Bushman Billy the Kid revisited

Musician and playwright David Kramer describes how he saw the skull of the outlaw, Koos Sas, on display in the Montagu Museum near Worcester in the early 1980s.

This gruesome exhibition inspired him to write Die Ballade van Koos Sas, which he later transformed into a musical titled The Last Bushman of Montagu. It becomes the first Afrikaans musical to be performed in Britain, complete with subtitles for the locals, as part of the South African season at London’s Tricycle Theatre.

“It was bizarre to see the skull on display, that’s what drew me to the story,” Kramer recalls. “I think what made it a little more bizarre was the fact that there were two displays in this museum. The one was a sort of hero display: the hero of Montagu, who was one of their rugby Springboks. Next to the story of this hero, with his rugby blazer and leather ball, is the villain of Montagu — Koos Sas.

“They displayed a human skull and the gun that they shot him with. I found that quite intriguing.”

Sas was a man with a history of stock theft and housebreaking, who had a habit of escaping from prison, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the local police in the process. Then in 1917 he was accused of murdering a shopkeeper in Montagu, a crime for which he was eventually hunted down and killed in 1922. But, as Kramer points out, he was never put on trial. Instead he was convicted by the local press at the time, which whipped up his notoriety.

“He was a bit of a bogeyman in the folklore around this area,” says Kramer, whose father, now in his 90s, was told as a child that if he misbehaved then Koos Sas would come and get him.

Sas symbolised the clash of civilisations in South Africa around the turn of the 19th century. “As the new settlers moved into the country to take control of the watering holes, put the livestock on to the veld, and shoot out the game. It decimated the Khoisan population,” Kramer says.

It was out of this turmoil that “a new phenomenon emerged, of stock theft and what they called Bushmen robbers. And supposedly in some way Sas was the last of those people who somehow refused to just become part of the new system.” He chose instead to live the life of an outlaw.

Sas emerges almost at the end of this period of conquest and subjugation over the indigenous people of the Cape interior, who by this stage have been reduced almost to “servitude or extinction”, as Professor Alan Morris of the University of Cape Town writes. In fact Sas called himself “the last Bushman”.

In those days the authorities could simply kill someone who had been declared an outlaw and, according to Kramer, Sas was the last outlaw in South Africa to be shot on sight, outside the town of Springbok, in the Northern Cape. The local Dutch Reformed Church minister, Dominee Steenkamp, later exhumed Sas and even took the skull with him when he went to Europe and the United States with his son to study medicine.

Steenkamp donated the skull to Stellenbosch University, which later passed it on to the Montagu Museum.

For Kramer, the tale is not just one of resistance that needs to be told. His play is also an attempt to highlight the European interest in so-called primitive man in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He mentions the attempts to measure ethnicity, using human skulls “to find some kind of scientific point of difference between Europeans and so-called primitive man”. Kramer refers to the “trade that was going on in Bushman skeletons at the turn of the century”.

Kramer thinks the use of Afrikaans has been important, even on the London stage. “It liberates us from the political ideas of the past,” he says. “Afrikaans is a language that is more descriptive of the landscape and of the character of these kinds of places and people I’m talking about.”

He is unrepentant about the play being a revisionist account of the Koos Sas story. “It’s revisionist, but so what?” he asks. Kramer points out that as an artist he has the freedom to tell the story his own way. “I’m not claiming it to be history,” he says, though he hopes that as a piece of art it will make the audience question things and maybe rethink some of the prejudiced ideas of the past.

“In South Africa it is only now that stories like this are being explored from another perspective, from the perspective of the so-called villain, the outlaw,” he says.

For Kramer it is no longer seems to matter whether Koos Sas was a murderer. “The issue is not only about the collection of human remains for scientific purposes, but it is also about how we record the past. How these stories are remembered and told.”

Koos Sas runs until August 1 at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. www.tricycle.co.uk

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