They roamed the savannahs and open plains for thousands of years, but the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of Southern Africa’s San tribes is slowly being squeezed towards extinction.
After clashing at the start of the last century with German settlers in modern-day Namibia and then being exploited by South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s, the San, also known as Bushmen, are now threatened by the 21st-century curses of unemployment, poverty, alcohol abuse and HIV/Aids.
While the plight of the San in Botswana made headlines in recent months when authorities illegally evicted tribes from the Kalahari, their kinsmen in Namibia and South Africa have fared little better in protecting their traditional habitat.
A glimmer of hope lies in tourism as operators discover this remote part of Namibia where the likes of Gcao Nari, a grandmother of the Juhoansi San tribe, showcase the ancient art of threading ostrich-shell beads.
But in a sign of the times, the beads that Nari painstakingly needles under the fierce sun are imported from neighbouring South Africa since there are no ostriches left in the area of the remote north-eastern Otjozondjupa region.
Nari speaks softly to her granddaughter in the ancient San tongue, with complicated clicks rolling from her lips as she enthuses about tentative plans to reintroduce game to the area as a source of food and income for a people with unparallelled hunting abilities. ”Then my grandchildren can be taught to hunt again,” she says.
About 30 000 San remain in Namibia, with the Haikom and Juhoansi the largest groups. Their numbers dived from the start of the last century when then colonial rulers Germany allowed growing numbers of white settlers to shoot Bushmen and encroach on their traditional hunting grounds.
South Africa took over the territory’s administration during World War I until Namibia’s independence in 1990, which followed a protracted liberation war.
Nari remembers the 1970s when the South African military came to enlist the help of the San in return for certain favours. ”They used my husband and other men of our village as trackers along the border with Angola to fight freedom fighters,” she says through an interpreter. ”The military drilled boreholes for us and taught our children, their doctors in uniform gave us medical treatment and my husband earned a salary.”
Other San like the Khwe and Vasekele originated in Angola and were employed by Portuguese colonial military forces during that country’s liberation struggle, but fled to Namibia after Angolan independence in 1975.
They were wedged between two warring factions. The South African military gave them shelter in then South West Africa; the men became trackers and soldiers in a special ”Bushman Battalion” against the Peoples’ Liberation Army of Namibia.
In 1990, about 1 000 San soldiers and their families took up an offer from the Pretoria government to settle at Schmidtsdrift, near Kimberley in South Africa’s arid Northern Cape province, fearing reprisals from the new Namibian government if they stayed.
The 5 000-strong !Xu — an exclamation point precedes the word to represent the distinctive click sounds in their language — and Khwe communities left in the Northern Cape today have been reduced to relying on government pensions and food handouts.
”I feel caged,” says Monto Masako (84) in his sparsely furnished three-roomed home at Platfontein, as he dreamily recalls his childhood. ”My father taught me to hunt with a bow and arrow. We slept in the veld — it was so free. But that has all been taken away; we can never go back.”
The Schmidtsdrift community spent its first decade in an army tent camp, exposed to the elements and without proper services.
But in 1999, then president Nelson Mandela handed them the title deeds to the nearby farm Platfontein, which they had bought by pooling nearly 900 individual government housing grants of R15 000 each. With further government and NGO help, houses were erected and the move from Schmidtsdrift started about three years later.
But having put all their hopes on Platfontein for a better life, many were bitterly disappointed. With a handful of available jobs and no public transport to the town of Kimberley about 10km away, many spend their days idling and drinking.
There is no refuse removal and the tiny homes are shoddily built, letting in the rain and wind. Nor is there any inside plumbing, bathroom or kitchen, while many units have yet to get electricity. HIV, tuberculosis, crime and teenage pregnancy are on the rise, community workers say.
”We can never go back to the life of old, but at least a good quality house would have made it more tolerable,” said Masako.
There is some cause for hope, however, with the new generation of San attending school and several employment projects in the pipeline.
The people of Platfontein have set up a security company providing about 300 jobs, erected a cultural tourist centre and are planning a game lodge with various donations. ”We are trying to make a new life,” said community leader Mario Mahongo. — Sapa-AFP