The Bushmen/San: real, pure, or just themselves?

Hugh Brody
29 January 2003

In my first column ‘From the edge’ I wrote about the death of Elsie Vaalboi, the ‡Khomani San elder who came to represent the Bushman land claim in South Africa’s southern Kalahari. This claim was among many that were encouraged by the post-apartheid regime’s determination to allow those who had been dispossessed by racist laws to seek some form of compensation.

The Bushman land claim, which succeeded in March 1999, depended on many kinds of research: maps to illustrate patterns of hunting and gathering; oral history to gather a picture of the San diaspora that followed dispossession; digging among university and public archives.

It was in the archives that we discovered that ours was not the first such project in the region. There, we found copies of a 1935 report by scholars from the University of Witwatersrand. Their research was supposed to establish whether the Bushmen of the southern Kalahari were ‘pure’ enough to deserve protection within the new national park that now occupied much of their lands. It involved, among other things, the measuring of skulls, genitals and linguistic skills.

In reality, it was also linked to an idea advanced by a philanthropist–entrepreneur called Bain. He had convinced both the San and the government that there should be a large, living Bushman display at the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg.

San bushmen dancing, from a photograph from the early 1900s.

Bain’s justification for this display, and the reasoning that appears to have convinced some 75 San themselves to travel far from their homes and be exhibited, was that here was an opportunity for the last remaining Bushmen of South Africa to win some kind of recognition. He insisted that the exhibit would arouse great public sympathy and significant amounts of money. This could lead to some kind of new land base, some recompense for the extreme losses that the Bushmen had endured.

The Bushman exhibit was a huge success. But at the end of their time on display and on the road, Bain’s group of San found themselves dropped off in the northern Cape, many miles from home, penniless and with no new prospect of a better deal. Several of the elderly San we found living in destitution in a township near Upington, and who came to play central roles in the 1990s claim, were part of the 1936 exhibit. They described to us their difficult journey back to the Kalahari. When they at last reached their homes in the desert, they found that all their huts and possessions had been destroyed. Far from receiving a welcome to a new deal in the park, they were told to leave it forever.

Frontiers of power and identity

In 1997, early in the oral history part of the work on the southern Kalahari claim, we went on a journey with three of those who had been expelled in the 1930s. At last, we reached the trees under which they had once lived in the park, the very place where their last grass houses on their own land had been burned. They sifted through the sand, looking for the charcoal of old fires and evidence of their old life.

One of the women suddenly lifted up some shards of crockery, bits of a broken cup. ‘This is how they got us to leave,’ she said. ‘They gave us things we liked, so we would trust them. So we agreed to get in their lorry when they asked us, to go away.’

For those who took us to their trees in the park, the memory of childhood is a memory of a life on the land. They depended on hunting and gathering, but also on occasional labour as shepherds and trackers for white farmers and game wardens. They spoke a mixture of languages: N/u, the original Bushman language of the region, as well as Nama and Afrikaans. They lived a life of mixed cultural and economic forms. They had ties of marriage and therefore ancestry with the Nama of the region; in due course, they themselves, and then their children, would create ties with other groups.

The 1935 research by university experts had shown that the San were ‘pure’ enough to go and be exhibited. It also showed to the San themselves that whether or not they were ‘real Bushmen’ was somehow linked to their rights to have any land or resources of their own.

This is a familiar issue at colonial frontiers; the supposed impurity of indigenous populations has been used again and again, all over the world, as a justification for their dispossession. Even before the 1930s, and repeatedly since then, other peoples who came to the southern Kalahari, often to get large areas of land on which to set up sheep and cattle farms, have asserted that there were no ‘real Bushmen’ left.

Comtemporary San dance at Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Center.

The logic of this view is plain. The settlers need not concern themselves about whose land they might be taking. Dispossession of indigenous families and even whole communities could be justified by reference to lack of racial purity. This has been a feature of colonial history, and after-the-fact rationalisations of land seizure at virtually every colonial frontier.

The modern claim for compensation and restitution of lands, represented so poignantly by men and women such as Elsie Vaalboi, emerges in a complex historical setting. And the complexities of history must mean that there are parallel complexities of culture; at colonial frontiers, no community is able to maintain social or economic isolation.

In a familiar process, newcomers with the power of numbers and weapons draw those they encounter into their needs, and hence, in due course, into their customs and habits. Domination of land is accompanied by domination of everyday life, and of mind. But modern land claims depend on assertion of aboriginality, on difference – some degree of defiance of colonial and frontier realities. As long as indigenous peoples can continue to identify their distinctive heritage and territories, they can seek a new deal. Yet – and this is the crunch for many of such peoples – the long-established colonial process has ensured that there is no such thing as an ultimately distinct identity.

So in the southern Kalahari, Dawid Kruiper, Petrus Vaalboi, the N/u speakers from the townships, along with Elsie Vaalboi and many others with San ancestry, celebrate their San-ness. Success depends on showing that they have retained heritage despite colonialism.

Elsie Vaalbooi’s story, recounted in my first ‘From the edge’, thus raises many of the issues and arguments that surround indigenous land claims and identity around the world. Is this all a jumble of myth, sentimentality and obfuscation of tough, post-colonial realities? Or is there some real opportunity in the land claims business for men and women like Elsie Vaalbooi to reclaim authentic heritage and establish new kinds of indigenous community on old lands?

