The secret pool of surviving Bushmen at Chrissiesmeer
For decades, academics have predicted their imminent demise, but Kevin Davie meets living members of an ancient San community.
We have many languages in South Africa, but what about /Xegwi? The word looks so alien, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that /Xegwi was a language in use in South Africa as recently as 100 years ago.
/Xegwi is an ancient language, one of the country’s originals. If you Google it, you’ll quickly find that it is extinct, as dead as the people who once spoke it. But maybe not.
I came across this story on a bicycle trip through Mpumalanga with two friends. The laminated pamphlet on the front desk of our lodge in Chrissiesmeer, near Ermelo, offered activities such as visiting a derelict town, checking the apparent impression of a giant foot in a rock face or viewing Bushman paintings. The guides for the rock-art tour were two Bushmen.
Chrissiesmeer is something of a South African secret. There are more than 270 lakes in a 20km by 20km area. One, Lake Chrissie, is one of the largest fresh-water lakes in South Africa. The water attracts an abundance of bird, frog and animal life.
The fact that the rock-art guides are themselves Bushmen is extraordinary as they are widely believed to be extinct in most of South Africa.
A manifestation of this is Unesco’s citation, which confers world heritage status on the Drakensberg: “The rock paintings are outstanding in quality and diversity of subject and in their depiction of animals and human beings. They represent the spiritual life of the now extinct San people.”
I did not have time to hang out with the Bushmen, but a few months later I was back in Chrissiesmeer to find out more.
The pamphlet led to Athol Stark, an Ermelo-based commodity broker by profession and tourism promoter—specifically in the Highveld region of Mpumalanga—by passion. We drove to Ermelo to meet him.
Stark epitomises energy. Ask for tourism-related advice in the area and invariably his name comes up.
Historical anachronism: photos of the Lake Chrissie Bushmen taken by linguist Dorothea Bleek on a visit in the early 1900s, used to illustrate a study of the distribution of Bushman languages. (Bleek and Lloyd Collection, UCT Libraries)
He told me a story about driving through the area one day, when he was surprised to see a Bushman beside the road. This has to be a profound experience, meeting a real living person of a race widely considered to be extinct, at least in South Africa.
Stark stopped to chat. His interest piqued, he hunted down obscure academic studies that have been done periodically on the Bushmen of Chrissiesmeer.
He invited a Bushman group from the Kimberley area to Ermelo as part of an initiative called History in Action. These people, formerly from Namibia and Angola, acted as trackers for the then South African Defence Force in its war against the Swapo and were settled at Schmidtsdrift in a tent town near Kimberley at the end of hostilities.
Led by Vincent Kajara, the group put on cultural shows in Ermelo. Stark said that at one point Kajara took him aside and pointed to the crowd: “I can see our people here.” He wanted to ask them to come forward and acknowledge their ancestry.
Stark said that after the show local Bushmen did indeed come forward, saying they were Bushmen or, more precisely, as they are Afrikaans-speaking, Boesmanne. About 30 people in the area have to date identified themselves as such.
Two brothers, Wole and Taki van Dyk, accompany tourists on visits to caves. Bizarrely, they have also acted as page boys in the cave wedding of a British couple.
Stark said that the family had a Bushman name, perhaps Tlau’ tle, until the 1950s when the dompas (pass) system was introduced.
As their grandfather had too many clicks in his surname for the official charged with issuing the document, he was told to go away and choose a more suitable name. He settled on the name of the white farmer on whose farm they lived.
But the dompas brought another problem. There was no race category of Bushman, San or Boesman. He had to be Cape Coloured.
It is worth noting, in passing, what apartheid was doing here. The Bushmen have humanity’s most ancient DNA lineage, stretching back about 120 000 years of a possible 150 000. Apartheid, by decree, was in effect wiping out humanity’s links with its past.
Wole and Taki’s grandfather appears in a 1950s study by EF Potgieter, The Disappearing Bushmen of Lake Chrissie. It includes a section by linguist D Ziervogel, who recorded key /Xegwi words and wrote that /Xegwi had 26 different clicks.
When Wole and Taki were shown Potgieter’s publication, they excitedly pointed to a picture of their grandfather. His study is full of detail. It tells us, for instance, that fire was made with a flint, tontelbos and a little plucked hair.
Potgieter found 32 Bushmen in the area. He observed that some of them spoke South Sotho, suggesting that they may have originally lived in the eastern Free State or Lesotho.
Potgieter said they still appeared to know their language fairly well. “They are not inclined to speak their own tongue in the presence of Swazis or Europeans.” But he said that the young Bushmen “show signs of forgetting the language”.
They called themselves Tlou’e'thle which Stark, also a linguist, said means people of rock and water. If you ever meet Stark, or someone who can speak /Xegwi, get them to pronounce Tlou’e'thle . Unusually in speech, it is produced by breathing in rather than out.
