/ 26 February 2024

Short film project pushes against the current

Kammakamma 1080 Tuimeldeursamevloeing.00 13 36 15.still045 Copy
River runs through it: A still from Abri de Swardt’s Kammakamma (2022 – 2024) video which appears on his exhibition at the Field Station on the outskirts of Cape Town’s Greenpoint Park.

“Kammakamma” is Afrikaans for “make-believe” or “dreamed-up”. It is also the title of a project by artist Abri de Swardt, drawing from the indigenous Khoekhoe language terms for water “//gamma” and for similitude “khama”.

It is the second iteration of De Swardt’s three-part moving-image trilogy, the first of which was the short film Ridder Thirst (2018). This first episode of Kammakamma is a dual-channel projection of a short film and installation, which comprise his solo exhibition in the Pool programme, hosted by the temporary project space Field Station on the outskirts of Cape Town’s Green Point Park.

The projections are synced to show the film, shot from two different angles, in two simultaneous parts, depicting a multilingual monologue by the drunk, mythological Afrikaner figure of Hendrik Biebouw, portrayed by Ben Albertyn. 

Biebouw became significant in white Afrikaans history as allegedly being the first European settler descendent to declare himself an “Afrikaner” in 1707, as relayed by historian Hermann Giliomee in his book The Afrikaners.

The story goes that Biebouw and a group of friends were attacking a watermill on the Eerste River while inebriated. They were accosted and arrested by the German Stellenbosch magistrate Johannes Starrenburg. 

On being detained, Biebouw is said to have shouted, “I shall not leave, I am an Afrikaner!”

Biebouw was the son of an illiterate German who had arrived in the Cape as a servant of the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) or Dutch East India Company. 

Biebouw himself would have been regarded as a free burgher at the time. Free burghers referred to a social grouping of Europeans who had been released from the company’s employment and become naturalised to the Cape. 

One might assume that Biebouw’s declaration was thus uttered in German, as the common language between the two men. 

Their interaction was recorded by the magistrate in the municipal records in Dutch.

While otherwise a forgotten character in the annals of South African history, Biebouw’s declaration is significant as it designates the point when the descendants of white European settlers carved themselves into a civic identity by means of grouping themselves, at first, with others. Subsequently, they withheld the identity exclusively for themselves. 

The term “Afrikaner” was until this point predominantly reserved for manumitted slaves and enslaved people born at the Cape, whose predecessors had been shipped by the VOC from West Africa and East Africa and territories around the Indian Ocean. 

This multiracial group of speakers cultivated the beginnings of the Afrikaans language as a lingua franca between themselves and their European-descendent enslavers. 

Biebouw’s proclamation was a protest against the governing VOC, which had granted free burghers emancipation from the company but few resources and opportunities for the social group to provide for themselves financially in the Cape region. 

Declaring himself an “Afrikaner”, and not a Christian or a German, for example, was a strong identification with the land. The declaration of “Afrikanerdom” is a self-interpolating gesture synonymous with the discourse of white Afrikaner identity, giving the image of a leak merging with a body of water. 

Kammakamma was shot on the hydro-periphery of the Western Cape town of Stellenbosch at a weir that intersects the Eerste and Plankenbrug rivers. 

The Eerste is of the land first annexed by Simon van der Stel in 1679, named for the first river he encountered outside the Cape Dutch Colony. 

It is a prominent water feature that runs through the pristine town of Stellenbosch and serves as the primary water source for the viticultural industry there. 

The Plankenbrug River runs from the periphery of Stellenbosch and is accessed by the residents of Enkanini, an informal settlement with about 5 500 residents who have limited access to water facilities. 

The Plankenbrug has a high toxic indication and is temporarily separated from the Eerste River by a wall of sandbags. It limits the flow between the two rivers to the trickling of a stream from the Eerste into Plankenbrug River.

The film opens with Biebouw, half-submerged in water, gazing through at a circular hand sieve, speaking to himself in a gibberish amalgamation of English, German, Dutch and Malagasy, translated by English subtitles. He is cutting open a sandbag and sifting it into the water. 

Biebouw is dressed in a wader and long-sleeved button-up shirt, rubber gloves are tourniquet-ed to his arms with rubber bands. Around his neck is the suction component of what is colloquially known in South Africa as a “creepy-crawly”, a mechanised pool-cleaning device familiar especially to residents of landlocked cities with access to personal swimming pools. 

Perhaps the use of the creepy-crawly ruff is an example of De Swardt’s lexicon for a social hydro-commons in South Africa: the river and the swimming pool intersect as engineered bodies of water designed for the needs and wants of certain groupings of people. 

Biebouw is clearly drunk in his slurring, confused speech as he sifts and wades through the water. He reconfigures well-known phrases and laments his own life, while helpfully pointing out which of the rivers is which on either side of the sandbag wall. 

Sometimes he has a moment of lucidity — my favourite line is spoken in Malagasy: “Those who know how to swim are the ones who sink.”

The figure of Biebouw is a ghost in this story and he channels past lives through the river as his medium. 

In this utterance, he calls to the Madagascans who were taken into slavery by the VOC in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the tension of this particular figure channelling the stories of other ghosts is contentious in this moment, as the trajectory of the one determined the bloodline of the other. 

In the scene of this utterance, Biebouw is held up by three silent characters portrayed by René Cloete, Ibtisaam Florence and Cole Wessels, who will come into featured speaking roles in the next two parts of Kammakamma, which will constitute the three-part, chronicled feature-length film. 

The two remaining chronicles have been written by poet and novelist Ronelda S Kamfer and historian Saarah Jappie. 

Kamfer’s auto-fictional screenplay, which is written in Kaaps, follows her life as a teenager in the late 1990s, between Eersterivier, Faure and Stellenbosch. 

Jappie’s screenplay contemplates the kramat of Sheikh Yusuf of Makassar, found nearby the Macassar section of the Eerste River in the Strand area of the Western Cape. The Eerste River snakes its way into the Atlantic Ocean through the town of Macassar, the dunes of which were the source of Biebouw’s sandbag wall. 

In De Swardt’s words, the screenplay is a proposition to “re-imagine relations between the river and the racially, spatially and economically divided communities along its trajectory by insisting upon the potential of the river as a commons”. 

Kammakamma is exhibited at Pool until 3 March 2024.