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23 April 2001

Real skeletons in the closet

In South Africa, the long legacy of apartheid means that even museum exhibits still provoke angry de

By Bryan Rostron

Earlier this month, the South African Museum in Cape Town finally closed its controversial “Bushman diorama”, precipitating a flurry of outraged letters to local newspapers. The white letter-writers likened it to “Nazi book burning” and to an Orwellian “Big Brother” suppression of history. Other responses came from the dwindling ranks of living San (Bushmen). Thus, South Africans remain bewildered, insecure, often angry, about the portrayal of differing identities within their confused national mosaic.

The “Bushman diorama” depicted a group of San, some in hunting pose, against an idealised, desert-like backdrop. The figures were lifelike because the casts were taken from impoverished San between 1908 and 1912, with the aim of studying “pure” racial types. On public display since 1960, it was by far the museum’s most popular exhibit.

It also, however, sparked heated debate for many years. In the 1960s, the colonial or European collection was transferred from the South African Museum to the Cultural History Museum (housed, ironically, in a building that used to be the Dutch East India Company’s slave lodge). The “Bushman diorama” remained behind, alongside exhibits of stuffed animals and birds. This, said critics, suggested that the San were being portrayed as a form of wildlife, and was an expression of apartheid ideology.

The museum, the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa, had in fact been founded in 1825 by the autocratic British governor Lord Charles Somerset, “for the reception and classification of the various objects of the Animal, Vegetable and Mineral Kingdom which are found in South Africa”. Defenders of the diorama claimed that it gave recognition to the way of life led by the San, as the “first people” of South Africa. One recent letter to the Cape Times objected to the closure of this “charming” display about “primitive people”.

Museums all over South Africa are agonising over exhibits and struggling to come to terms with vastly differing perceptions of our troubled past. One of their biggest embarrassments is the revelation that many have hundreds of San skeletons hidden away in back rooms. Sometimes, in the 1900s, bodies were dug up in the name of science within weeks of burial, and then boiled to extract the skeletons. These remains, however, are merely the most obvious skeletons in our historical cupboard.

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The problem of stored human parts is not a problem confined to South Africa. In 1997, I asked the Natural History Museum in London about the heads of 19th-century Xhosa men in its possession. The press office did not want to deal with my query. Finally I received a brief letter from the Keeper of Palaeontology, stating: “We have seven heads from the Xhosa tribe here in our museum, although they have never been on display and have always been part of our worldwide anthropological research collections.”

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Perhaps this caginess was the result of criticism the previous year following a major exhibition in Cape Town, “Miscast”, on historical attitudes to the San. The Natural History Museum would not allow the exhibition’s curator to take photographs of the heads, for fear of causing “offence”, but maintained that these heads still had scientific potential – for example, yielding DNA. “In suggesting the images of the heads may cause offence,” wrote Pippa Skotnes, “the Natural History Museum is not suggesting that the heads should not be ‘used’. On the contrary, it asserts the right of science to use them.”

It is a sensitive subject. The study of “aboriginal” peoples has a gruesome history. One leading British expert in the 19th century was Dr Robert Knox, an army surgeon who served on the Cape frontier. He gave an address to accompany the exhibition of “five Bosjesmans” in London in 1847. Of the “Kaffirs” and “Hottentots”, he said: “Destined by the nature of their race to run, like other animals, a certain limited course of existence, it matters little how their extinction is brought about.”

Knox is better known today as the buyer, for dissection, of unsuspecting Edinburgh folk murdered by Burke and Hare.

Live exhibits are not simply a thing of the past. The Kagga Kamma private nature reserve north of Cape Town, famous for its rock painting, advertises itself as “The Place of the Bushmen”. Two years ago, the reserve was exposed as passing off “coloured” people as “100 per cent pure Bushmen” to fee-paying tourists. “You must understand,” explained the manager, “we are a business trying to make a living.”

Nor, in South Africa, is the debate on museum displays and the retention of human parts for study merely an academic matter. It is closely linked to changing, post-apartheid senses of identity, and that involves different communities’ perceptions of themselves and others. This partly explains the intensity of the row over the “Bushman diorama”, and the fulminations of some whites about “blind zealotry” and “political correctness”.

The essence of apartheid was its attempt to fix and freeze identities, based on racial classification, as unchanging facts. The loss of such certainty is particularly hard to come to terms with for those who did the defining and categorising. Nor are such attitudes restricted to South Africa. “Bushmen”, my Chambers Encyclopaedia (1955), states, “have proved resistant to civilisation, though individuals have been tamed”. The Universal Oxford Dictionary of the same year defines Hottentots as “of inferior intellect or culture”.

The western image of the San, curiously, has now almost come full circle. The early settlers usually saw the “wild Bosjesmans” as brutes, beasts, less than human, to be hunted like wild animals, even killed. Today, they are portrayed in tourist literature and TV documentaries as simple, gentle folk, romanticised as wise, timeless, back-to-nature innocents – but still, essentially, some kind of generic wildlife.

The most dramatic variations of image, constantly reinterpreted to both demonise and idealise, come with that of the “Zulu”. In 1879, British colonial officials conducted a propaganda campaign – what today would be called “psy-ops” – to justify their invasion, portraying Zulus as blood-crazed savages. Later, writers such as Rider Haggard propagated a romanticised noble warrior image: think of the faithful Umslopogaas in Allan Quatermain, the “bravest Zulu of them all”. Portrayals of the king Shaka have epitomised these extremes: he is either condemned as a mass-murdering villain or heralded as a great African nationalist hero.

More recently, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi (who played Cetshwayo in Zulu, the 1964 film starring Michael Caine) has added his own reinterpretations to promote his personal position and that of his Inkatha Freedom Party. Here, such matters are not historical footnotes. Conflicting notions of Zulu identity, particularly prior to the 1994 election, had become a battlefield in KwaZulu/Natal, with bloody consequences.

The problem with South African politics, still dominated by the long shadow of apartheid, is that it too often revolves around unresolved questions of identity. On the one hand, there is an increasing tendency towards defensiveness within the ruling ANC, to parry all criticism with counter-accusations of racism. On the other hand, the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, is widely perceived as a white-interest party. With perceptions still based so solidly on pigmentation, real conflicts and class concerns become obscured – the common interests of a new black elite with the established white elite, for example, as opposed to the conflicting interests of their employees or the unemployed.

Thus, South African politics still tends, misleadingly, to be seen simply as a matter of black or white. Nelson Mandela recently criticised the government for its per- ceived insensitivity to minorities, including Indians and “coloureds”. This would also certainly include the embattled San peoples, some of whom reacted to the closure of the exhibit in Cape Town as another attempt by distant authorities to bury their memory and history.

Political attitudes sometimes seem as frozen and pre-cast as models in a diorama. In recent years, many white radicals have fallen silent. Some have gone into business; others are disillusioned with the government’s free-market policies, but stay silent out of “struggle loyalty”. There are also quite a few who, in the words of Mamphela Ramphele, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, “no longer speak out on issues of national concern because they will be labelled racist”.

The other day, jokingly, I suggested to a friend, a former firebrand, that he might pose for a lifelike plaster cast for a replacement diorama at the South African Museum. This display would depict, in a suitably idealised setting, what now seems at times to be a threatened, almost extinct, local tribe: the white South African radical.

This might silence those whites spluttering about “political correctness”, as well as force them – and all of us – to rethink our frozen images of racial obsession.