Potgieter wrote that “these people are no longer bearing any children. The youngest among them are approximately 30 years old”. The Chrissiesmeer Bushmen were the last of the last and would soon be extinct.
He called the Bushmen Batwa or Abathwa, a Nguni name, meaning small person, and suggested that the Abathwa had been in this area since at least 1 800. How long have Bushmen lived in Chrissiesmeer? In a water-scarce country, it has rolling grassland and an abundance of water.
Stark cited archaeological evidence showing that they lived on the sides of the lakes, where rocks placed in circular formation suggest they were used to hold supports for shelters.
Intriguingly, when the water table is low, as it is periodically, exposing islands on the lakes, archaeologists have found Stone Age tools on these islands. It suggests that the Bushmen actually lived on the lakes, probably on floating reed beds, as protection from predators.
Potgieter’s informants told how their predecessors used to live on the pans of a farm near Lake Chrissie: “The biggest pan on the farm was covered with masses of reeds. During the summer months, some of the families lived on the water, supported by reed platforms.”
He said it was possible to wade far into the water, without having to swim. “They went into the water and broke down the reeds to form a platform at the desired spot.” These Bushmen, by legend, were able to hide themselves by submerging in the lake, breathing through a reed.
Taki (left) and Wole van Dyk act as guides at Mushroom or Murder Rock near Breyton, said to be the site of a Swazi massacre of Bushmen. (Athol Stark)
Potgieter wrote that “today  there are still narratives among whites, Swazi and Bushmen, describing how these people often fled from their enemies to the safety of the pans. They fled into the water, lying down with only the face sticking out, or sitting there with a bundle of grass on the head as camouflage, waiting for the danger to pass”.
From Chrissiesmeer, we cycled south past the lakes, arriving two days later at the hamlet of Luneberg on the KwaZulu-Natal/Mpumalanga border, which was settled by German missionaries in the mid-1850s.
Horst Filter, a descendant of the original settlers, said one of his forebears assisted in moving the Bushmen to Chrissiesmeer. “They sing a song about my grandfather to this day,” Filter said.
Back in Ermelo, I related this story to Stark, who confirmed that an elderly surviving Bushman had told him the same story. Stark has a recording of the song, which he played for us.
Potgieter predicted the demise of the Chrissiesmeer Bushmen, but when KwaZulu-Natal archaeologist Frans Prins visited the area 40 years later in 1995, he found almost 50 people who still called themselves Boesman.
Prins was able to source the original account of the role Filter’s forebear played in assisting the Bushmen. Transport rider Pastor P Filter met the group of about 100 Bushmen in 1879 at Anyspruit, near Piet Retief. He is thought to have supplied timber to the gold mines in the Barberton area.
The year - 1879 -is significant as it was a time of great turmoil, not least because it saw the outbreak of the Anglo-Zulu war.
The group told him they had stolen livestock in Weenen, Natal. Led by a man called Kibit, they comprised two sets of people, one taller and darker, the other shorter and yellower.
“According to the memoirs of Pastor Filter, the yellow group originated from Lesotho while the darker group originally lived in the foothills of the central Natal Drakensberg,” said Prins.
Kleintjie Ndlovu, who usually lives in Middelburg, is an aunt to Taki and Wole. This group all described themselves as Boesmanne, include daughter Elizabeth and son Rooipiet, as well a relative, Linda van Rooi. (Kevin Davie, M&G)
Filter assisted Kibit’s group to join the other Bushmen at Chrissiesmeer. “It appears that Lake Chrissie became the last haven for various groups of southeastern Bushmen,” said Prins. He suggested that there may have been several hundred Bushmen living in the area when the first whites settled in the region in the late 1 800s.
Prins corroborated Filter’s account with the testimony of two present-day Chrissiesmeer Bushmen, one of whom, Klaas Machoqwane, was Kibit’s grandson. They told Prins that soon after the Kibit band arrived in Chrissiesmeer, it was besieged in a shelter on the upper reaches of the Vaal river by a Swazi impi.
Kibit and one other in the band, Hushu, were shamans. Hushu summoned up wind and Kibit a rainstorm, but the Swazis did not leave. All seemed lost. One of the band, thought to be Kibit, did a painting, one of a few for which we know the context in which the art was created. Machoqwane took Prins to the cave where his forbears were besieged. The painting is of three eland, in a block style that Prins said occurs in only one other location, 1000km south in the Main Cave at Giant’s Castle in the central KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg.
Why did they paint eland and not a massacre or battle scene?
Prins’s information, supplied by Hushu’s son to his informant, is that the eland were painted to tell the Swazis that the Bushmen were independent and that they would neither surrender their children nor be their serfs.
