Carte Blanche

[Claire's Blog] Who Are You, Really?

14 February 2024
I left feeling validated as a South African that a group of indigenous people, who had previously felt dismissed and forgotten in our recorded history, were finally seen and acknowledged in such a powerful way.

Claire Mawisa (@clairemawisa) is a South African television presenter, model and radio personality best known for being an SABC1 continuity presenter (1999-2001), as well as for co-hosting the SABC1 music variety show One, from 2002-2003. After many years working in radio and television, and opening her own business, Claire joined the Carte Blanche team in 2015.

Have you ever watched the documentary TV series called Who Do You Think You Are? It’s a show where a celebrity traces their genealogy through their family tree. I absolutely love the show, but have always felt a bit pained that that same type of documented history does not exist for most Africans. Most indigenous people from this continent would not be able to discover and explore their family trees in the same way that is depicted in the show.

Our oral history was revered but unfortunately also flawed. Details about many of our ancestors were wiped out, forgotten or simply unknown because of migration, tribal battles and colonisation. In most of the small towns and dorpies across our country, there is no evidence of the people who once lived there generations ago. Most of us don’t even know the reason the town exists; what brought our ancestors to that area in the first place? What gave that town the particular name it has? What did they do to survive hundreds of years ago? These questions have always been with me since I started road tripping across South Africa as a child. My good friend Google answers most of these questions, in part. But not really in a comprehensive way that satisfies my curiosity. But a detail that was noticed and flagged while a University of Cape Town (UCT) academic was doing seemingly mundane admin work has brought the residents of a small town in the Northern Cape so much clarity on who they really are.

While doing an audit on UCT’s skeleton collection, Dr Victoria Gibbon realised that their Department of Human Biology obtained 11 skeletons unethically almost 100 years ago. These skeletons were dug up from a labourers’ cemetery that was located on a farm just outside Sutherland. They had been dug up and donated to the university by the farmer’s son, who also happened to be a medical student at UCT. That discovery by Dr Gibbon set in motion the process of ensuring that the university provides redress and social justice to those remains and their families.

Once located, families in Sutherland were notified of the unethical removal of their ancestors’ skeletons, and collectively they decided they wanted to know more about their deceased relatives. The team at UCT already had the names of some of the individuals, but it was through a multi-disciplinary approach that the scientists could put together the story of the remains; how old they were, when they died, what they had died from and even what they looked like! Once all this information had been gathered, it was presented to the family members that still lived in the Sutherland area.

I had the absolute pleasure of meeting with some of the family members in Sutherland. When I sat down with them I asked them how they took the news when they first heard what had happened all those years ago. Understandably, they were angry and hurt. They said it brought up feelings of resentment and triggered residual trauma that stems from age-old racial discrimination that they too have experienced in their own lifetime.

But they chose to rise above their own personal feelings, because they recognised the opportunity presented to them. They could learn more about how they came to be in that area, they could piece together their family tree and they could teach the next generation about the life and times of those that went before them, information previously unknown to them. The families have chosen to rebury the remains in a centrally-located area in Sutherland town where anyone and everyone who visits that area can learn about the painful past of that place.

I left feeling validated as a South African that a group of indigenous people, who had previously felt dismissed and forgotten in our recorded history, were finally seen and acknowledged in such a powerful way. It felt healing to me, even though I am in no way related to or connected to those individuals. When you learn about the story, how it started and where it ends, hopefully you too will feel the same way. Consider yourself extremely lucky if you’re able to trace back your family tree, and if you have pictures of those family members. For many of us, we can only wonder about those who came before us, whether there may be any resemblance, or if they led remarkable lives that we just will never know about. For those families in Sutherland, and in the greater Northern Cape area, a window to their past has been opened where there was once a wall.