The sacred remains of the Sutherland Nine were finally laid to rest in the Roggeveld Karoo, back in the land of their San and Khoi ancestors in the Northern Cape.
Eight of the six San and three Khoi people had been unethically removed from their graves on the nearby Kruisrivier farm nearly 100 years ago and given to UCT between 1926 and 1931 by medical student Carel Gert Coetzee, who lived on the farm.
The remains included five men, two women, and two children – a boy and a girl.
The ninth, whose older remains were dated to the pre-colonial period, was excavated during roadworks in the Northern Cape. He had been buried in the nearby mountains.
In 2017, these human remains were discovered during an audit conducted by Professor Victoria Gibbon, curator of the UCT Human Skeletal Repository.
This led to the restitution process and community-driven science project to identify and return the remains to Sutherland.
That journey of restorative justice, interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, took five years. It included extensive collaboration and engagement with the Abraham and Stuurman families, from the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape, who share surnames with some of the nine, members of the Sutherland community, and the relevant political and cultural stakeholders.
The process yielded the country’s largest cross-institutional historical justice project, a blueprint for the future, said Gibbon.
The first day of the reburial programme on Friday was hosted at UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), with “a day of mourning”.
On Saturday, the procession carrying the coffins made its way off the N1 at Matjiesfontein and along the R354 for the final 110 km, through the hard, sun-baked Roggeveld where the Sutherland Nine’s ancestors hunted, and to the edge of the Western and Northern Cape provinces.
At the provincial border, the cortège halted. Under acacia trees, there was a symbolic handover of the sacred human remains from one province to the other.
Smoke from burning impepho rose into the trees as the Western Cape San and Khoi representatives, chiefs Bradley van Sitters and Autshumao Mackie, exchanged greetings and performed a cleansing ceremony with their Northern Cape counterparts, Oupa Isak Kruiper and Atta Lydia Kruiper.
Afterwards a horn sounded across the veld, ancient and evocative.
Once the cortège reached Sutherland, the four leaders led the procession slowly down the main road to the bus stop where they were received by a jubilant Sutherland community.
It was here that the community could finally welcome back their ancestors, said Stuurman Mietas, who addressed the gathering.
“It’s very profound and you have to realise the significance of this. Because of what just happened, we are now able to teach our children; tell them about the system and what it means to be a community.”
He said that the customs of their ancestors had gradually been forgotten, as had their ancestry and roots. “So, what this really means [is] that it’s almost like a validation of our existence. It’s a realisation of what people have been telling us all along. And now we have the remains of our ancestors, validating the stories of our elders.”
The third day was a time for thanksgiving with a rousing ceremony at the Sutherland Verenigende Gereformeerde Kerk (VGK).
FHS Dean, Associate Professor Lionel Green-Thompson said: “Friday was a day of mourning for UCT. It was a day of recognition, that we were part of violence committed against this community. We have vowed never again. We have returned to their original home of the people; we have brought them with us. They are back in the home of their forefathers and in this moment, we want to name their names.
“l gui, a 30- to 50-year-old man who lived between 1300 and 1400, found further away during road excavations. Those from Kruisrivier Farm were G!ae, a four- to six-year-old boy who lived between 1860 and 1870; Saa, a six- to eight-year-old girl who lived between 1860 and 1870; Cornelius, a 30-to 45-year-old man who lived between 1833 and 1878; Jannetjie, a 45-to 60-year-old woman who lived between 1835 and 1895; Klaas, a 40-to 60-year-old man who lived between 1820 and 1880; Saartje, a 30- to 45-year-old woman who lived between 1840 and 1880; Totje, a 25-to 30-year-old man who lived between 1858 and 1888; and Voetje, a man older than 44 who lived between 1865 and 1913.”
After the closing, the Abraham and Stuurman families moved to the historical cemetery where a last cleansing ceremony was performed, and the burials accompanied by song and poetry – and closure as the soil was piled on top of the coffins, protected by metal sheets.
Simple memorial wooden crosses bearing the names of the Sutherland Nine serve as their headstones, sunk into the burial mounds.