The massacre never took place, because a commando led by Bauer Bezuidenhout arrived on the scene. “The Swazis were told to leave the San alone and the impi left for Swaziland,” said Prins.
“Tradition has it that Kibit and his followers became labourers on the boer farms soon after the incident.” When last heard of, Kibit was an agterryer (servant) during the Anglo-Boer War in 1899.
The near-massacre of the Kibit band resonates with reputed earlier events at the Abathwa valley, a site near Breyton, about 30km from Chrissiesmeer, known as Mushroom or Murder Rock. Oral tradition is that this was the site of an infamous Swazi massacre of Bushmen.
Imposing presence: Athol Stark at Mushroom Rock near Breyton, which he says still has an emotional pull for locals. (Kevin Davie, M&G)
Murray and Elzabe Schoonraad, who surveyed the rock art here in the early 1970s, wrote that this and other sites stood as silent witnesses to locations where atrocities had taken place.
We visited the Abathwa valley with Stark. The surrounding landscape is Highveld grassland with a valley carved out by a small river below. Following him down among the rocks, we found a wonder of caves and spectacular natural formations. Rock walls had been built by earlier occupants, who knows when?
The age of the site is apparent from the Stone Age tools found there, which Stark showed us. These included axes, knives and blades. One item was of bone, either a warthog tusk or a hippo tooth.
We walked further to arrive at Mushroom Rock, a spectacular cave in the form of a giant mushroom. There are, in fact, a set of five or six of these giant stone mushrooms, either complete or evolving.
The rush of water and wind over the aeons has created these remarkable shapes, massive overhangs on small central pillars supporting the colossus above.
“There’s something about this valley with the rock, the wind and water, which causes it to have these kinds of features,” said Stark.
If the people of rock and water had one place to call home, this would be it.
Stark said that the Schmidtsdrift group was taken to the site, without being told its history. The women, in particular, were emotional. Stark asked what they were experiencing and was told: “There is a lot of blood in this place.”
The cave is a wonderful spectacle, but my sense is that the place is greater than its imposing natural presence. I felt I was in a sacred space and would not be surprised if over time it is not formally recognised as such.
I have seen published accounts that the last /Xegwi speaker was killed in the 1970s at Lothair, a village not far from Chrissiesmeer. But as with most things /Xegwi, the claim may not be true. Stark said there is an old man in his 90s in Chrissiesmeer who is a /Xegwi speaker.
Prins also told me that some of the old farmers can speak some /Xegwi, having learnt the language from their nannies. Stark said he has heard Wole and Taki using their click language more and more.
Prins said that for many San descendants, the ANC government meant that the “war against the San” had finally ended and that it was okay to emerge into the open. One change for the Chrissiesmeer Bushman since 1994 has been that some have moved into RDP housing the ANC government organised for them in Middelburg.
Dorothea Bleek, the daughter of famed linguist Wilhelm Bleek, visited Chrissiesmeer in the early 1990s for her study The Distribution of Bushman Languages in South Africa, published in 1927.
Her photographs of the Lake Chrissie Bushmen can be seen on the University of Cape Town’s website. They show a people out of place and time, marginal figures in marginal circumstances.
For more than a decade, Prins has studied communities of Bushmen descendants up and down the Drakensberg. Until 1994, they hid their identity, in some cases even taking on a dual ethnicity where they, for instance, were Abathwa among themselves, but for official purposes were Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi or Sotho.
The Chrissiesmeer Bushmen remain well hidden. If you ask locals whether there are Bushmen in the area, they invariably give you blank stares. But on a recent weekend, while looking for the Kibit cave, we drove to where Wole and Taki live.
Home is two wattle-and-daub structures, one of which has a washing line of barbed wire to hang the clothes, and the other has a wheelbarrow on the roof. Neither Wole nor Taki were at home, but a group of four was sitting outside Taki’s house. We started chatting to one of them, a tiny, barefoot, elderly woman who told us her name was Kleintjie Ndlovu.
What languages do you speak, I asked?
“Afrikaans and Zulu,” she said.
“Does that mean you are Zulu?”
“Nee, ek is ‘n Boesman.”
Kleintjie, who usually lives in Middelburg, is an aunt to Taki and Wole. The group of four, all of whom described themselves as Boesmanne, included daughter Elizabeth and son Rooipiet as well a relative, Linda van Rooi.
Kleintjie said she had a Zulu father and a Bushman mother. We asked how she knew that she was a Bushman if her father was black. She replied that her physical characteristics, notably her hair, are those of a Bushman.
She used to work in a kitchen but, other than piece work, the group does not have jobs or access to government grants. Kleintjie has no knowledge of the history of the Bushmen or how they came to live at Chrissiesmeer.
She does not know a single word of the Bushman language. “Was die naam van die taal /Xegwi?” (Was the language called /Xegwi?) I asked. Kleintjie had no answer.