19. April 2012

Moving ceremonies around restitution of Pienaars’ bodies

Traditional San rituals, high political presence and an official apology by the Austrian government marked the transfer of the mortual remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar from Vienna to Johannesburg in the second half of April 2012.
As reported earlier, bodies of the two „bushmen servants“ of a Griqua Farmer near Kuruman were excavated from their fresh graves by an agent of the well-known Austro-Hungarian scientist, Dr Rudolf Poech, in autumn 1909. Protests of family members and the farmer were suppressed by threatening violence. Against then South African (colonial) law, the bodies were transported to Austria and subjected to „racial research“. Trade in human remains was nevertheless widespread at the time, as exposed by Martin Legassick and Ciraj Rassool in their ground-breaking book Skeletons on the Cupboard (2000). In 2007, the Southern Africa Documentation and Co-operation Centre (SADOCC) was the first to raise the issue in Austria and to protest against the unethical acquisition of San human remains by Dr Poech. In 2009, the Austrian government agreed to restitute what was left from the Pienaar couple to South Africa.
In a first ceremony which took place at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna on 17 April, the remains of Klaas and his wife Trooi Pienaar were solemnly placed into two coffins by a traditional leader and healer of the South African San, Petrus Vaalbooi. On behalf of the Academy, Vice President Arnold Suppan and Prof Maria Teschler-Nicola spoke words of farewell and formally handed over the coffins to South African Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Joe Phaahla.
On 19 April, an official ceremony took place in the South African Embassy in Vienna to mark the return of the human remains of the Pienaar couple to South Africa. Speakers included Ambassador Xolisa Mabhongo, Deputy Minister Joe Phaahla, and the Provincial Minister from the Northern Cape Pauline Williams. On behalf of the Austrian government, Director General Elisabeth Freismuth delivered an official apology for the inhuman treatment the two bodies had been subjected. Prof Walter Sauer, Chairperson of SADOCC, drew attention to colonialist practices not only of Dr Poech but also of a number of other Austrian researchers and so-called explorers. He called for the naming of a Viennese Street after Klaas and Trooi Pienaar. The solemn event was accompanied by traditional rituals carried out by Petrus Valbooi, and by the South African National Anthem, played live on chello.
After an overnight flight, the coffins with the mortual remains of the Pienaars were received at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg by Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile in the morning of April 20. In accordance with custom, community representatives as well as members of the family Pienaar and Padmaker families received the remains from the plane after arrival and took them to a waiting hearse. Re-burial in the Northern Cape province is expected to take place soon. As Minister Mashatile pointed out, the return of the Pienaars is a contribution to the celebration of Freedom Day 2012 in South Africa.
Political meetings conducted between the South African delegation and the Austrian Ministries of European and international Affairs resp. of Education and Culture paved the way for a broadened cooperation between the two countries in the fields of arts, science and culture, based on a Memorandum of Understanding to be elaborated soon and, possibly, a cultural agreement.
Further Information: http://www.wienerzeitung.at/themen_channel/wzwissen/geschichte/451325_Oesterreich-restituiert-Gebeine-aus-Suedafrika.html http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/2012/04/20/return-of-khoisan-remains-a-milestone-minister http://www.jacarandafm.com/kagiso/content/en/jacaranda/jacaranda-news?oid=1596911&sn=Detail&pid=6182&Khoisan-remains-returned (SADOCC)

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