Dispossessed Bushmen’s woes told
privately owned by the Khomani, and the South African National Parks (SANParks) would be responsible for its conservation management. The community would be awarded commercial development rights to a further section of the park, as far north as the Auob River (referred to as the Vzone), and cultural and symbolic rights to the rest of the claimed area. This entitled them to visit their heritage sites, gather plants and hunt and live there traditionally, but not permanently, by agreement with management.
But resistance to this proposal from the old-guard Afrikaners and others within SANParks was huge. There were even alleged incidents of park management cutting down trees that had been homes to the Khomani so as to destroy evidence of them having been there. Dries Englebrecht, head of the park at the time, famously expressed the view that “tourists come to the park to see animals, not people”. The fight got ugly, with accusations flying that the families who had lived in the park were a bunch of drunken poachers; that they had destroyed anything they were given; and, besides, they were not proper Bushmen anyway.
The task of ascertaining whether or not the Khomani were “the real thing” fell to Nigel Crawhall. Shortly after starting his research, Nigel was told that there was an old woman living in Rietfontein who spoke “Bushman”. He rushed to the bleak settlement and was introduced to 102-year-old Elsie Vaalbooi. Their meeting turned out to be lifechanging for both of them. With a portable CD player, Nigel played Elsie some 1936 recordings of Nuu, one of the original Bushman languages of the territory that had been thought to be extinct since 1974. “A veil lifted from Ouma’s face,” Nigel told me. “Time evaporated, she was transported back across a lifetime. She… understood every word.”
With the help of Elsie’s son, Petrus, Nigel found a further 26 speakers of Nuu, scattered across the farms and townships of the Northern Cape. “Each discovery brought back this moment of becoming a human again, of a return of dignity, of being seen and heard,” Nigel wrote of these encounters.
Nuu was older than all the other Bushman languages of our subcontinent and the people who spoke it were the original occupants of the southern Kalahari and the Karoo. It was the only Bushman language from South Africa’s past that had survived contact with its subsequent migrants and colonists, in part because its speakers lived in a climatically harsh area that was not attractive to the newcomers. Sadly, since the land claim, so many of the Nuu speakers have passed away that the language must now be regarded as all but dead, despite the fact that Nigel Crawhall and some community elders established a Nuu language school. The speed at which it reached its moribund state was extremely fast – it happened within one generation – not only because of the displacement of its speakers but because those who spoke the language were often beaten by their employers for using a skinder taal (gossip language). During apartheid many Bushman children became ashamed of their heritage and their grannies often hid their knowledge of the language from their descendants.
Finding living Nuu speakers put paid to SANParks’ legal attempts to stop the land claim process but it did not result in improved relations between the two parties. Part of the problem was that key individuals from either side did not fully understand the provisions of the settlement proposal, a lengthy contract referred to as the “Brown Book” – 55 chapters of rules and procedures, drafted by lawyers, that were complicated even for the educated, let alone for illiterate Bushmen.
Years passed without the Khomani visiting their land in the park, even though its allocation had been agreed upon in 1999. Phillipa and Grossie increased their pressure on SANParks to find a solution to the impasse. Then the authorities saw the perfect opportunity for a welltimed transfer of the land. The World Summit on Sustainable Development was being held in South Africa in August 2002, and, with the global media in Johannesburg, it would be an ideal time to maximise the publicity potential of the handover. With fitting fanfare, but not nearly enough media coverage as far as the minister was concerned, the dummy was given to the Khomani.
But any hopes they had of seeing it soon were slowly crushed.
For a start, the Contract Park is about 80km from Andriesvale. The community had no vehicles and walking there was completely beyond the old folk. A document called the “Welkom Declaration” throws some light on the depth of the Bushmen’s anguish and frustration during the long years of waiting. It was written in 2004, when they still had not visited their land, and was the result of a meeting attended by Khomani who were born in the park and wanted to practise their cultural traditions there. The petition was sent to SANParks, the Department of Land Affairs and the Department of Environmental Affairs and it begins with touching gratitude for the Contract Park. Then it adopts an uncompromising tone: “We are deeply heartsore, and have carried this pain with us for the past years, and we are bitterly dissatisfied over the manner in which our Kruiper clan has been treated, we are insulted, belittled and discriminated against… we feel like strangers on our land of birth [and] are being completely brushed aside.”
The document ends: “We are the last and original clan and insist on going back to… living on the land of our forefathers, we insist on this.”
But still, going to the park remained but a dream. Phillipa and Grossie kept banging on SANParks’ doors and asking for the implementation of the agreement. Eventually SANParks’ head office applied pressure on local park management and in April 2006 – a full seven years after the land claim settlement in 1999 – Phillipa arranged for the clan elders to go to the Contract Park and they stood together on their land for the first time.
They named it the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park, a Nuu name meaning “oryx tail” because they had managed to catch the park by its tail and hang on to the great beast. It is commonly referred to as the Contract Park by the community.
This is an extract from What Dawid Knew, published by Picador Africa, an imprint of an Macmillan. Available from all good bookstores at an RRP of R220.
A MATTER OF TRUST: Dawid Kruiper and author Patricia Glyn journeyed through the Kalahari to release Dawid’s secret to his sons.