Soul of the first people

2013-04-24 00:00

IT has always struck me as singularly odd that the national Coat of Arms should be so spectacularly anachronistic. Why would we choose a language for our coat of arms which we recognise nowhere else? And the stick figures on the Coat of Arms are clearly meant to represent either the Khoi or the San, or something in-between. Why would we choose them, when we continue to recognise almost nothing else about them in our national life?

So I was both pleased and interested to attend a national “dialogue” with the so-called “Khoisan” in Kimberley earlier this month. They came from all over the country. From every province. They spoke mostly Afrikaans. Publicly though, there were some demonstrations of the spectacular shower of clicks of a fast-disappearing tongue. The mood was high. There was much banging of tables and blowing of a shofar (or ram’s horn) at the mention of anything slightly anti-government. Or, indeed, anything which told of their dispossession and their anger at it. Their sense of deep loss. Their mutual nostalgia for values and traditions which lie only in a distant world, in another time.

Some do not recognise this government at all. I have sat in meetings in the past where they have shouted at me, consigning me and “my” government to hell and damnation. I noticed, when we stood to sing the national anthem, that there were some among them who refused to do likewise. They sat, sullenly and pointedly. It was not theirs. They would not be coaxed into making it theirs, either.

They came in various hues. Racism was sometimes extreme and often overt. I heard one or two of them complaining that the delegates from the North looked “more like Ngunis”. The focus of their dislike and venom was aimed at “die swartes” — the blacks — and their government. Unsurprisingly (to me, anyway), whites, and the previous white government, seemed to get off relatively lightly. It was die swartes who were to blame for the majority of their woes. It is die swartes who are taking their jobs and robbing them of their land.

Many of them spoke of themselves as though — in the hierarchy of dispossession — they were at the very bottom. There was a tendency to reshade history adroitly and to present the Khoisan as the only and the ultimately dispossessed. Some bemoaned the perceived fact that they fared a whole lot better under apartheid. There was more and better education. There were jobs. There were houses. It wasn’t paradise, but it wasn’t anything worse than their present conditions and possibly a whole lot better.

I was powerfully struck by their obvious and sad lack of unity, caused, undoubtedly by the fact that they have had relatively few opportunities to ever get together. The majority spoke in glowing terms of a world they didn’t know and of which they had almost no experience. There were young children there — maybe 15 or 16 years old — who really should have been in school. These children whipped themselves up into a fervour that was chilling when handed a microphone. They each reflected their parents’ fervour, and longing, and hatred and sense of betrayal. They would storm whichever citadel they were aimed at. They would stop short of virtually nothing to achieve their goal.

The “dialogue” ended when a woman sitting at a table in front of me (and who had introduced herself as the spiritual leader of the Khoisan) took the microphone on the stage to close in prayer. Before she did so, she called on other religious leaders to join her on the stage. Half the audience stood and went forward. There was very little space left on the enormous stage when all of them had made their way there.

Then she started. She screamed relentlessly into the microphone. Hands elsewhere were raised. The name of Jesus was shouted. The ram’s horn blew. She wasn’t so much praying as providing marching orders for God.

The prayer carried on for probably a full 15 minutes. In the middle, she built up to a thundering crescendo, with tears pouring down her face, her voice breaking and rising at the end of each sentence. There was shouting in front of her and behind her. Hands, outstretched, reached for the ceiling. The horn blew from the back of the hall. And then it was suddenly over and everyone went on their way.

I could not help wonder why people striving to recapture something of their culture and the tradition of their forebears would choose to engage in, (and with such remarkable enthusiasm and vigour) the religion of the coloniser. And then, not only that, but in its most extreme and most obviously American form. That is a strange thing indeed.

And, secondly, I could not but fail to notice my own repugnance of that thing called “nationalism”. It is always built on such shaky foundations. And it almost always leads down the road to disaster and ruin.

• Michael Worsnip is the chief director: restitution support for the Western Cape.

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