Eddie Koch visits a northern Cape army base with land minister Derek Hanekom
THE owner of a game lodge in Namibia which goes under the name “Intu Afrika”, called up the Schmidtsdrift army base last year, and asked to borrow some bushmen who could perform their ancient traditions for tourists on his farm.
Schmidtsdrift army base, a tract of windswept thornveld in the Northern Cape, is home to 4500 Khwe and !Xu people who fled with the South African military from Namibia at independence. Since they have very little to do with their lives, five families volunteered and were despatched by bus to their new place of employment.
The problem, though, was that these were ordinary folk. They wore trousers and shirts and dresses. They slept on beds. They washed with soap and combed their hair. They went to church. And they did not appreciate having to sport animal skins around their loins.
After a few days, the irate farmer called to say he was sending them back. These people, he said, did not fit the bill. They were not short and yellow. Many looked just like other Namibians. Some drank too much. And they refused to behave like “genuine bushmen”.
The incident highlights the plight of a people who have been persecuted, misunderstood, shunted around and betrayed for most of their lives. “My personal feeling,” says Feliciano Mario Mahongo, “is that we are not seen as human beings any more. We are just sportgoed — playthings for other people.”
The latest cause for this expression of despair stems from a paradox: a land claim by the original isiTswana- speaking inhabitants who were forcibly removed from this land in the apartheid era is threatening to unsettle a vulnerable group of people who have already been dislocated twice in 15 years.
The !Xu and Khwe community consists of some 550 South African National Defence Force soldiers and their dependants who come mainly from southern Angola and the eastern Caprivi of Namibia.
“We !Xu are a small people and we have always been oppressed by the bigger groups,” says Mahongo. “In those years relations between us and die swart mense (Chokwe and Mbukushu inhabitants of southern Angola) were bad. They would chase us, take our cattle and capture our children to work for them as slaves. The Portuguese came to us and said: `We will help you. Come with us and we will fight them together’. So we joined the Portuguese army.”
After the Portuguese left and Angola’s civil war began, the !Xu fled south and lived amongst the Khwe in the Caprivi Strip of what was then South West Africa. “We were employed by the South African army because of our skills at tracking and knowledge of the bush. We had been chased off our traditional lands; we had no economic alternatives.”
In 1990, during the run-up to Namibia’s independence elections, most of the members of the two communities, fearing persecution at the hands of a Swapo-led government, decided to pull out with the South African army and settle at Schmidtsdrift, where they were given automatic South African citizenship and rows of canvas tents that they live in to this day.
Promises of proper brick homes with modern facilities never materialised and never will — at least not at Schmidtsdrift. A local group of Tswana people, the Bathlaping, were shunted off this land by the military in 1968 and are now making a strong claim for their title to be restored.
This week Land Affairs Minister Derek Hanekom visited the site with a group of Bathlaping and promised to speed up resettlement of the original owners. In his talks with the Tswana community, Hanekom stressed that land restitution would have to coincide with a just solution to the plight of the !Xu and Khwe — which is a moral position that held little sway among the Bathlaping delegation.
“We will definitely not be able to live together with the bushmen. They have a different language and a different culture. We won’t be able to speak to them. And they will steal our goats and sheep. Everyone knows they are good hunters and they can walk long distances through this veld … They are not our problem. The army created it and the army must solve it,” Bathlaping elder David Noko said.
George Mokgoro, a spokesman for the dislocated Tswana people, who spent 10 years on Robben Island for his part in the struggle against racial oppression, has gone on record with an even stronger statement:
“We will not share with them. I am not talking about another form of apartheid. I am just trying to reflect the feelings of the community. We are Tswanas. We cannot have two different peoples on the same piece of land.”
The Bathlaping saw their homes bulldozed in 1968. The people were dumped on a barren piece of land hundreds of kilometres away near Kuruman. Most of their livestock died. And they were forced to watch as a group who had sided with their oppressors in the Namibian bush war were allowed to live on land that was denied to them.
The !Xu and Khwe have also been used in ways that intensify antagonisms between them and local residents. When workers downed tools on
the farms around Schmidtsdrift last year, the bushmen were used as replacements. The soldiers were used to track down Umkhonto weSizwe recruits when they deserted an army base near Kimberly last year. And they are regularly deployed to track poachers who hunt buck and other wild animals that thrive on the army base.
But for the !Xu and Khwe residents of Schmidtsdrift, this hostility from the Bathlaping is simply a sign that history will repeat itself, that the big will always oppress the small. “We joined the army for jobs and to survive. We were not the only black people who fought with the SADF. But they only see us. It is because we are the small people. That is why they single us out,” says Mahongo.
The anxiety that accompanies the Bathlaping’s land claim has exacerbated social problems in the community. Alcoholism and bitter family fights are on the increase. Elderly members of the community are particularly confused and powerless. Some, in an apparently desperate attempt to live out their remaining years with some dignity, have left the rows of monotonous khaki tents and live alone in isolated shelters on the banks of the Vaal River.
Until recently, the army has vacillated around its “bushmen problem”. The battalion was officially closed down last year and, although most of the soldiers joined more than 15 years ago, only some 300 have permanent contracts. This group will be integrated into other army regiments but few have formal education qualifications. Although they are veteran fighters, they will go into the SANDF as underlings.
The other 200-odd are classified as temporary workers. They will be cut from the military’s wage bill in a few months, depriving many dependents of their only significant cash income. They also began contributing to a pension fund only three years ago and now have negligible forms of social security to rely on.
Late in 1993, the military set up the !Xu and Khwe Trust which is now trying to find alternative land for the people who, in the words of a white army officer at Schmidtsdrift, find themselves “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”.
This organisation — made up of social workers, lawyers, anthropologists and elected representatives of the !Xu and Khwe — has negotiated a deal with the Namibian government that will allow those who can show they are citizens of that country or are married to bona fide Namibians to apply for permission to go home. But only 200 of the 4500 people at Schmidtsdrift say they will explore this option.
For the rest, the trust has earmarked a white farm near Kimberly as a place where the people can resettle, although problems around how the deal will be financed has slowed down the process.
Hanekom’s push to settle the land issue has galvanised an apparent resolve from the Ministry of Defence. Asked what would happen to the !Xu and Khwe now that the land affairs minister has promised the Bathlaping a speedy return, Defence Minister Joe Modise said: “We are doing everything in our power to find an alternative place for them.”
His deputy, Ronnie Kasrils, visited the camp late last year and made a similar commitment. The residents are not entirely disbelieving. “They fought an election with statements about a better future for everyone so we have to give them a chance,” says a soldier called Jason Mirinda. “Even if they come here and say `look stand back for a while. We’ve got our own problems to solve first. Then we will do this and that for you.’ That will be okay.”
But the people of Schmidtsdrift have heard similar promises before. Nearly two years ago, before Modise took over the ministry, a military spokesman was asked what would become of the !Xu and Khwe after the April elections. His words were uncomfortably familiar. “The army is well aware of its responsibilities … it will do everything in its power to fulfil this responsibility and obligation.”
Says Mahongo: “Many of us believe these promises are just praatery (hot air). We will wait and see. Intussen die onsekerheid vreet ons op — in the meantime, uncertainty eats us up.”