UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng Picture: Phando Jikelo / African News Agency (ANA)
UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng Picture: Phando Jikelo / African News Agency (ANA)

‘Unethically acquired UCT remains deserve dignity’

By Wandile Kasibe Time of article published Nov 15, 2019

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Amilcar Cabral once uttered these words: “Expose lies whenever they are toldClaim no easy victories...”

I found myself haunted by these words while listening to a UCT press conference about the Sutherland reburial of the unethically acquired human remains that were found locked in the colonial shelves of the UCT 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 UCT community and society to address these heinous colonial crimes committed on the African people by the violating hands of men and women of “science”.

It takes a lot of courage to take the nation into your confidence and take responsibility for the wrongs of the past.

While I fully understand the fear of a public outcry, should other colonial institutions such as museums take the same bold step taken by UCT and begin to publicly disclose their own past wrongs, I equally feel that the time has come. In the era of human rights, decolonisation, active citizenship and ethics, it is clear to me that the writing is on the 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 clean now rather than later.

My admiration for the forward-looking step that UCT has taken in order to own up to the true meaning of its creed and motto, “Spes Bona”, meaning “Good Hope”, should not be misconstrued as suggesting that the institution has now “cleansed” itself from the stigma of its tainted past.

Unfortunately, such deep-seated colonial injustices of human wrongs cannot be easily undone or wiped off through press conferences, engagements with families, interest groups, historians, biologists, bureaucrats, executive management, council, the government and the media.

The moment 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, and UCT had no right to conduct DNA sampling on remains that were acquired unethically in the context of colonial violence.

While these sacred mortal remains were acquired with the intention to dehumanise and “specimenise” these Africans, the process of restoration of human dignity should be that of humanising them to give them the respect and dignity they were never afforded at the time of their violation.

In the whole political miasma surrounding the “discovery” of these Africa 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.

In the interest of transparency and academic honesty, it must be put categorically that I am the one who brought it to the attention of the curator in 2017 that her anatomy department was quietly harbouring unethically acquired human remains of African people and that these remains were used for nefarious colonial reasons of race construction.

At the time she denied this fact and arrogantly defended the institution by counter-arguing that “the collection at UCT was not used as such, past or present”. But now we know she was wrong and I was right.

It is quite interesting and equally disturbing to observe how the very same person who denied the fact that these mortal remains were subjected to processes of race construction is now hailed and paraded as the “champion”. How hypocritical.

It’s paining to observe how some white scholars use the collective pain of African people to boost their professional careers without even acknowledging 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 in 2017.

But again, what would it mean for the university to publicly acknowledge that in fact the curator initially denied the violent and racist context in which these remains were collected and used?

Is our memory failing us so badly that we cannot remember that, at some point “UCT was instructed not to admit African students to study medicine, and it only admitted its first African medical student in 1985” and that “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.

Kasibe is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at UCT, Chevening Scholar

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