13. April 2012

Austria returns the mortal remains of South African indigenous people from its public collections

Joint Press Release by the South African Embassy in Vienna, the Federal Ministry of Science and Research, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Federal Ministry of European and International affairs, the Natural History Museum and the Southern African Documentation and Co-operation Centre

In a solemn ceremony to be held at the South African Embassy in Vienna, the mortal remainders of Klaas and the Trooi Pienaar will be handed over to the South African Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, H.E. Dr. Joseph Phaahla.
Klaas and Trooi Pienaar, from the indigenous San community of South Africa, were removed from their graves shortly after their death (on a farm near Kuruman) towards the end of 1909 by an assistant of the well known Austrian doctor, anthropologist and ethnographer; Rudolf Pöch. Protests by relatives were ignored and oppressed with threats of violence. Transfer of their corpses to Austria-Hungary took place in violation of the South African laws in place at that time, and led to police investigations. As a result, Pöch had to prematurely end his expedition, which was financed by the Austrian Academy of Science. Pöch’s intention was to make the roughly 150 skeletons and 80 crania of indigenous people, which were collected without ethical considerations, available for 'racial research' in Austria.
Since 2000, the research practices of Pöch have been critically investigated in a research project (http://poech.fox.co.at/index.htm). It was the desire of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Science and Research, in co-operation with the Austrian Academy of Science (which had custody over the remains), to return the remains of the Pienaars (which were the only ones that had been identified by name) to South Africa.
Representatives of the South African San community, amongst them the traditional healer Petrus Valbooi, will perform a cleansing ritual in a private ceremony to be held at the Academy of Science on 17 April 2012. The remains will be placed in coffins, and will then be officially transferred from the Academy of Science, represented by Vice President Prof Dr Arnold Suppan, to the South African delegation headed by Deputy Minister Phaahla. Since the Pienaars will be buried in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, the Provincial Minister for Sport, Arts and Culture, Ms. P.J. Williams, will also be present at this ceremony.
A solemn ceremony will thereafter be held at the South African Embassy on 19 April to mark the return of the Pienaars to South Africa.. The ceremony will be attended by Dr. Elisabeth Freismuth (Director General in the Federal Ministry of Science and Research), Ambassador Dr. Martin Eichtinger (Head of the Cultural Section of the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs); the South African Ambassador to Austria, H.E. Xolisa Mabhongo, and Deputy Minister Phaahla. Following this ceremony, the Pienaars will be accompanied by the South African delegation to Johannesburg from where they will be flown via a South African Defence-Force helicopter to be reburied in proximity to where they were illegally exhumed.
The process of “re-humanizing” the Pienaars through the above ceremonies is of great importance to the Government of South Africa, as it forms part of the projects of national reconciliation and nation-building in South Africa. The dignity of the Pienaars was violated to the extreme, and they came to be treated as mere objects of study. The aim of the two ceremonies is to symbolically “re-humanize” the Pienaar remains; to transform their remains from “museum artefacts”, to human remains that deserve dignity and respect. The objective is to begin to reconcile all sides affected by the shared legacy of Pöch, and to heal the indignity that was suffered by the Pienaars and their community.
The South African Embassy expresses its thanks to all institutions and persons who have contributed to the swift conclusion of negotiations, and who have thereby contributed towards redressing an injustice of the past, in particular the Federal Ministry of Science and Research, the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, The Federal Ministry for Education, Art and Culture, the Austrian Academy for Science, the Natural History Museum Vienna and the Southern African Documentation and Co-operation Center. (SA Embassy)

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