Brutalised in life and death, Khoi-San farmworkers get a...


Brutalised in life and death, Khoi-San farmworkers get a final resting place

A century ago, the graves of people who were forced to work on a farm in the Roggeveld were desecrated. Then their remains were unethically donated to the University of Cape Town. Now, after modern technology helped families to piece together their ancestors' story, their remains are to be reburied, writes ELSABÉ BRITS.

Eight of the nine people from Sutherland whose faces were reconstructed. The skull of the ninth, a man named Totje, was missing from his skeleton.
Eight of the nine people from Sutherland whose faces were reconstructed. The skull of the ninth, a man named Totje, was missing from his skeleton.

THEY are finally going home. Eight farm workers who were buried on a Karoo farm before their bones were dug up and sent to the University of the Cape Town (UCT) are being returned to the Northern Cape.

There, where the landscape belonged to them and their ancestors for thousands of years, their descendants will lay them to rest once again.

These Khoi-San — four men, two women and two children — died between 1875 and 1913. The men were Klaas Stuurman, Cornelius Abraham, Totje and Voetje; the women were Saartje and Jannetje; and the children, whose names are unknown, were a girl of between six and eight and a boy who was between four and six.

A ninth body, that of an unknown Khoi-San man who lived 700 years ago, was also part of the group whose bones were kept in boxes at UCT.

Unethically obtained

In February 2017, Dr Victoria Gibbon from UCT's Division of Clinical Anatomy and Biological Anthropology conducted an audit and determined that the bones were acquired unethically by today's standards. No permit was obtained for the excavation, and the individuals did not consent to donating their bodies for research.

“We immediately placed a moratorium on the bones and sealed them," she told a press conference in 2019.

The university established that the individuals came from Kruisrivier Farm near Sutherland. “It was found that Carel Gert Coetzee from this farm was a medical student at the university between 1925 and 1931. He ‘donated' these bones to the university between 1925 and 1927."

Two of the excavated individuals, Klaas Stuurman and Cornelius Abraham, were identified, leading to extensive consultations with their families and the community of Sutherland, facilitated by consultant Doreen Februarie and then-UCT deputy vice-chancellor Loretta Feris.

Gibbon expected that the families would not allow scientific studies to be conducted and that a reburial would have to take place promptly. However, the families wanted to know more. They agreed to facial reconstructions at the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University in UK, as well as genetic and biological studies by local and international experts.

Klaas Stuurman
Klaas Stuurman

The people and their genetics

According to Dr Stephan Schiffels from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, good genetic samples could be obtained for all nine individuals, which is not always possible.

Saartje, Jannetje and Klaas belonged to the Khomani and were related to each other, but were not siblings. Jannetje was a cousin to the other two.

Klaas and Saartje shared about 25% of their DNA. They were “double cousins", who emerge when, for example, two sisters marry two other brothers, or a brother and sister marry another  sister and brother.

According to stable isotope analysis, Klaas spent most of his life between Sutherland and Carnarvon. He died due to trauma to his skull, but the injury was such that death “would have been quick, and he wouldn't have suffered", said Gibbon. The skull of the unknown man from 700 years ago also showed severe trauma.

A girl who was between six and eight years old.
A girl who was between six and eight years old.

The girl and the boy were not related to each other or to the others. It is likely that these children, as was the custom, were captured to work on the farm.

The girl had severe malnutrition and contracted infections four times in her short life. She endured hardship. Who knows what became of their parents?

Professor Nigel Penn from the University of Cape Town's Department of Historical Studies said that for decades the area where the bodies were buried was the scene of conflict and bloodshed. Commandos shot Khoi-San people, especially men, then took women and children — including orphans — to farms as forced labour.

What makes it worse is that Coetzee might have known the people whose graves he desecrated, added Penn.

All of them had poor teeth and infections, which were not uncommon at the time. Gibbon said they were hardworking people who lived in difficult circumstances, people who persevered. The adults' bones showed signs of osteoarthritis due to hard work, and there was evidence of broken feet, noses, hands and cheekbones.

Chemical analysis showed they were from the local farming area. Teeth and bones reveal the type of food a person ate throughout their lifetime, and what you eat indicates the climate: in their case, they lived in an area with winter rainfall.

Even though they worked on a farm, three of them retained their culture. Perhaps in the evenings, around the fire, when they longed for it. The nature of the wear on their bones indicates that they regularly squatted — a characteristic of the San people.

Archaeologist Simon Hall with family members near the burial ground on Kruisrivier farm where the bodies were exhumed.
Archaeologist Simon Hall with family members near the burial ground on Kruisrivier farm where the bodies were exhumed.

Only seven of the bodies were buried in the farm's cemetery, says Prof Simon Hall from UCT's Department of Archaeology. The body of the unknown man from pre-colonial times was exposed during roadworks and taken to UCT, while the ninth was excavated from the surrounding slopes.

There are 39 graves in the relevant cemetery. Some have headstones, others have footstones. These probably belonged to Christian farmworkers.

There are also “stone platforms", a sign of the Khoi-San culture. These platforms are slightly raised on a mound of earth. Three of the graves that were disturbed  in the 1920s clearly indicate that Khoi-San burial rituals took place.

Identity stolen

Mamokgethi Phakeng, then vice-chancellor of UCT, said at the 2019 press conference: “One of the lies of the coloniser and of apartheid was that there was no culture here and that the land was not occupied. [The opposite] is no longer just based on oral history. We now have evidence." She added that these people's identity was stolen, just as their land was stolen.

“While it is impossible to undo the injustices they endured, we hope it will restore the dignity that was stolen from them and give their descendants the opportunity to remember them." According to her, this process has the potential to influence legislation on similar processes.

Feris said that when the bones were discovered at UCT, it was not a proud moment for the university. “We apologise to the country and to the communities for having been part of obtaining them unethically."

Anthony Mietas, representing both families, said: “This has been an extraordinary journey — from shock, emotion and disbelief to being excited about the results and gratitude for the dignity with which it was handled… We wanted to know. We also realise how fortunate we are that we could find out more, because other families were not granted such an opportunity.

Dignity restored

“It is about restoring the dignity of our ancestors. At some point in our lives we are all confronted with the questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? What is our heritage? And this is the result of a cruel system called apartheid."

What stood out for Mietas was being able to put faces to the people. “It was that moment, being able to look into their eyes. Now we can proudly tell our history to our descendants, all of which has come from the scientific data."

He said it has brought not only the families but also the community of Sutherland much closer together.

Everyone will be reburied in Sutherland's cemetery next year. It's as the people want it.

Anna de Wee, one of the family members.
Anna de Wee, one of the family members.

Anna de Wee, 77, was also at the press conference. She didn't have a turn to speak but sat in the second row at the front. Journalists who couldn't speak Afrikaans ignored her because she only speaks Afrikaans. She is from the Karoo.

In her day, she was also a farmworker, just like the people before her and Cornelius Abraham, to whom she is related. Her hands and face bear witness to her past.

“It's beautifully done, the faces they created," she said. How did she feel about the condition of the bodies?  “Yes, they worked terribly hard. Yes. But what can one say now? It is as it was."

♦ VWB ♦

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