Bushmen Struggle for Place in South Africa


Wearing only a leather loincloth and a headband adorned with beads made from ostrich eggs, Buks squats beneath a rock cliff and patiently strings a hunting bow.

Half-naked men, women and children, all slightly built with dark yellow skin and heart-shaped faces, huddle around in the easy intimacy of an extended hunter-gatherer family.

The scene is little changed from the Stone Age. These 40 Kalahari Bushmen--the only known clan still holding to the language, culture and identity of a people who once wandered all of South Africa--want to retain a life much like that of the first humans.


But for the last five years, their only path to survival has been to become tourist exhibits.

They are the star attractions for visitors to the wind-swept rockland of the private Kagga Kamma Game Reserve in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province.

Visitors pay $160 for a night in a “Bushman-style” bungalow and a meeting with the Bushmen. Tourists can also see the eland, gemsbok and other game reintroduced to the reserve’s moonscape terrain.

Many people come away with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the last Bushmen are an exhibit at a zoo.

“They had reached the point where there were no more options,” says the Bushmen’s closest white friend, Kate Andrews, a Cape Town musicologist who heads a cash-strapped foundation devoted to their well-being.

“If they hadn’t done that, I think they would have just disappeared into being ordinary Western people and not kept the Bushman traditions,” she says.

At Kagga Kamma, they meet tourists once a day and they have security, shelter and income in exchange for following their ancient ways.

But it is a poor compromise.

Andrews and other friends of the Bushmen say hopes for a more dignified life rest on an appeal by the clan to South Africa’s post-apartheid government to be allowed to return to their ancestral lands.

White rulers took over that territory, 450 miles to the north, to establish the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in 1931. Hindered by rules against their traditional hunting methods, Bushmen gradually drifted away, until the last were forced out in the 1970s.

Most of the adults in Buks’ clan were born in or near the park. Their link to the land is undisputed, their intermarried clan having been researched by South African academics for at least seven decades.

“That is their land,” says Roger Chennells, a human-rights lawyer who has taken up their cause. “They are the last Bushmen left in South Africa and they were the first people in the entire country.”

Their parents and grandparents wandered the harsh Kalahari Desert, knowing every branch, root and animal. Bushmen’s hunting and tracking skills were legendary, so good that the white South African army used them in fighting guerrillas.

Bushmen could survive where no one else could, taking water from beneath dry riverbeds, from desert plants, or from the stomachs of the animals they hunted.

At Kagga Kamma, the terrain and animals are different. The clan finds it difficult to track on the reserve’s rocky ground, so unlike the red dunes of the Kalahari. So they eat donkey meat slaughtered for them.

The older Bushmen bring back samples of the desert flora to teach the children, because the roots and leaves central to their existence do not grow in this part of the Northern Cape.

Although they live three hours by car from Cape Town with its cellular telephones, skyscrapers and highways, the Bushmen say they have no fears that 21st century life will tempt away their young.

“Our children will learn what we teach them,” Buks, the clan’s spokesman, says firmly. “If we go there, we will die.”

The Bushmen want to get back a share of their old home in the park, a Connecticut-sized wilderness of sand and scrub wedged between the borders of Botswana and Namibia. With their own land, they will preserve their ways, Buks says.

“The most important thing to us is the bush life. If you are in the bush, that brings the family together,” he says.

“There is no interference then. Without that, you cannot hunt, you can’t have traditions, the trance dance, the smiling, anything. It is the location that is important.

“That’s in my heart, the wilderness.”

The clan’s land claim argues that the state has a moral obligation to its aboriginal people. “It’s the fact that they were kicked off that land in 1931 and they’d been there--forever--prior to that,” Chennells says.

Bushmen, a non-Negroid people, lived across southern Africa before Zulus, Xhosas and other black tribes began migrating from central Africa during Europe’s Middle Ages. European settlers arrived in the 1600s.

Small in stature and gentle in nature, the Bushmen were easily subjugated. Dutch colonists hunted them, viewing the hunters as little different from vermin. Blacks considered Bushmen beneath contempt. Even in the 20th century, they would often be roped like animals and put to work by farmers.

The Bushmen retreated to the deserts and dry savannas of present-day South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola--lands that no one else wanted then.

Today, there are perhaps 30,000 left, primarily in sparsely populated Botswana and Namibia. But all except Buks’ clan have been assimilated into modern culture since the 1960s, says Louis Vorster, an anthropologist and law professor.

Vorster is helping the only other significant group of Bushmen in South Africa: soldiers recruited in Angola and Namibia who were resettled with their families in South Africa after fighting for the white-led military. Since 1990, these 4,000 people have been in limbo in an army-administered tent camp near Kimberley, awaiting permanent housing.

In setting up the Kalahari park, the Parks Board debated whether the native Bushmen should be classified as people or fauna. Unfortunately for them, the Bushmen were ruled to be people--and therefore were ordered to get out of the park.

To the Parks Board, the Bushmen were a thorn in the side. White conservationists wanted them out so that they would stop “poaching.”

Buks’ father, Regopstaan, now 95, whose Bushman name means “survivor of death,” is considered the oldest living Bushman and was among those first studied in 1936. Regopstaan’s father killed a gemsbok in the area in the 1920s and went to jail for it, even before the national park was declared.

The clan remembers the years after the last Bushmen’s eviction from the park in the 1970s as a dark chapter.

Many married mixed-race farmers in the area and melted into what South Africans call the “colored” population. Others squatted on farms or worked for subsistence wages. Buks drove a road grader. They were ravaged by alcohol abuse. They stopped living as Bushmen and their culture was dying.

Ironically, their rescue began in the 1980s when they were “discovered” by a tour operator. That led to Kagga Kamma’s owner offering them a place to live in 1991 in exchange for their agreement to hold daily “meetings” with visitors to his game reserve.

President Nelson Mandela’s government seems willing to listen to the land claim.

“Unambiguously, in my view, dispossession took place,” says Land Affairs Minister Derek Hanekom, hinting of a compromise to give them a future role in running the park. “This claim should be converted into an opportunity, rather than a threat, to enhance the attractiveness of the park by really involving the Bushman people in a creative way, but without being patronizing.”

Whether or not the Bushman culture survives in South Africa, their enduring legacy is all around in their elegantly muted rock paintings that date back tens of thousands of years. In the cool shade of overhanging rocks, they painted themselves and the animals they hunted.

What will their future be?

“One could certainly question if it is a wise thing to give them a whole lot of land and not help them very strongly, because they will simply hunt and gather and roam and sleep where the game is good,” Chennells says.