The self-proclaimed chief of the Hancumqua is proud of his heritage, but some doubt his authenticity, writes Gaye Davis
A BAND of cheetah skin around his neck, faux leopard-skin tails dangling from his headband, Chief Joe Little strikes a pose next to a reed hut erected in the cobbled courtyard of Cape Town’s South African Cultural History Museum.
“A people without a past is a people without a future,” he pronounces. “A people that doesn’t know its past will never know its soul.”
The past he is reclaiming – as a direct descendant, through his grandmother, “of the royal tribe” of the Hancumqua – is on display in the museum, in an exhibition on the Khoi. There is the watsonia bulb they used to grind for flour for “Hotnot’s bread”, plants used to heal scurvy-ridden Dutch sailors, a list of Khoi words still used by South Africans today – dagga, kierie, gogga, eina (the last is Khoi for a thornbush, today the Afrikaans for “ouch”).
Little sprang into the public eye at a conference on Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage in Cape Town last weekend. Organised by the Institute for Historical Research at the University of the Western Cape, it saw academics and Khoisan interest groups mingle in sometimes uneasy congress and was used as a platform for calls to the government to protect and promote the languages and culture of indigenous minorities.
A flamboyant, energetic character, Little featured prominently. But many privately questioned his legitimacy as a self- proclaimed chief of the Hancumqua and the chiefly status he has bestowed on others in his organisation, the Cape Cultural Heritage Development Council.
His detractors say he’s an opportunist who has spotted a gap in the post-apartheid political flux and is marketing a potentially dangerous mix of historical fact and fantasy.
But his supporters see him as a man who has sacrificed material comforts to pursue a vision of re-connecting people, fragmented and stripped of their identity under colonialism and apartheid, to their ancient root; at the same time reclaiming and popularising a history that’s been hidden and denied.
Getting a fix on Little proves difficult – partly because of his tendency to go off on historical tangents, partly because of the vagueness of some his answers.
He grew up “as a coloured child” in Plumstead in Cape Town; the Group Areas Act forced the family to move to Grassy Park. At a time when many people labelled coloured were trying for white and denying their Khoi (formerly Hottentot) and San (formerly Bushmen) heritage, his father “taught us to be proud of our Khoi bloodline”, although his green eyes meant he “could have crossed the colour line at any time”.
His search for his roots started 15 years ago, taking him to archives in the United Kingdom and Europe. A vision featuring people clad in skins with feather head- dresses prompted him to write a manuscript he seems oddly reluctant to get published, given his desire to have it used as a history primer in schools.
He gave up his job lecturing in mechanical engineering at a technikon and launched the Cape Cultural Heritage Development Council “about two years ago in response to the government’s affirmative action policies: under the previous dispensation we weren’t white enough, with the next we weren’t brown enough”.
Its mission: “To foster unity among historically coloured people and give them pride in their origin.” Its goal: to have its six chiefs (all identified by Little) recognised as traditional leaders – positions, his critics are quick to remark, which are paid.
Says Little: “Black people have no respect for us because we have no ancestral roots. You can’t recognise ancestors through politicians – only through traditional leaders.”
He claims his mandate comes from his community: he says he worked through 27 Reconstruction and Development Programme Forums in the region, each involving about 30 organisations. He claims a following of “about 200 000”. No membership fees are charged “right now”.
Funding comes from his own pocket: preparing for the conference “cost R47 000”. He waves a cheque made out to a curio shop for R9 000, “for beads”.
It’s easy to sneer at the faux fur, the fly switches, the concocted regalia. But Little has struck a chord, and it is resonating across political party lines.
Jean Burgess, a Grahamstown community worker and former United Democratic Front activist, is “chiefness” (Little’s term) of the Gonaqua tribe which once ran their cattle on land between the Great Fish and Sundays rivers in the Eastern Cape.
Through meticulously kept church records she can trace her family back six generations: not enough to claim a lineage pre-dating the arrival of the Wesleyan missionaries who converted her forebears to Christianity. She is prepared to “step back” if someone else proves the title is rightly theirs: what’s more important is her new-found sense of belonging.
“I was part of the Black Consciousness Movement and always saw myself as black,” she says. But celebrating Heritage Day last year, “a Xhosa man asked me, in front of all the people in the hall, where my culture and heritage was … It made me feel like nothing. I couldn’t answer him.
“I started searching for it … I wanted it so badly, I would have done anything for it. It’s difficult to explain what it means to have one’s culture denied.”
Now she feels her dignity has been restored, and she sees her role as a “spiritual responsibility to make coloured people see they aren’t just a mixture of black and white”.
Little claims to have been approached by Roelf Meyer, the former National Party politician casting about to form a new non- racial party, but insists his movement is cultural, rather than political: “My people aren’t interested in being used again.” He claims never to have belonged to any political party.
But his movement is treading on sensitive toes. Little claims he and his fellow chiefs were formally inducted last weekend at a ceremony presided over by the paramount chief of the Griquas, Abraham le Fleur.
Mansell Upham, a Cape Town advocate who advises the Griqua National Conference, a body founded in 1904 which is bidding for recognition of the Griquas as a First Nation, denies this, saying there was a willingness to talk but not to legitimise Little’s claims.
“We have a problem with this. Many remnants of old Khoi groupings regrouped under the Griqua leader Adam Kok, while the historical record shows clearly the only groups to have kept their heritage alive are the Griqua and the Nama.
“The conference wants people to know there has been this continuity, with negotiations with colonial governments, the past government and present government.
“There’s a danger of people with genuine historic claims being minimalised and trivialised [through the actions of groups like Little’s], leading to their continued marginalisation.”
UCT social anthropologist Emile Boonzaier urged caution in dismissing Little as a sham, however. “I used to see this kind of thing as an invention, a calculated manipulation motivated by another agenda, whether it be land acquisition, political representation, jobs or an income.
“But we should be very cautious about saying it’s just a sham. In part it is a creation, yet that does not mean the participants do not feel strongly about these ideas. One must acknowledge many populations draw on history to create a sense of identity and they have every right to do so.”
They were also trying to correct a very negative image, said Boonzaier. “Within living memory people have experienced negative connotations of being called hotnot and bushmen. They have literally had the language beaten out of them. I have heard school principals speak with pride about beating children to stop them speaking Nama.
“That hurt is still with them. This is a healing thing. It has a positive aspect.
“But the leaders of such groups are much more conscious and calculating about the way they manipulate symbols than the rank and file who see images that resonate with them – and that’s one of the dangers.
“I would be sceptical of Little’s lineage claims, but then there are people who say he’s no worse than other leaders they have had before,” Boonzaier said.
Richard Sizani, chief director, Traditional Affairs, in the Department of Provincial Affairs and Constitutional Development, said the government was scrutinising all such claims to check their legitimacy.
“Our anthropologists are doing research among groups claiming indigenous status and their report will be sent to the minister for his consideration. There is an attempt by the government to understand the issues.
“Once the research is done and we know who is who, the government can consider way forward. The government must make its policy and take its position on the basis of fact.”
While he was aware groups were arguing for the Western Cape to have its own house of traditional leaders, he understood this had been rejected by the provincial government.