It was Amilcar Cabral, one of Africa’s leading intellectuals, who once uttered these words, “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.”
I found myself haunted by these words while listening to a press conference of the University of Cape Town (UCT) about the reburial in Sutherland, Northern Cape, of the unethically acquired human remains that were found locked in the colonial shelves of the institution’s anatomy department in 2017.
UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng must be commended for taking a bold step to face this dark past and bringing along the university’s community and society to address these heinous colonial crimes committed on African people by the violating hands of men and women of “science”.
In a post-apartheid environment, after a lot of human wrongs had been committed on the African majority, it takes a lot of courage to take the nation into your confidence by looking back into the “darker side of modernity” and take responsibility for the wrongs of the past.
This is never an easy task, especially for institutions whose very DNA is codified and entangled in the colonial episteme, western systems of thought and knowledge production such as universities and museums.
While I fully understand the fear of what former US politician Donald Rumsfeld calls “known knowns ... unknown knowns ... unknown unknowns” that may ensue, should other colonial institutions such as museums take the same bold step as UCT and begin to publicly disclose of their own past wrongs, I equally feel that the time has come.
In the era of human rights, decolonisation, community participation and ethics, it is clear to me that the writing is on wall for all institutions that still harbour sensitive “material” such as human remains of the vanquished communities either used for “educational” purposes or kept for prestige to come out clean now rather than later.
My admiration for the progressive step that UCT has taken in order to own up to the true meaning of its motto, Spes Bona, meaning Good Hope, should not be misconstrued to be suggesting that the institution has now cleansed itself from the stigma of its tainted past.
Unfortunately, such deep-seated colonial injustices of human wrongs committed on the bodies of those who were deemed lesser human beings cannot be easily undone or wiped away through press conferences, engagements with families, interest groups, historians, biologists, bureaucrats, executive management, councils, government and the media.
The colonial wounds are far too deep and will take a long time to heal, if they will ever be healed at all.
The moment when these remains were acquired by the university decades ago, is the very moment at which their biographies and unspoken silences became forever intertwined with the institutional history and memory of the university.
It had no right to conduct DNA sampling on remains that were acquired unethically in the context of colonial violence.
The university is bound by natural law to restore the dignity of these families.
Repatriation of these sacred human remains should include the repatriation of the knowledge that was produced by those who studied them and this knowledge should be made known to the public.
While these mortal remains were acquired with an intention to dehumanise and “specimenise” these Africans, the process of restoration of dignity should be that of humanising them to give them the respect they were not afforded at the time of their violation.
While the focus and media frenzy is on the 11 unethically acquired human remains, society awaits the detailed disclosure and plan regarding a mass grave and unmarked graves that still lie beneath the soil of the university.
These human remains are a stark reminder of a past that is very much part of the present.
In the whole sociopolitical miasma surrounding the “discovery” of these African individuals, nothing is being mentioned about how the curator initially denied the fact that these remains were used for race “science”, when I approached her in 2017.
It is interesting and disturbing to observe how the very person who denied the fact that these mortal remains were subjected to processes of race construction is now hailed as a “champion”; how hypocritical.
It’s painful to observe how some white scholars use the collective pain of African people to boost their professional careers without even acknowledging the black people who pointed them in the direction of their fame.
It would have cost the university and the curator nothing to publicly acknowledge that it was through my suspicion and the pressure that I exerted on the curator that she “discovered” the existence of these unethically acquired remains.
And that, at the time I approached her to gain access to the collection, the question of the moratorium never featured in our communication.
But again, what would it mean for the anatomy department and university to acknowledge that in fact the curator initially denied the violent and racist context in which these remains were collected and used.
This borders on who gets to be acknowledged and who does not?
To understand the gravity of this question, one should go no further than the sad story of Hamilton Naki, who helped Christiaan Barnard perform a complex heart transplant procedure successfully, but was not acknowledged for his contribution.
Instead, his name was pushed to the margins, to be forgotten because of the colour of his skin.
But what do we expect from an institution that once denied black students access to its medical school?
Is our memory failing us so badly that we cannot remember that, as published in an SA Medical Journal article, “from 1959 to 1985 black students were required to obtain permission from the relevant minister to attend a ‘white’ university … [and that] UCT was instructed not to admit African students to study medicine, and only admitted its first African medical student in 1985”.
I shared my experience with an elder who told me, “I remember when my late brother attended anatomy classes at the medical school – whenever a white cadaver was brought in, the 10% quota of students who were black had to get up and leave the room.”
It is this act of standing up and leaving the room that I was made to feel when I raised my suspicion about UCT’s unethically acquired human remains in 2017.
Wandile Kasibe is a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCT and a Chevening scholar