The first people

2010-07-28 00:00

“AS a boy I was told about the San, about their hunting skills and their painting skills. Today they not just a chapter in the history books — they are here, they are real. Their culture should be promoted and preserved for future generations.”

This was from a statement by a speaker at an open day held earlier this month at the Tendele Community Hall close to the Kamberg Nature Reserve in the foothills of the Drakens­berg to celebrate and acknowledge the descendants of the so-called Secret San who live in the area.

The first such day was held in 2003 and since then it has become an annual event. This year speakers included academics, representatives of the provincial heritage body Amafa, the Department of Arts and Culture, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the San descendants themselves.

On the preceding day, elders of the local San community went to the Game Pass Shelter in the nearby reserve to perform the Eland San Descendant Ceremony. The Game Pass Shelter is sometimes referred to as the Rosetta Stone of southern African rock art as it was here that archaeologists found the key to the symbolism of San rock art.

One of those elders, Richard Duma, who lives in Tendele, takes tourists to Game Pass Shelter and other ritual sites associated with the San in the area. “We refer to ourselves as an abathwa [the Zulu word for San] group living under the Duma family name. There were 20 of us when I was growing up but now, with all the children, there are around 200.”

With the advent of democracy, Duma says he and his fellow abathwa felt it was safe to proclaim their true identity. “Until then we had been treated badly,” he said. “People blamed us for carrying misfortune because we knew ritual things and had magical medicines.

“Today the Zulu community is treating us well and benefiting from our medicine and rituals. Some of them even ask, ‘Why did you keep quiet for so long?’.”

Duma knew from childhood that he wasn’t a Zulu. “I remember in our family when I was growing up being told we were not part of the Zulus,” he says. “Then I thought ‘if we are not Zulus, what kind of people are we?’ I asked the elders. They said we grew up under the shadow of Zulus so we could hide. They told us we are not Zulus, we are San and we are just hiding here.

“I’m glad we now have a chance to reveal ourselves,” said Duma. “I would like to ask anyone who thinks they are one of the San people to come out so we can help each other.”

Addressing those attending the open day, Duma appealed to the government to inaugurate an annual San Day in recognition of the country’s First People.

The day’s master of ceremonies, Sello Mokhanya, head of archaeology at the provincial heritage body Amafa, responded by saying: “While we are the Rainbow Nation, we should still know where we come from so we can understand who the nation is.”

Who are we and where do we come from are the two questions that drive society, said Himla Soodyall, director of the Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit (HGDDRU) at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The first question is a difficult and a philosophical one, she said, the answer often depending on context. For example, at a wedding the answer would be that you belonged to the party of the groom or the bride. “In the recent World Cup you might identify yourself as a Bafana Bafana supporter or of some other team. There is no single answer to the question.”

But perhaps the second question is near an answer. “We can all trace our ancestry to a common source in Africa,” said Soodyal. “When humans emerged between 150 000 to 200 000 years ago there is now agreement that they originated in Africa before spreading around the world.”

But where in Africa? “There are two main contenders,” said Soodyal. “East Africa and southern Africa.” She believes the weight of evidence points to South Africa as the “place where humans, our species, originated”.

Soodyall, together with anthropologist Frans Prins, was involved in a genetic sampling of people in the Kamberg area and other parts of the Drakensberg. They found that one in three — 30% of the population — have ancestry connecting them to the San. “This was not unexpected. It reflects the history of assimilation of San women into Bantu-speaking groups,” she said.

DNA comes from the mother and father, explained Soodyall, but a small amount of DNA — mitochondrial DNA — comes only from the mother. A mitochondrial DNA branch known as L0 is commonly found in San people and their maternal descendants, and can therefore be used as a marker to estimate San maternal gene admixture in the other groups. The presence of LO also indicates the oldest branch of the human race, to which the San belong.

“Eight out of 10 people have this DNA in South Africa,” said Soodyall. “Nelson Mandela on his mother’s side is LO. When he was told he said: ‘I am a member of the First People’.”

First People, San, Khoisan, Bushman or abathwa — which is the correct term? Over the years each has fallen in and out of favour. Toetie Dow, a representative of the San/Kham Association, made an appeal regarding words describing the First People. “Khoisan is unacceptable,” he said. “There are San and KhoiKhoi — not Khoisan — they are separate people. But the best solution is to call people after their own group names — for example, I am Kham.”

Dow said that in the context of the recent World Cup, which was about bringing everyone together, he felt it was inappropriate to talk about the genocide that was visited on the San but he pointed out the irony that although the national motto is in a San language there was no consultation with the government on San issues. “They present us at the United Nations, but they don’t talk to us,” he said.

Chief Fuad Mangale of the Griqua noted that while there are 11 official languages in South Africa none of them is a San language. “The San and Khoi issue needs to be driven forward,” he said. “There should be no marginalised people in this country. Now that they have been found they can be included and recognised as the first indigenous people.”

THE San settled in the Drakensberg of KwaZulu-Natal at least 8 000 years ago. They migrated with the game that provided their food source. However, around 1 600 years ago the advent of black farmers moving south to the eastern seaboard of southern Africa saw many nomadic San leave the Berg and attach themselves to friendly farmer villages. When the majority of these Bantu-speaking farmers left for the better environment of the Limpopo valley, some San accompanied them while others returned to the Berg.

When Nguni-speaking farmers arrived in KwaZulu-Natal there was contact between them and the San. Linguistic and genetic evidence suggests that an incredible amount of inter­marriage and gene flow must have occurred. The clicks so prominent in Xhosa and Zulu languages were borrowed from the San, while both groups contain a large percentage of San gene markers.

Not all interactions between the two groups were peaceful. San groups in the mountains were often attacked and killed during the time of Zulu expansion under King Shaka. Further pressure came when Zulu- speaking groups were forced to settle in the Maloti-Drakensberg or its foothills by colonial powers in the 19th century.

When the game was shot out, the San raided farms, which brought further retaliation. The San who remained in the Berg found shelter with friendly African chiefs who hid them from the colonial authorities.

Despite their violent persecution, the San of the Berg were not subjected to the genocide practised on the San in the Western Cape, the upper Karoo and parts of Nam­ibia. Archaelogical evidence for the San is widespread throughout the Berg with more than 45 000 known individual examples of rock art.

During the late 20th century a few San began revealing their true ethnic identity. The advent of democracy saw many more emerge. During the time of not being seen, they adopted the names and cultures of their African neighbours, but secretly kept their culture alive. Today researchers know of almost 600 people who claim to be Drakensberg San or are of direct San descent. — Digest of the paper “Secret San of the Maloti- Drakensberg” by Frans Prins.


WHEN it comes to preserving the San rock art of the Drakensberg Amafa’s senior rock art officer Celeste Rossouw says involving the community is vital for the long term conservation of these art works. “There are over 600 rock art sites, clearly Amafa can’t monitor them all so we involve the community.”

She said the majority of damage done to rock art sites is done by people. This ranges from deliberate vandalislm such as using rock art for target practice or adding graffiti to soot deposits from camp fires. “Also people wanting to bring out the colour to better photograph the paintings throw water on them.”

Rossouw said the numbers of people on Amafa supervised visits to rock art sites are kept to a maximum of 12 in order to keep the dust down as the lead in the dust reacts chemically with the paintings.

“The sites are excellently managed now because we have partnerships with communities. We only have buy in when people know the importance and value of the site.”

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