Dignity beyond land

2012-04-07 13:52

Land is dignity.

But the situation facing the Khomani San/Bushmen in South Africa’s southern Kalahari offers a disturbing case study in how the restoration of dignity hinges on far more than just land restitution.

The Khomani constitute the only cohesive San/Bushman community that survived the centuries-long genocide against them in our country.

Their elected traditional leader is Dawid Kruiper and he lives in a shack on one of six farms which he and his clan were awarded in their successful land claim of 1999.

The one borehole on the property yields water which is so high in fluoride that it has rotted his teeth. Dawid’s toilet is behind a bush in the veld and he cooks on an open fire.

Twelve years since being awarded Witdraai there’s still no electricity, no road to speak of and no houses. And it’s not for the want of asking.

But government’s attitude to the plight of these people, the genetically proven descendants of the ancestors of all modern human beings and the first citizens of our country, varies from indifference to callousness.

“Restorative justice” and “comparable redress” – terms so readily bandied about by our post-1994 leaders – mean nothing for the Khomani.

Added to this, entrenched racism in the region often makes their lives unbearable, so they drown their grief in cheap rot-gut from the Molopo Bottle Store across the road from their farm which turns these mild-mannered men and women into maestros of self-destruction.

Social services can’t – or won’t – provide the kind of interventions needed to heal this profoundly pained group of people.

That task has fallen to philanthropic outsiders who have worked tirelessly to bring facilities and courses to the Khomani which they hope will gradually restore justice and a sense of self-worth that didn’t come in a neat package with their land.

We are all implicated in the psychic damage done to the Khomani, for they were “broken” long before their arrival at Witdraai by a traumatic history that is long and unrelenting. Since the time their forebears hunted throughout our sub-continent, they’ve seen the arrival of many “newcomers”.

The agro-pastoralists (or “Bantu” people) met the San/Bushmen with a variety of treatments, from mutually beneficial interaction through enslavement to war. But it was with the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s that unmitigated disaster befell the San/Bushmen.

On their ships came devastating germs, guns and ideological supremacy that allowed the Europeans to commit crimes against the Bushmen that beggar belief. Believe it or not, one could buy a permit to hunt San/Bushmen in South Africa until 1927 and in Namibia until 1937.

Even in the arid semi-desert of the Kalahari, they experienced a shrinking of their hunting grounds.

The “Basters” (products of the intermarriage of Dutch settlers and Khoi), arrived in the Northern Cape in the 1860s and took control of the water points for their herds.

So the Khomani kept moving and Dawid’s grandfather, Makai, was in Namibia with his family when even worse events caught up with them – the holocaust perpetrated by the Germans between 1904 and 1908 in which the Kaiser’s imperial army killed 80% of the Herero population and 50% of the Nama.

It also displaced all the Bushmen people in the area, many of whom starved to death.

The Kruipers fled back into what is now the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) where the big squeeze just kept on coming. In 1913 the area was divided into farms, but the settlers didn’t last long in this inhospitable place, so in 1931 the area was declared a national park.

Fortuitously, the extended Kruiper family attracted the favourable attention of the first park warden and was allowed to stay and work as trackers and roadmakers. The rest of their people were evicted.

And so the social fabric of the Khomani was torn apart and their language, N|u, died. In its place they learned the languages of their oppressors and employers, Afrikaans and Nama, which they speak to this day.

Efforts to establish a “Bushman Reserve” where the Khomani could live undisturbed, came to nothing and the extended Kruiper clan was finally evicted from the park in the early 1970s, forced to squat on the side of the road to the Tweerivieren gate and eke out an existence selling trinkets to passing tourists.

Eventually the winds of change blowing through South Africa swept through the Kalahari. With the help of lawyer Roger Chennells, a few Khomani families, led by the Kruipers and numbering between 100 and 150 people, lodged a claim totalling 400?000 hectares in the park.

But the Department of Land Affairs had concerns about such a big tract of land being awarded to so few people and insisted that the claim be opened up to other San people.

The Northern Cape was scoured for San descendants, however distant, and in a flawed and dubious process, the numbers swelled to about 500. But the majority of the claimants were not people who wanted to preserve San/Bushman heritage.

In 1999 a constructed clan of Khomani San/Bushmen were awarded six farms made up of 40 000 hectares outside the park and 25 000 hectares inside it. They also have symbolic and cultural rights over the park, entitling them to undertake traditional hunting and gathering, and visit their heritage sites.

The settlement agreement set out the services to be provided to make the claim a competent mechanism of transformation and redress. A victory it should have been but, true to their history, the Khomani were left with empty words on a piece of paper.

Over and over they were told by government that, despite its contractual obligations, it “just didn’t have the necessary budget to assist”. Living 60km away from their KTP land, without a vehicle or money for transport, the Khomani had to wait seven years before being able to set foot on it.

Other evils beset the process. The first three committees elected to administer their properties embezzled hundreds of thousands of rands over a period of nine years.

Administration of the estate was given to the Department of Land Affairs in November 2002, but there still hasn’t been a financial audit, no charges have been laid and not a cent has been recovered.

In the absence of official support, however, things are beginning to turn around for the Khomani people thanks to private individuals and the funding they’ve applied for through bodies like the Peace Parks Foundation and The African Safari Lodge Foundation.

The community has its own office and its own small tourism and tracking businesses. One of the farms, Erin, has been restocked with game and has just hosted its first commercial hunt.

As well as basic services, they need to be empowered, encouraged and resourced to explore the most basic human right – choice.

The choice to live in a more traditional way or to embrace modern culture, or perhaps a bit of both.

» Glyn recently spent three months with the Kruipers, visiting their heritage sites in the Kalahari.

Her book about the journey will be published next year. To see an illustrated talk about the journey and to order the book, write to patriciaglyn@wol.co.za 

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