New chapter in Bushmen's book

South Africa’s largest Bushman settlement started a new chapter in their history on Tuesday. For the first time ever, the children of Platfontein near Kimberley in the Northern Cape went to school in a proper school building.

The !Xunkhwesa Combined School reopened for the new year like the rest of the province’s schools. However, for its around 1 200 pupils and their 33 teachers the occasion was all the more special.

When they closed for the festive holidays last year, the school was still housed in a shed-like corrugated iron structure without walls, exposed to the elements. It formed part of a makeshift town of tents at the nearby Schmidtsdrift army base.

On rainy and windy days schoolwork was mostly impossible due to the lack of shelter.

“When the elements were at their worst, we could not teach. It impeded gravely on the learning process,” says principal Jomo Jonkers.

The new school building at Platfontein represents “a 100% improvement”, he says.

Apart from many other advances, the new school offers a science laboratory, library and computer centre—all learning aids unknown to them up till now.

Jonkers, who have been heading the school for the past six years, believes his pupils—from grade R to matric—will now be able to achieve even greater heights.

Despite the harsh conditions only one of the twelve matric candidates failed last year.

The first day in the new school was a highlight in the !Xun and !Khwe tribes’ relocation to Platfontein—a farm that was bought for them with land reform subsidies.

They officially received the almost 13 000 hectares in 1999, however, the building of promised government houses on Platfontein did not start until 2003.

The new school building is probably one of the strongest symbols yet of the community’s permanent settlement.

For the past ten years they have lived “in transit” in army tents at Schmidtsdrift.

During the eighties, the former SA Defence Force employed them in its war against the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo). When Namibia gained independence in 1990, the !Xun and !Khwe soldiers were given the option to move to Schmidtsdrift with their families.

However, the Tswana Bathlaping people and a Griqua group then successfully claimed the Northern Cape army base as their ancestral land and the Bushmen had to move again.

While on Schmidtsdrift, many of the adults earned a living doing contract work on distant farms. They had to take their children out of school to live with them on the farms for months at a time.

Often this would happen halfway through the school year and it contributed to a relatively high number of !Xun and !Khwe children not receiving proper schooling, Jonkers says.

He believes the new dispensation will change this.

Meanwhile the community’s resettlement to Platfontein is reaching its final stages.

Of the whole group of around 5 000 people, more than 300 families have already moved from Schmidtsdrift to Platfontein, says spokesman Reverend Mario Mahango.

The rest, including Mahango, hope to have moved by the end of March.

Platfontein does not necessarily mark the end of all their troubles. They are still living in relatively poor conditions, surviving mostly on the pension money their elders receive. Very few are employed.

But they cannot complain, Mahango says. “We have waited too long for this.”

Although they are not earning any income from the land yet, at least the Platfontein houses provide for much easier living than Schmidtsdrift’s tents. Each house has electricity and a tap with running water in the yard.

The move to greater permanency seems to have motivated some toward entrepreneurship. One of them is Dalla Paulus, 32—like the majority of the men a former soldier who is now unemployed.

Sitting on a bed in one of the houses, Paulus tells of his plans to sell “sour marog” (a leafy green vegetable cultivated by the Bushmen) in the nearby Kimberley townships.

Platfontein and its new school may even bring eventual peace between the !Xun and !Khwe—notorious for their disliking of each other: The school building separates the two groups’ residential areas, but inside, the !Xun and !Khwe children share the same classrooms.—Sapa