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Kronos vol.44 no.1 Cape Town  2018 

Missing and Missed: Rehumanisation, the Nation and Missing-ness



Nicky Rousseau; Riedwaan Moosage; Ciraj Rassool

Department of History, University of the Western Cape



The bringing together of two lines of research that have previously been treated separately - namely the missing/missed body of apartheid-era atrocities and the racialised body of the colonial museum - animates this issue of Kronos. Both the skeletons of empire and those of apartheid-era atrocities can be thought of as racialised, and as 'disappeared' and missing. Furthermore, both areas are marked by similar lines of enquiry, linked to issues of identification, redress and restoration, often framed through notions of humanisation or rehumanisation. Consequently, these different 'disciplines of the dead'1 have been brought into collaboration and contestation with each other, with missingness often reproduced through the ways in which the dead have been drawn into grand narratives of the nation and its seeming triumphs over colonialism and apartheid.

Notwithstanding their similarities, the racialised body of the colonial museum and the body of more recent conflicts have their own genealogies and literatures. The 'disappeared' entered the political lexicon of terror largely through Argentina and Chile; two decades later Rwanda and Bosnia turned international attention to mass violence and genocide as exemplified by the mass grave. South Africa slips through these grids: apartheid security forces tried but failed to emulate their Latin American counterparts in 'disappearing' activists on a large scale, while inter-civilian violence, which mostly took the form of political rather than ethnic, racial or religious cleansing, did not produce mass graves. Nonetheless, both 'disappearances' and inter-civilian conflict produced missing persons in the South African conflict - most presumed dead, and thus, as Madeleine Fullard describes them (this issue) 'in limbo - dead, but missing.' Investigations into such cases, led first by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and later by its Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT), sought to locate, exhume, identify and return mortal remains to their families. In so doing, South Africa joined a growing list of countries following this route.

Except perhaps in the United States, the practice of valorising the remains of the 'unknown soldier' - the unidentified dead of battle - has given way to a questioning of practices that allow the dead of war and conflict to be buried where they fall in marked or unmarked graves. Where cenotaphs mark the presence of an absence, and came to stand for all those who did not return,2 this has shifted to a focus on the unidentified and untraced dead. Although the very forms of mass violence, and practices of 'disappearing' or displacing civilians (rather than soldiers), have proliferated, undergirding this growth, something else is arguably at work. Contemporary practices of dealing with the missing dead are distinguished by the way in which corporeal matters have risen to the fore, encountering wider discourses of witnessing and speaking out associated with truth-telling and human rights initiatives, and producing what Ciraj Rassool suggests is a 'moment of return'. This moment also signals significant affective shifts in how death - particularly unjust death - should be addressed in the aftermaths of violence and war. So powerful is this moment of return that it evokes retrospective force, as evidenced by continuing work arising from the conflicts in Spain (from 1936 to 1939) and Cyprus (in the 1960s and 1970s).3Practices of exhumation, previously directed towards the requirements of forensic evidence, are now frequently associated with forms of reparation and return.

The moment of return also resonates with earlier calls to restitute skeletal remains from museum and university collections associated with colonialism and empire. The dead body of the warrior, especially his or her missing and stolen parts, are key historical tropes of colonial conquest, with stories of heroic suicides, corpses defiled and dismembered, heads separated from bodies and transported across land and sea to Europe. The quest to recover and return the heads of such warriors stands as a significant effort to reverse legacies of conquest.4 Another strand of research is that of German colonials preparing and exporting the remains of Namibian people from concentration camps - a history of confinement and defilement from the early 1900s, which is regarded as a precursor to the Holocaust.5 This was one context for researching the stolen and traded skeletons of racial science that were significant for museum development in Europe and South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. The work of researching the journeys of the violated dead from buried persons to museum objects can also be seen as a forensic enquiry.

Exhumation teams and professional agencies have stakes in this moment of return. As Lore Colaert puts it, 'forensic anthropology has ... ambitions as well', suggesting that more than a response to a demand, forensic anthropology is a driver of the shift from practices of letting bones lie to the moment of return.6 Colaert's reference to forensic anthropology implicates scholars as well. Indeed, the boundaries between activism, professional teams and scholarship are blurred, and we ourselves are not exempt, since we have argued for an activist practice of history and historicis-ing in the public, which transcends the limited frames of social and popular history.

