensitive issue of returning the questionable collections of human remains.
The return of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar coincided with the 10th anniversary of the return to South Africa of Sara Baartman, whose remains were showcased in a Museum in France.
Baartman was a famous South African indigenous woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction, due to her unusual physique – according to racist western standards – in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus.
Rasool said of Sara Baartman's return to South Africa from Europe and the bid to return Indigenous Peoples’ remains from museums across the world to their country of birth for burial; “Sara stands for everything.”
Indigenous Peoples Rights Programme Manager at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Delme Cupido said that it is time that European governments properly acknowledge, apologize and make repatriations for the historic injustices perpetrated against the victims of colonialism, since this is an issue that will resonate for some time.
Cupido explained: “The South African government deserves credit for persisting in the quest to return the mortal remains of the Pienaars, and those of Sarah Baartman in 2002, but it is outrageous that they should have had to go to such extraordinary lengths to secure their return. All cultures and peoples have, since time immemorial, placed enormous significance on the fitting and dignified treatment of their dead, so there can be no moral, legal or ethical principle which would provide any justification for the recalcitrance shown by museums and other institutions which still have the remains of Africans locked up or on display. European governments, in particular, should recognize that the failure to honor our dead is an ongoing crime and the only decent response would be for them to proactively engage with our governments, Indigenous Peoples representatives and the descendants of the people stolen and dehumanized in this macabre fashion, in order to begin to bring to a close this dark chapter in the history of humanity.”
Meanwhile, Cecil Le Fleur who is the trustee of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) and the national Khoisan council said in reaction to the return of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar: “Of course it was long overdue. It was a shame what happened in colonial times; how Indigenous Peoples dignity was disregarded. It was a violation of human rights. (But) this is just the tip of the iceberg, there are still a lot of remains in Europe.”
The homecoming of the remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar as well as the return of the remains of Sara Baartman signals an important signpost in the journey of these stolen human remains returning to their place of birth to rest in dignity. However, the many other human remains of Indigenous Peoples that are still housed in museums, without acknowledgment of this horror by museum owners and governments, lingers like the proverbial skeleton in the closet of former colonial powers.