/ 28 June 2013

Selling those authentically exotic San

The Kruipers were the evening’s drawcard
The Kruipers were the evening’s drawcard

To start with, there was something about the publicity that seemed odd. “Kalahari Odyssey”, it shouted. No, not a safari trip but “fifteen members of the [San/Bushman] Kruiper family join [eco-adventurer Patricia] Glyn to recount [an] unforgettable journey”. And to be held in a church in central Sandton, to boot. Fifteen #Khomani San from the Kgalagadi in Sandton? Tickets being sold online by Computicket? Most academics or anthropologists could only dream of having events popular enough to be sold on Computicket.

So what was all this about? I went in search of deliciously problematic politics and, indeed, found them. When I pulled in at the sizeable Rosebank Union Church, the car park was already packed. A Tuesday evening, mind you. I had to scout around for a parking like a Khwe scouts for an increasingly rare mangetti tree in the Caprivi sandveld. And there they were: scores of Johannesburg’s white middle classes, myself now included, swaddled in jackets and coats, filling the entrance hall. And there they were: a handful of small-statured “authentic” Bushmen (the Kruipers’s preferred nomenclature), manning several tables of jewellery and crafts, wearing only traditional skin loincloths at the start of a Highveld winter.

Two of the loinclothed men were squatting as close to a heater as possible, almost oblivious to the crowds, while others held blankets to their shoulders. Already a provocative Twitter stream was going off in my head: “Exactly how is this going to be different from the Empire Exhibition of 1936?” I don’t know the eco-adventurer Glyn, but understand she had a successful career in South African broadcast media. Indeed, she is an excellent speaker; fluid, eloquent, evocative in her descriptions, and she had an excellent slide deck with supporting visuals (notwithstanding the Vodacom Springbok rugby ad footage, à la The Gods Must Be Crazy, which is enough to make any anthropologist squirm uncomfortably in their seat for its exploitative stereotyping, but which made a good half of the audience laugh out loud).

Glyn talked us through her two months of luxury camping with the #Khomani San/Bushman leader Dawid Kruiper, at his behest. We saw photographs of large water drums, tents, kitchen sinks and other such conveniences. Before his death, Kruiper wanted to return to places in the Kgalagadi that he had not visited in 50 years, together with his children and grandchildren, before his health failed him. It seems to have been a reciprocal arrangement — in my interpretation, he got to take his family on an expenses-paid trip to significant places in their troubled history, while Glyn got to publish a new book and boost her personal brand with some “Bushman mystique”.

Romanticisation of a community
Some of Glyn’s findings, indeed, contribute something new to our record and understanding of San history, notably the little-known #Khomani role in bolstering Nama resistance against the Germans during South West Africa’s (Namibia’s) 1904-1908 wars, deep in the desert. Kruiper was even able to lead her to battle detritus and graves, powerful evidence of an intimate knowledge of landscape and oral history. But more striking was Glyn’s lack of reflexivity about the politics of her engagement with this much-fêted clan, and the romanticisation of a community actually full of internal strife.

She walked us through the Kruiper ancestors’s dispossession of their land, recanted and criticised the European voyeurism that led to the Bushman displays at the 1936 Empire Exhibition (“shipped off like a circus act to perform”, she said), and later again at Kagga Kama in the Cederberg, plus one or two other farms where they constituted — and in some cases agreed to be — a sort of living zoo.

Yet how was this night in Sandton, just two weeks ago, any different? Glyn could easily have given her talk without the Kruipers’s presence. Their images filled the majority of photographs and film footage throughout the presentation anyway. She herself admitted that the Kruipers were the evening’s drawcard, “the people you’re really here to see”. As another attendee familiar with San affairs later commented, if Glyn felt that the Kruipers needed to be there, was it necessary for them to be clad in loincloths, beads and skins, in the same way as they used to be presented for the gaze of the tourists and voyeurs who visited Kagga Kama in search of “authenticity”?

Did Glyn fall into the same trap as her predecessors — despite her awareness of these problematic identity politics — or was her approach deliberate, for the benefit of her listeners and ultimately herself? Or did the Kruipers perhaps insist on attending?

There were apparently some 600 in the audience that night. I looked around and could count only three black people. Later I saw a handful more. I am fascinated by these demographics. Why this absolute white fascination, this obsession, with the “authentic Bushman”? For there are many other ethnic groups in South Africa that also have traditions and customs that are “exotic” and/or “dying”. Is it to do with connection to wilderness, which the urban white middle classes feel they have lost? As Glyn put it: “What we’ve lost and what we’re trying to relearn.”

Or is it simply part of how white Southern Africans have substituted relationships with blacks, with relationships with “untouched” landscapes, as per the analysis of anthropologist David Hughes for the case of Zimbabwe? And do whites project Bushmen/San to be part of that landscape, thanks to their alleged “primitivism”, thanks to being “the harmless people”, as per Elizabeth Marshall — in other words, no threat to white identity in post-apartheid South Africa? Last but certainly not least, how did the Kruiper family see this rather extraordinary Sandton expedition working to their advantage? For certainly they do not unknowingly engage in what some anthropologists call “strategic essentialism”.

'Authentic Bushmen' sell
The metaphor for the entire evening was captured by Glyn’s adoption, on one of several visits to the Kgalagadi, of a neglected, suffering, malnourished, half-dead specimen of a dog, of which we were presented with several photographs as evidence. Said dog was then magically and triumphantly brought out on stage, now collared and in pristine middle-class condition, along with the mostly naked and in some cases bare-breasted Bushmen.

A pity President Jacob Zuma wasn’t present to share his take on this extraordinary conglomeration and the politics of pet-keeping. Glyn has adopted the Kruipers as her cause, in the well-intentioned hope that she can boost their chances of survival in an era, now spanning over a century, that has disenfranchised them arguably more systematically than any other group on the continent. The question is whether prolonging and promulgating an essentialist, romanticised depiction of San identity will help them to survive.

The Kruipers do not, of course, lack agency in all this. Their elders are savvy enough to know that “authentic Bushmen” sell — and who are anthropologists to lecture otherwise, given that identity is one of the few resources they can actually mobilise? The Kruipers closeted away their (real) day clothes, their realities of alcoholism, violence and communal fractions, and made ready for a windfall. And on this winter’s night in Sandton, they sold particularly well.

Dr Julie Taylor is author of Naming the Land: San Identity and Community Conservation in Namibia’s West Caprivi