Ciraj Rassool: Humans, not symbols

Ciraj Rassool accompanied the restitution of the San Trooi and Klaas Pienaar
from Vienna back to South Africa. He asks, how processes of restitution of human remains can take place. How can we reverse the european dehumanization?

Excerpt from a speech held by Ciraj Rassool in Palermo on the 3rd of june 2022

At the beginning of the 20th century at a farm close to Mopedi in the region of Kuruman, an assistant to Rudolph Pöch, an Austrian anthropologist, disinterred the corpses of Trooi and Klaas Pienaar, two farmworkers who had just recently died of malarial fever. These corpses were broken at the knees, pressed into a barrel filled with salt, and placed on an ox wagon.Three more people were boiled down to skeletons on the spot. These remains were exported to Austria. While Pöch undertook his field expedition, pretending to be the lone, heroic researcher, the South African state information decided that that collecting activity was illegal.

Decades later, the Natural History Museum in Vienna found that they had remains of Jewish children in their collection and decided that they wanted to return these remains. This set in motion a process of restitution of human remains.The remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar are part of a whole collection of remains of Southern Africa and were assembled at the same time as artworks, material culture and documentation, further sound recordings, film, multimedia expeditions. The trouble with discussions about restitution is that they are taking place inside of the very disciplined and disciplinary divisions of the colonial museum. Our discussion of human remains restitution is a seperate discussion from the return of artworks and material culture. Because of objects and artwork, our European colleagues claim to take care. They use the myth of the gift, in which cultural anthropology is deemed to be an unviolent domain of collecting and museum making – while conserving human remains is clearly seen as a cruel practice and the need for their return is widely accepted.

But: How do you do a return? How do you do a restitution? And we use the term „restitution“, because the older term „repatriation“ is a term for European giftmaking. That is why they like that term. Restitution is a category that demands, that these processe are made by African people. And that it be a claim-based process that builds African capacities. This is what it has to be. There is no template and we went through a process with the return of Claas and Pienaar, who were introduced to us in the middle of a meeting by the physical anthropologist, who said: „And if you want to meet them, they are just behind you in those boxes“. And she went up to the boxes, lifted Troi Pinaars hip bone and said: „You can see, she is someone who has had children“. Because for her the remains had already become objects. So we began using the term „rehumanization“. And we have been criticized for that, because it is almost as if we had come to believe the colonial lie, that the remains of our ancestors in the museums are not the remains of humans and that we have to reinaugurate them as humans. But for us, this is the politics of reversing the dehumanization in life. And reversing the dehumanization in the museum. The dehumanization of being turned into serial objects, of being turned into objects of race. Of being placed in a box. We demanded from the Austrians that these remains will be returned as people. That they will be returned trough cultural ceremonies, and that they will be returned in coffins.

The Austrians told us: „Well, that is impossible, European law does not allow it. If you insist, then we will burry them right here in Vienna.“ Luckily the politicians and the diplomats were extremely skilled and they were able to come to an arrangement of a restitution as human beings.
What were the ceremonies that we did? Our German colleagues think that one museum can undertake a restitution to a community in an African country – as easy as that. Well, I’m sorry. This is about questions of sovereignty. It does involve a state to state process. But it cannot be left at a state to state process. It has to involve the decision making of people in local communities. That is decisive as we think this through. And we have had a number of ceremonies and consultation meetings, where it turned out, that there was cultural memory of the collecting by the scientists. That people remembered Troi Pienaar as having been Troi Pakmaker before having married Klaas Pienaar. People remembered, that they had most likely been pushed to flight by the genocide in southern Namibia and had crossed over to south Africa, where they became farmworkers.

Cerimonial incense process as part of a San death ritual performed by healer Petrus Vaalboi. Courtesy of the South Africa Embassy Vienna, Austria.

One of the reasons, why people stopped speaking !Xoo, which was the San language in that region, is that if you spoke Nama or Khoekhoegowab or Afrikaans, the scientists would not be interested in your graves. Because you would just be hybrid people. You would not be pure people and they were interested in racial purity. You’ve seen images of Petrus Vaalboi, who was involved in negotiations with the UNESCO and who performed the first ceremony in the front room of the Austrian academy of sciences. He introduced all the members of the delegation to them and explained to them, what we had come to do. It was in many ways a secular process, recognizing the history that was being made, the history of collecting and the need for them to go back to their people.

There is one final problem, something that we need to worry about. These are processes that are dealt with by governments and states. They have to be funded. Governments deal with things in certain ways, they have their own language. For example: „We have to do this for social cohesion“ – social cohesion is a world bank term! The troubling question is wether the return of Trooi and Klaas Pienaar and other ancestors through rituals that incorporate the rituals of the state, involves the possibility of deepening their missingness. Because they are being returned in such symbolic ways. Not as individuals, but as representatives of a certain kind of history. I worry about the incorporation of these restitutions into the logics of the national memorial complex.

How do you do a return? How do we memorialize in a way that brings dignity and healing but that holds on to the violence of the history and continues to put it in the face of the Europeans who did this to our people. These are complex issues that we have to deal with. And we must never allow the separation between our ancestors and our ancestral artworks and objects to be reinforced. We must insist on a collective restitution process of our ancestors and their artworks and their objects as well as the documentation that was made at the time. It has to be a full scale restitution that needs to be accompanied by reparatory work. Restitution is not something that happens overnight. It is not an event in the garden of a government building in an African city. It is work that we have to do for at least another generation.

Credits: Traditional San healer Petrus Vaalbooi leads the exodus of coffins from the South African Embassy in Vienna on April 19, 2012. Pictured: Petrus Vaalbooi, Shane Christians, Abel Pienaar, Ciraj Rassool, Cecil Le Fleur, Xolisa Mabhongo, Pauline Williams , Martin Legassick, Vusi Ndima, Niel van Zyl. Courtesy of the South African Embassy, Vienna, Austria.