The South African Government is constantly inundated with requests to repatriate and restitute human remains in South African museums as well as the remains of South Africans in other countries. In the absence of any policy document or guidelines and principles, these requests are being dealt with on an ad hoc basis. There is therefore no consistency in how these cases are dealt with. There are also no criteria in terms of who should be repatriated and restituted and of who can claim these remains. In the case of heritage objects, the requests are not as frequent. However, there are numerous South African objects, including sacred and funerary objects, in South African museums as well as in museums and institutions abroad. Repatriation and restitution of these objects will need to be dealt with in a systematic manner, based on established policy guidelines and principles.
The repatriation and restitution of human remains and heritage objects is especially controversial and challenging. To find a balance between scientific interests, ethical considerations and interests of communities is open for a lot of controversy and it is doubtful that a solution will be found that will keep everybody happy. However, this issue can no longer be ignored. Concerns have been raised in both scientific and public arenas relating to issues of consent, respect for human dignity, scientific integrity, societal expectations and ethical standards.
Although there are a number of international precedents and policies to guide these processes, it is necessary for South Africa to take its own history and culture into account. It is therefore important that we develop a South African-orientated policy that will speak to our moral standards. Perhaps we can create a new precedent that will be adopted by other Sub-Saharan countries as well.
The purpose of this document is therefore to establish a concept of how these policy guidelines and principles on repatriation of human remains and restitution of heritage objects. The document provides some background information, it looks at the existing policy and legislative framework, provides ethical considerations as well as some recommendations to consider.
The national Department of Arts and Culture will be hosting workshops during September 2017 in the Western Cape to discuss the draft policy. The draft policy is available online.
Michael Janse van Rensburg
Acting Director of Museum Services
Tel: 021 483 9678