Pertinent here are Nicky Rousseau's long involvement in the TRC and the MPTT, and Rassool's very active involvement in driving policies and processes of repatriation. In short, representing the moment of return as a spontaneous wave of survivors, families - second or third generation - can function as a narrative that disguises other agencies in shifting or producing particular cultural sensibilities.

A growing scholarly literature has accompanied these developments. The Forensic History Project,7 was initiated at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and relocated to the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 2015 where Rousseau, Riedwaan Moosage and Bianca van Laun were engaged in similar research. Shifting to a more conceptual focus - although always within shouting distance of the work being done by the MPTT - we extended an existing reading group on materialities and corporealities of violence, and this became the heart of what the Forensic History Project is now, enabling the development of a research hub, and drawing in students from senior undergraduate to doctoral level.8

We set to work by engaging the political contexts of missing persons in South Africa, and the TRC and MPTT's work. Research interests quickly settled around the afterlives of the missing and dead, rather than the contexts of going or being rendered missing. Accordingly, the afterlives of being missing and missed forms one line of enquiry. Here Jenny Edkins' work - especially her emphasis on counting and accounting for each missing and missed person, the irreplaceable 'person-as-such', and on how the missing configure contemporary politics - resonated strongly.9 A second line of enquiry, influenced by earlier reading on the corporealities of violence through the work of the Bodies of Mass Violence and Genocide research project and the Bones Collective, focuses on debates regarding the agency and governmentalities of the dead body, its 'emotive materiality' and 'affective presence' beyond political frames of the nation, as well as the 'vitality and efficacy' of its 'substances.'10 A third line of study was inspired by Katherine Verdery's evocative phrase, 'the political lives of dead bodies', which speaks to the afterlives of unsettled death in South Africa.11

We were struck by the curious paucity of historians working in this field. How was it that issues in which the work of the past and memory work were so central seemed to have slipped through history's grids? In response to this provocation, the question of the disciplines of the dead became another site of enquiry, and we turned to the naming of our project, the Forensic History Project. We had not chosen this name; located in the forensic, its seeming gesture to a positivist evidentiary mode, troubled us. In thinking the question of forensic history, and thus history's place in the disciplines of the dead (conventionally deemed to be human biology, archaeology and physical anthropology, marked often in the past by colonial frames of race and typology), we sought to work towards a critical and conceptual understanding of what this entails.

An encounter with the work of the Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths, University of London, took our enquiry into the etymology and genealogy of the term, forensis.12This yielded a more indeterminate idea of the 'missing person, and of the ways that institutions, instruments, scholarly disciplines, and modes of governmentality (through which the missing person was categorised and recovered) often attempt to shore up indeterminacy. As Forensic Architecture points out, attending to the genealogy of forensis surfaced a forgotten meaning, that is: of, or pertaining to a forum. This suggested a more contested space of debates, disputes, and questions, which in turn destabilises the evidentiary fields of the forensic. Reinstating the forensic as also and always a forum resonated with our methods and thinking.13

Reading the disciplines of the dead through the forensic also produced an encounter with another site of research in our department, namely that by Rassool and the late Martin Legassick. Their research on collections of human remains in public and university medical museums revealed a substantial and unethical acquisition through theft and trade, that was put to work for the purposes of the emerging field of racial science in the early twentieth century.14 Initially, research on museums and their skeletal collections and the missing dead of apartheid era atrocities were conceptualised as separate projects. Yet we realised that these mortal remains encountered each other in the same laboratories where physical anthropology, now recast as forensic anthropology, performed the work of identification. The developing modalities of repatriation drew significantly from the return and reburial practices of the TRC and MPTT. We began to realise that South Africa is in a unique position where the dead of apartheid atrocities intersects with museums' skeletal collections in deeply complex and productive ways. When Rassool joined the Forensic History Project, we sought to deepen this encounter, returning to our earlier engagements with corporeality and materiality, agency, presence and absence, politics and history. This time, we asked cross-cutting questions about personhood, re/humanisation and restoration, sounding these across both colonial and apartheid settings. In so doing, we sought to articulate the notion of missing-ness, introduced to us (but not conceptualised) by Edkins. The concept is one with which many of us are still grappling, and which we invoke as a question (with all its implications) across both colonial and apartheid settings.

