We want bones of our ancestors back from Europe, says Khoi chief

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(Jenni Evans, News24)
(Jenni Evans, News24)

Cape Town - Descendants of the early Khoi and Nguni people have formed a coalition for the repatriation of their ancestors' remains from museums around the world, Khoi chief Melvin Arendse said in Cape Town on Friday.

"How is it possible that 22 years after the dawn of democracy, we still keep human remains in boxes?" he asked.

They want their ancestors' remains to be returned from the "scientists" - who took the bodies to Europe to do cranial and other measurements, as part of the racial research of the colonial era - so that they can have a proper burial.

"Nguni and Khoi people are still laying in cardboard boxes with numbers attached to them," said Arendse.

Sarah Baartman was infamously taken to Europe as a curiosity because of her voluptuous physique. Her vagina and brain were pickled and put on display in a museum in France.

The late Nelson Mandela eventually secured the return of her remains in 2002 and she was eventually buried the same year on Women's Day in SA.

The City of Cape Town has already built one ossuary for the remains of skeletons discovered during building preparations on a site destined for luxury apartments in Green Point, Cape Town.

No apologies

Arendse said they could have been victims of the smallpox epidemic that almost decimated the Khoi in the 18th century.

According to SA History Online, the smallpox is thought to have originated from one of the settler ships and, unfamiliar with the disease, the Khoi were hard hit. Dying in great numbers, and not able to produce medicine to counter it, they started leaving the Cape Town area.

Many were apparently also killed by fellow Khoi they met outside the city who were afraid of catching the illness.

In the meantime, settler farmers took over their land. This, and further displacement of the Khoi and Nguni through laws and colonial battles, left them without land of their own.

"The only way our children will get land now is with a bond," said Arendse "It is time now not to be apologetic."

Their coalition work would focus on becoming the majority party in the province so that there could be redress for the colonial-era land grabs.

Land ownership audit

The coalition would conduct an audit of land ownership in the Western Cape, and they would most likely encounter farmers who had no way of proving how they had legally acquired their land, Arendse said.

The coalition ultimately wants the clock to be turned back to the land ownership patterns that were in place before the colonialists began arriving at the Cape.

At the African National Congress chaplaincy-hosted briefing, Arendse said the Nguni and Khoi have a long history and they formed the first alliances against colonialism, so it made sense that they should do so again.

His comments come after President Jacob Zuma said last week that there should be a pre-colonial audit of land ownership, use and occupation patterns.

Once this has been done, a single law should be developed regarding land restitution without compensation.

This would need constitutional amendments.

Zuma said the National Land Claims commission might be redesigned to help right the historical injustice of lost land.

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