This year marks 20 years since the ǂKhomani San Land Claim Agreement was signed at Molopo. Hugh Brody, a British anthropologist, writer and director, worked during the 1990s to document the project in 140 hours of recorded interviews, genealogical research and geographical mapping aimed at securing the land. This powerful audio-visual collection, known as the ǂKhomani San – Hugh Brody Archive Collection, is available for study in Special Collections. Brody also produced a series of short films based on the footage collected in Tracks Across Sand. A copy for viewing is available in our African Studies Film Collection.
by Hugh Brody
In 1996, when the ǂKhomani San land claim was first launched, there had been a long period of drought across the southern Kalahari. Some said that this lack of rain was nothing to do with the narrowly meteorological: if the Bushmen were not living on the land and carrying out their ritual life, if they were not making their dances and songs, then the rains would not be summoned.
Drought, they said, resulted from the dispossession and expulsion of the people from their lands.
On 21 March, 1999, when the #Khomani San Land Claim Agreement was being signed at Molopo, a dark cloud loomed across the sky and rain began to fall. It continued to rain for many days; the two rivers flowed; the southern Kalahari exploded into life. Ten years after the claim, sitting in the dunes, near his new grass house close to the San gate to the Park, Dawid Kruiper, official leader of the #Khomani San remembered the day the deal had been signed:
Mbeki came with the helicopter and the black car… When the helicopter landed there are lovely loose little clouds. Here a cloud, there a cloud, another one, lush clouds. And the clouds begin to speak… And from the top, a faint rain already came. When the rain began to fall hard, the helicopters rose. Within two days, there were pools of water between the dunes. After thirty dry years, on that specific day, it rained. Since that time, the veldt looks like this (pointing to the abundant grasses around him). Those years when we were forced out were sad. Then the land was given back, signed for. All those bad things they did to us, we forgave them. That is why the blessings of rains came that day,…So that we can eat such fat meat today.
In October 1997 Dawid Kruiper, Anna Swartz and Jakob Malgas, along with members of their families, gathered at the Red House at the edge of the community of Welkom, a few miles from the gates to what was then called the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. A small team of researchers joined them, to begin work on documenting the the ǂKhomani San relationship to their lands and to put together the events – the mixture of personal and public narratives – that had caused them to move from homes inside the Park to life at the margins of a remote Township and shelters at the side of the road. There was employment, but this was at the lowest levels of earning or security; there was much poverty. They lived there from hand to mouth, selling crafts and some artwork to passing tourists, posing to have their photographs taken alongside their roadside grass huts, wearing ‘traditional’ Bushman clothing.
In the years before the research began, members of the Kruiper and Malgas families had worked for a few weeks at stretch at the tourist resort of Kagga Kamma, where, a three hour drive away from Cape Town, near the Cederberg Mountains, they had been a living exhibit of Bushman life. But in 1996 this had ceased. This group, led by Dawid Kruiper and supported by the lawyer Roger Chennells, had taken advantage of the new legislation that the ANC had introduced soon after coming to power: those dispossessed since 1913 by racist laws and administrative measures could seek redress through newly created Land Claims Courts.
Dawid Kruiper and his father Regopstan, then living in or near Welkom, had told Roger about their expulsion from their homes inside the Park. If this account could be documented and admitted by the Courts, then the Bushman families at Welkom, they could seek a return to those lands, or due compensation for all they had lost.
This became the ǂKhomani San Land Claim.
The new South Africa San Institute (SASI) was created, with Nigel Crawhall, a socio-linguist then based in Cape Town, its first Director. Nigel invited me to work with SASI on developing and implementing a series of research projects that would provide the background data and narratives that any such claim would have to rely on.
This work was part of a complex of developments, including a recovery of identity, self-esteem and collective knowledge. Here were people able, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to share and celebrate the details of their expertise and history. The optimism and energy were palpable. There was both intense engagement with the process and a warm, welcoming humour. Seriousness of purpose and laughter.
The work with the maps began with place names. I remember the excitement when Tony Traill wrote out their name for Twee Rivieren, the place where the !Aob and Nossop – the two rivers running south through the Park – met and joined. This was the place where the gates to the Park had been built and where it had set up headquarters and tourist lodges. It was also where the Kruipers and others had often lived or gathered. Tony went over the sounds, making sure he got the clicks right, and then wrote it onto the map: ‡aka‡nous
In this one word, at this moment of writing, the people of the southern Kalahari affirmed their way of knowing the place in a form that outsiders would be able to read and therefore acknowledge. It was a first step on the journey towards the complex of information and stories that were to become an immense body of research findings; and the intellectual underpinning of what was to become the Claim.
