What the Pienaar homecoming means

The bones’ return signifies an end to racist research

Klaas and Trooi Pienaar were not the only South Africans whose bones were shipped to Europe for racist experiments.

The Khoisan couple, whose remains were returned three weeks ago in coffins draped with South African flags, were not the only ones who celebrated Austrian anthropologist Dr Rudolf Pöch dug up and sent to his home country.

There are still 150 human skulls and 80 full skeletons left in Vienna’s Museum of Natural History – all South African, says Onkabetse Mereki, senior manager of heritage and museum services in the Northern Cape’s department of arts and culture.

Mereki says Pöch, considered by many to be the father of anthropology, trekked through the Northern Cape in 1909 on his ox wagon, violating graves and collecting bodies and human bones for racist research.

Pöch and his colleagues examined the skulls they stole to establish whether the brains of Africans were as large as those of Europeans.

“One body was cooked to separate the bones he needed for his research. All this was done with the blessing of the colonial government,” Mereki says.

Pöch’s “treasures” included the remains of 80 humans, including Klaas and Trooi Pienaar, whose fifth-generation descendents include Bafana Bafana captain Steven Pienaar.

Their story, and those of many others, were included in the book, Skeletons in the Cupboard: South African Museums and the Trade in Human Remains, 1907 to 1917, by Martin Legassick and Ciraj Rassool from North West University.

In 2002 the remains of Sarah Baartman were returned and reburied in the Eastern Cape’s Gamtoos River Valley.

She left Cape Town in 1810 and was exhibited in Europe as a sexual freak under the name “Hottentot Venus”.

Baartman died in 1815 and her body was used for research – waxed, dissected and her skeleton articulated. Her genitalia and brain were preserved and displayed at the Museum of Mankind in Paris.

Mereki says that when talks began to repatriate the Pienaar remains, the Austrian government “was in the process of honouring Pöch”.

“Then we came in and said, ‘He might be all that for you, but we have a different story to tell’.”

At her home outside the small Northern Cape town of Danielskuil, 74-year-old Anna Pienaar-Swarts, a fourth-generation descendent, says she can remember her grandparents telling her that Klaas Pienaar died in the early 1900s of the fly-borne disease, black fever.

Pienaar-Swarts’s cousin, Professor Abel Pienaar (41), from North West University’s health sciences faculty, says the family believed that Trooi Pienaar nursed her husband before she succumbed to the disease a month after he did.

They were buried on the farm Pienaarspoort, near the village of Ga-Mopedi in the district of Kuruman.

The provincial department is trying to locate the farm for their reburial, but for now their skeletons remain at a secret location in Joburg.

The research on the Pienaar couple was shared with Griqua and Khoisan representatives during an emotionally charged workshop, conducted by Rassool and the Northern Cape government.

Francis Pienaar, another fourth-generation descendent, who is part of the reburial committee, says: “When I think about my ancestors and the undignified way in which they were shipped out of their country, then I am angry.

“But I get excited thinking about the Pienaar family now being part of the unique history of South Africa and that we can leave a legacy for our children.”

Negotiations to return the couple’s skeletons took four years.

The sticking point? Whether they could be returned by post, as “heritage or cultural objects”, or in coffins, as humans.

“Austrian regulations do not allow for remains to be extradited as human beings,” says Mereki.

“The first suggestion by the Austrian government was to package their bones and send them by post or to send a package with a flight as part of its luggage.”

But the South African government insisted they be returned in coffins.

Northern Cape arts and culture spokesperson Patrick Montwedi says the Pienaar family has suggested two possible dates for the reburial.

“We have forwarded the dates – May 27 and June 9 – to the presidency to see which one suits them,” he says.

Department researcher Shane Christians says the Pienaars’ repatriation set the groundwork so that the remains of the others could be sent home.

“The Austrians were adamant that the couple should be extradited as heritage or cultural objects, but we stood firm.”

The Pienaars, he says, were “shipped there as corpses, but they came back as citizens”.

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