As a way of introducing this special issue of Kronos, we trace our conceptual development through the years and reflect on some of the debates that animated the two workshops to which the contributors to this issue respond.15 While the concepts we explore are entangled, for the sake of legibility, we attempt a slight loosening of the knots in order to trace our itineraries.


Thinking the forensic

Much of the scholarly concern with the fate of dead bodies of atrocity has focused on their instrumentalisation, both by perpetrators and through subsequent material, symbolic and political efforts to recuperate such remains. Elisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus pose the questions, why exhume and why identify? In response, they suggest two critical contexts. Firstly, national politics on amnesty and memory, conditioned by the international politics of transitional justice. Secondly, 'unique and complex social contexts that allow ... or else prevent ... the search for victims' remains'.16 Such contexts include the recent rapid development of techniques and technologies of search and identification. While the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) was established in 1984 to collect forensic evidence of the tactic of 'disappearing' widely used in Argentina's 'dirty war', it is now but one of numerous such teams and initiatives across the globe. The much-publicised exhumations in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (beginning in the late 1990s), followed by the searching for, identifying and returning of 9/11 remains in the United States further enabled this global trend.17 Although, as Moosage reminds us, 'this quick expansion ... is framed by legal, historical and humanitarian objectives that often compete with one another',18 a convergence of these contexts has produced what is referred to as a 'forensic turn'.

While Anstett and Dreyfus evoke a normative concept of forensics, namely a claim to the application of scientific methods of establishing evidence, Eyal Weizman proposes forensics as 'public truth . public claims that can be made on behalf of objects/spaces in forums such as courts or other publics'.19Instating publics through forensics' earlier etymology draws attention to two separate, though intertwined, moments. The first is that of the field - the material site or body - from which evidence of violence is deduced. Notably, the 'forensic turn' has been characterised by the increasing appearance of material objects - human remains, sites, buildings - as witnesses. Shela Sheikh (this issue) extends this notion of the witness, challenging the ways in which we 'conceive of the witness, ontologically (across various forms of life and temporalities), epistemologically and politically.' However, such witnesses cannot speak for themselves, but require mediants to speak on their behalf. Here, the introduction of mediants and their interpretive labour signals, as Thomas Keenan suggests (this issue), 'a fundamental lack of absolute certainty' at the heart of the forensic, thus necessitating the second moment - that of the forum. Weizman and Keenan describe the capacity of materiality to register evidential traces, as well as the rhetorics associated with the forum, as 'forensic aesthetics'.20

For Forensic Architecture, this evidential uncertainty does not negate but instead intensifies the need for investigative forensic work, while at the same time maintaining a commitment to 'critical reflection on the terms by which contemporary forensic investigations ... are currently undertaken'. Understanding the field as more than a physical location or body, 'but itself a dynamic and elastic territory, a force field that is shaped by but also shapes conflict', blurs the boundaries of the animate and inanimate, human and object, requiring a rethinking of agency. Correspondingly, widening and understanding the forum as 'a gathering of political collectives' opens the potential of the forensic 'as a political practice'.21

This potential, encapsulated in the notion of counter-forensics, was first articulated by Allan Sekula. Keenan offers two understandings of counter-forensics: the first is pre-emptively impeding the discovery of evidence to prevent future analysis of material traces; the second is its opposite, deploying 'forensic techniques as a practice of "political maneuvering", as a tactical operation in collective struggle.'22 This latter meaning is at the core of the forensic 'as a political practice'. 'Political maneuvering', a phrase taken from Sekula, is a commitment to a forensic sensibility in which presenting material evidence in various forums acts to persuade and convince, but more so, opens a space to question and challenge the very production of such evidence. In other words, 'political maneuvering' in relation to the reading and presenting of evidence is such that it is 'up for grabs' in so far as 'everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs'.23

It is in this sense that Sekula draws a resonance between the work of photography, with its 'incapacity for abstraction', and that of forensic experts in exhuming and identifying human remains. This resonance is expressed through a 'sequence of actions' that Sekula identifies as 'Identification-Annihilation-Identification'. For Sekula, 'forensic methods ... offer a tool for oppressive states' as well as 'tools for opposition'. He writes:

