Go back

UCT reburies ‘unethically’ sourced human remains

Image: Je'nine May/UCT

Remains, collected during “shameful chapter”, discovered in 2017 but pandemic and consultation delayed their return

This week the University of Cape Town in South Africa is reburying the remains of nine people from near Sutherland in the Northern Cape that were “unethically brought” to the university a century ago for study.

The remains belong to Khoekhoe and San people, indigenous to the area. Most are thought to have died in the 19th century and initially buried on the farm where they or their relatives worked in Sutherland. They appear to have been removed by the farm’s owner in the 1920s and brought to UCT by a medical student.  

The university discovered the remains in 2017 during an audit of its human skeletal collection. They were identified as members of the Abrahams and Stuurmans family, and found to have been brought to UCT without the consent of the deceased or their families.

After making the discovery, UCT embarked on an extensive public participation with communities in Sutherland that include descendants and relatives of the deceased. In 2019, the university announced a process of reburial, involving consultations with communities in Sutherland. Those consultations took longer than expected and the Covid-19 pandemic also delayed the process.

Facility renamed

In a long-planned series of events, the remains will be wrapped on Friday 24 November at UCT’s anatomy building, where two rooms will be blessed and renamed in their honour. The rooms were previously named after MR Drennan, the professor who accepted the remains from the medical student.

The remains will take the four-hour trip to Sutherland the following day. There, a church service will be held on Sunday with the reburial taking place afterwards at the town’s historic cemetery.

In a statement this week, UCT interim vice-chancellor Daya Reddy thanked everyone involved in the UCT reburial task team. “We acknowledge it is not possible to reverse the injustices the Sutherland Nine were subjected to over a century ago,” he said.

However, the process would allow UCT to “atone” for the “bleak chapter” in its past, Reddy said. “We have admitted to this wrongdoing, apologised for the injustice and acknowledged this as a shameful chapter in UCT’s history.”