The South African government has repatriated the remains of a Khoisan couple, Klaas and Trooi Pienaar, after an extended sojourn of over a century in Austria.
Arts and culture minister Paul Mashatile, accompanied by a group of Khoisan people that included local chief Adam Mathysen and relatives of the couple, received the Pienaars' remains from a government delegation led by deputy minister Joe Phaahla at OR Tambo International Airport towards the end of April.
A statement from the Department of Arts and Culture said it was ”no coincidence that the Pienaars final return to the soil of their birth comes in April, when we celebrate our hard won freedom”.
It was 103 years since the couple had been shipped off to Austria by a scientist supposedly conducting research.
In 1909 the couple died within a month of each other on a farm near Kuruman in the Northern Cape, and their bodies had barely been laid to rest when an Austrian anthropologist, Rudolf Poch, sent an emissary to exhume the couple and take them overseas for study.
With no permits in place, the exhumation operation was conducted illegally, and the bodies were hidden in a barrel of salt and taken off the African continent to become subjects of Poch’s so-called racial research.
Many years later, their remains were tracked down by history professor Ciraj Rassool of the University of the Western Cape, and prominent Cape Town-based historian and activist Martin Legassick. They found that the Pienaars had been kept at the Imperial Academy of Sciences before removal to the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
But the South African government viewed them as citizens, and worked with the Austrian government for four years to reach an agreement to bring the Pienaars' remains back to their land of birth.
Coming home at last
Speaking to reporters after receiving the remains, Mashatile described the return of the Khoisan couple as a significant milestone.
"It is particularly a triumph over oppression," he said. "They will now rest in peace among their people."
The minister said the couple will be given proper re-burial amongst their people in the Northern Cape next month.
"We've reached an agreement with the Pienaar family, the Northern Cape provincial government, and the Khoisan community that the reburial should be conducted in the second week of May."
Mashatile said the Austrian government relinquished the remains three days before the flight home. A delegation of Khoisan people performed a ceremony at the National History Museum in Vienna upon receiving the couple.
One of the couple's direct granddaughters, Francis Pienaar, said that although her grandparents' graves were exhumed in Danielskuil near Kuruman, as a family they have not yet decided where the re-burial will take place.
"We are extremely excited and we don't know how we can thank our government," she said.
According to Rassool, the Natural History Museum and Vienna University’s Institute of Anthropology still hold the remains of some 50 South Africans and the partial remains of about 150 more – but because the Pienaars’ names had been discovered and subsequently their place of origin, it was possible to bring them back.
However, efforts will begin to repatriate the others as well.
Northern Cape MEC for social development, Alvin Botes, said people of the Northern Cape viewed the repatriation of the Pienaars' remains as dear efforts by the government.
"We are looking forward to giving the couple a proper re-burial and from now on, we are saying our human dignity should be respected and none of our graves should be opened or exhumed without our permission," he said.
The operation is part of the government's efforts to restore dignity to the victims of colonialism and racism. In January 2002, Sarah Baartman's remains were returned to South Africa, which put an end to the many years of exploitation she endured abroad.