[The] oppressor state catalogues its victims as precisely as possible, typing them as a group, but seeking to register and track individual members. The key to ideological power over the 'other' lies in typing: the key to functional power lies in individuation. In other words, stereotypes are ideologically useful and necessary, but in the end it is individuals who must be reduced to ashes ... Counter-forensics then, understood as the exhumation and identification of the 'anonymized' (disappeared) bodies of the oppressor state's victims, becomes the key to a process of political resistance and mourning. 24

However, as Keenan notes, 'just as the forensics is different when linked to a process of political resistance to oppression, so is the identification. Assigning names and histories after the event of annihilation is something very different from fixing identities before it.' The resonance between photography and the 'dismal science of mass-grave exhumation in the project of recording and recovering the traces of the disappeared, of reindividuation' is such that both projects share a humanism, but one that, as Keenan underscores, 'is neither the merely sentimental and compassionate kind nor a mask of domination, but a basic one, basic precisely to the extent that it refers not to abstract metaphysical foundations but rather to the traces of specific individuals and events, the testimony of the bones and the images.'25

Counterintuitively, rethinking forensics along the lines suggested by Forensic Architecture was crucial in enabling the encounter between apartheid-era and colonial dead. Counterintuitive, because the politics of the latter had refused the forensic, entangled as it was with racial science via physical anthropology. In contrast, the MPTT had a very strong sense of the necessity of (normative) forensic practice owing to several misidentifications of remains by the TRC. Forensic Architecture's reintroduction of the forum into the understanding of forensics opened a space in which to rethink and accept Sekula's challenge 'to help prevent the cancellation of that testimony [in all its iterations] by more authoritative and official texts.'26 Yet, as Van Laun (this issue) demonstrates, and as we have come to understand, testimony that a counter-forensic practice enables also has the potential to run up against what might be seen as a limit. This limit sees the figuring of both the missing/missed body of apartheid atrocities and the racialised body of the colonial museum caught in ongoing critiques about the ways in which they are appropriated into the post-apartheid nation.


Missing and missed and the South African nation

That the dead figure in the nation is hardly a new development, as is documented in multiple historical and contemporary settings. South Africa is no exception. However, long histories of colonial and racial subjugation have configured the place and the naming of dead in the post-apartheid nation in very particular ways.

'What's in a name?' asks Jane Taylor (this issue). Later we will answer, 'everything, as a name -identification - enables the return of this person. We note here the difficulties we have had in appropriately specifying and naming the missing dead of whom we write. These difficulties are more than a search for appropriate descriptive terms, but raise issues of ontology, law, history and politics. They also index the instability of death (rather than its finality) and the impossible uncertainty of missingness evoked in several articles in this issue (Taylor, Vilho Shigwedha, Fullard and Keenan).

For missing persons, the ontological question of whether they are alive or dead, and the multiple ontologies of being, is at the heart of the uncertainty that missing-ness and death itself produces (Joost Fontein, this issue). The answer to this ontological question is by no means a simple matter. It is easy to understand that for families of those rendered missing, this question can only be answered by locating a live person or producing a dead body. Yet the polysemy of death and its afterlives no longer make confirmation of a death sufficient, and is partly responsible for the break from previous practices of allowing the dead of war and violence to lie in graves distant from home. For skeletons of empire, their ontological status as dead enabled their transmutation from subject to object, human to nonhuman. Indeed, this transmutation rested on a prior ontological classification within physical anthropology of those named as bushmen, as prehuman 'living fossils', a specific classification imposed on various southern Africans, during a phase of anxiety about 'extinction' in the early 1900s.27 The bushman body was cast as a recovered object of a primitive racial type doomed to inevitable extinction and encrustation in rock. Moreover, the question of what constitutes a body has emerged with force in this moment of return where mortal remains may have disintegrated over time or been disarticulated - mutilated or fragmented at death - and commingled in mass graves, located across multiple graves (as in former Yugoslavia), or eaten by predators.

Of course, these are not merely ontological questions, they are also legal; what constitutes a person is a matter of law. Law also frames and categorises th