The mapping had taken its inspiration from the work done in the 1970s with Inuit and First Nations in northern Canada, where each person would make a map illustrating the different ways in which they used and knew the land. This had generated many kinds of maps, with varying degrees of detail and specificity, but the making of these kinds of maps in the southern Kalahari was not as comprehensive as we had hoped. Instead of the more conventional land use maps, many of these men and women wanted to show where and how they had lived on and near those farms. And, as they created these time-lines, speaking of the events, conditions and challenges of their lives as farm workers or, in some cases, squatters at the sides of roads, they described the many ways in which their heritage had nonetheless been of immense and indeed vital importance to them. Short of many of life’s essentials, from food to medicines, they harvested all the edible and medicinal plants they could; and, if it was at all possible, hunted, often in fear of being detected and punished, for whatever game they could harvest. In this way, San intellectual heritage sustained families even in their displacement and dispossession. Bill Kemp, who had played a key role in the Canadian Arctic mapping, worked with Nigel and the elders, to create a set of map-posters that set out for separate families this blend of migrant labour and distinctive intangible culture.
As we began the mapping and time-line work, questions arose about the languages that the people were using. Many of the San at Welkom spoke Afrikaans and Nama. These had come from their long connections with Boer farmers for whom so many San families had worked, and the Nama sheep herders, with whom the San of that region had developed a complex inter-dependency and inter-marriage. The San language appeared to have disappeared. Dawid and Jakob told us that their grandparents had spoken it; but it had not been passed on to their generation. In fact, the San language of the southern Kalahari had been declared extinct in 1974, when Tony Traill had visited the region in order to establish if there were still any speakers of what was supposed to have been an original #Khomani San language. In the wake of its linguistic neighbour to the South, /Xam, the language appeared to have died out. Then we met Elsie Vaalboi, who turned out to be a fluent speaker of what she referred to as ‘die Outaal’, the old language. Elsie, mother of Pietrus Vaalboi, who had been working with Nigel and SASI on the the land claim, was living in Rietfontein, a small, mostly Nama community right on the Namibia border. Tony Traill returned to the northern Cape, spent time with Elsie at her home, and confirmed that she spoke the language that he had thought was extinct. Thus the San language of the area, N/uu, became an element in the claim.
Elsie believed that there were no other speakers of N/uu still alive. But after spending time visiting townships and farms wherever people who identified as San were said to be living, Nigel and his team found twenty-two other speakers. This led to the mapping of their lives; and to the discovery that there were displacements of families from the National Park in the 1930s. The ǂKhomani San Land Claim came to include different strands of history, heritage and loss. This widening of the claim was not without its difficulties; rivalries and tensions began to develop; lines of difference and suspicion started to be drawn between the original claimants, based at Welkom, and the families of N/uu speakers who were living in townships in or near Upington.
Although genealogical work showed kinship ties, and many individuals from different sides of these apparent divides were delighted to establish or re-establish shared interests of many kinds, a tendency arose among some outsiders, including well-meaning NGOs, to speak of the claimants as if some had a more authentic claim than others. In fact, all shared the same foundation for a claim based on the 1913 dispossession – and thus the claim relied on the evidence from all sides of the region’s history, from each narrative of loss. In due course, the Claim did indeed apply equally to all segments of the region’s San who shared histories of dispossession; but the divisions were cut painfully deep and have been slow to fade.
From the beginning of the work on mapping, oral history, time lines and languages, we filmed as much as possible of the process. For many whose narratives became the core of the southern Kalahari land claim, this process gave them an opportunity, perhaps for the first time in very many years, to be heard, to be given recognition for who they were and the place they occupied in the region and, indeed, within South Africa.
The land claim went through, of course, in 1999; but the work on maps, oral history and language continued long after. Intensive work was done in 2000, 2001 and 2002. In 2008 and then again in 2010 I returned to the region and talked (and filmed) with many of those who had lived through the claim and its aftermath. This led to another whole level of data, a further set of narratives, which all spoke to the way the claim had affected people’s lives – often in complex and difficult ways.
At this stage, Haida Paul, the Vancouver based editor with whom I had worked, began editing this vast body of visual material, resulting in the DVD, Tracks Across Sand, with its sixteen edited pieces – the story being told by the ǂKhomani San; in their own words, and in their own world. The films have reached many audiences – from Kimberley, Upington and across the northern Cape, to Cape Town, Johannesburg, and throughout Africa; from England to Canada.
The project has not yet concluded. What has followed is the consolidation and securing of all the results of the research, recording, map making and filming, the whole body of material, as an archive at the University of Cape Town’s Special Collections Audiovisual Archive. Some of the earliest recordings are being revisited by the professional linguistic consultancy, African Tongue, to ensure accuracy in all translations.
When David Kruiper spoke to us about the signing ceremony, and remembered the way the clouds appeared, he was evoking optimism and a spirit of reconciliation. The great challenge, in the southern Kalahari, as for all peoples who have been displaced and dispossessed by colonial forces, for the many communities that struggle with the aftermath of racism and in the grim challenges of rural poverty, is to see the way to sustain reconciliation and realise optimism. It has not been easy; as Nigel Crawhall said when we were coming close to the end of the work, it is far easier to achieve justice than to secure wellbeing. But being heard and seen can help to ensure that the ǂKhomani San, along with their neighbours, are given rightful place in the new South Africa.
All of those who speak for themselves and their families in these materials, whose voices and lives are part of the archive, along with all of us who had the privilege to work on the mapping, recording and filming, must give our thanks to UCT for creating the archive and for ensuring that it is accessible on line. We look forward to working with UCT, and the dedicated staff in UCT Libraries Special Collections, to carry all this forward into the future.