The curse of the ‘real’

Elsie’s son, Petrus, has often spoken with great bitterness about not having been able to learn his mother tongue. This loss of language represents to him, as much as the theft of land and abuse of all his other human rights, the cruelty of colonial treatment of San and then the evil of apartheid.

But this fracture and discontinuity in culture, both individual and collective, represents many things to many people. A debate, led by both academics and informed journalists, has focused on the San land claim in the southern Kalahari.

At the core of this debate is a question that is raised by the experience and personal histories of Petrus and Elsie: if they have been displaced from their lands, and are unable to live as San, what is the nature of their Bushman identity? And if there is today neither practice of San economic nor social life, then what is this cultural continuity that the claim is supposed to achieve? A more aggressive question takes the same loss of heritage, and challenges both the integrity and the rights of the San; their claim, according to this line of attack, is either bogus or unreal, or both.


These questions lead into a wider and more theoretical issue in southern African anthropology. Perhaps the whole construct of the hunter–gatherer Bushman is a myth, a misreading of cultural categories? The critics see the underlying tenets of the land claim as romantic enthusiasm about a pure and pristine, distinct and compelling Bushman way of life that may well have never existed, and certainly does not exist, even in vestigial form, in the ‡Khomani community of late 20th century South Africa.

These are huge issues, and ones to which this column will often return. For now, I want to speak about just one aspect of the debate: how it strikes the San claimants themselves. For all that the argument, in the past few years, has been taking place at conferences and in university seminar rooms, the San are all too familiar with it.

The impact of this debate on the San themselves is clear. The San, like many other indigenous peoples dealing with the self-serving would-be anthropology of colonists, somehow have had to prove that they are ‘real’. To do this they must emphasise their particular heritage, their distinctive knowledge, their links to their lands. The focus has had to be on one part of their heritage above and against all others.

They have not denied the links with other peoples (many indigenous leaders are proud of their mixed ancestry); rather, they have to assert the element in their history and culture that has all too often been despised, concealed and a source of disadvantage. In the land claims era, some of the prejudices of the frontier have to be reversed. Meanwhile, the colonists do their best to scorn these claims.

The line of attack from the latter and their adherents has been repeated again and again. Perhaps the indigenous people concerned once were ‘real’, in ‘the old days’ or ‘traditional times’; but these are surely gone now. And, the objection runs, it was so hard for them, anyway, to live in the desert (or, for other peoples, the snow and ice or outback or jungle).

Yet an irony of the colonists’ insistence on the loss of ‘real’ Bushmen is to be seen, again and again, on the extent to which they depended on that knowledge, those links, in order to be able to find routes, water, medicines and even spirits – without which the colonial project was doomed. Beyond the irony, however, was the harshest of political realities: indigenous people were used for their specialised knowledge and skills, then told that their heritage had no real merit and certainly did not entitle to them to their lands.

A creative impurity

My suspicion – and the suspicion of the San of today – is that many attempts to ‘deconstruct’ San assertions of their distinctive heritage are of a piece with the classical, familiar colonial strategy.

They are not quite ‘real’ – they are not ‘really’ separable from their herder neighbours (people such as Dawid are concocting an account of this difference for local purposes); they do not hunt or gather (people such as the Swartkop sisters know and use plants for medicine in much the same way as other rural South Africans); they do not have a special link with either land or animals (the men who read spore on the sand the way we read articles in journals, deciphering the obscurest little marks, may have some skill, but it is not distinctive); they do not have a San body of mythic stories (they have heard these from others, perhaps from anthropologists or even activists, and retell them to build the myth about their identity). The line of claim and counter-claim runs long.

All this is disconcerting and disturbing – especially to the San themselves. They are quite sure of their own cultural ground. They have worked and lived as farm labourers, or have found themselves destitute at the side of the road. But they kept themselves alive, and as healthy as they could manage, on farms or roadsides, thanks to their ability to find and use ‘traditional’ resources.

San identity may often have depended on furtive gathering and hunting at the edge of the newcomers’ farms. But it was a system that came from a heritage. And all the San who kept themselves going with the help of the system see it as their San identity. Just about everything material could be taken away from them; but they still had their minds, in which lay San knowledge, and therefore San dreams.

Those who insist that this is some kind of political fraudulence add their voices to the colonial chorus. Like the other voices in this chorus, they are getting it wrong; the San in South Africa do not invent their heritage, so much as do what they can to cling on to it. Land claims depend on the heritage, and encourage the clinging on. They might encourage romantic exaggerations and anti-colonial myth making. But for the San in the southern Kalahari the core of the struggle is for rights and resources that have been taken away from them; not rights and resources that they somehow are now seeking to steal from others.

Since the ‡Khomani land claim was settled, both cultural heritage and small-scale development projects have been under way. A San office where IT skills are learned and a new generation begins to take control of the claim; a N/u language programme; an English-language programme; San arts and crafts; the first steps towards San-run eco-tourism. A jumble of ideas, schemes, possibilities; a mixture of the old and the new.

The critics will complain about either too much or too little ‘purity’ of some sort. They are disappointed that the San are not Bushman-like enough; or that they are making too much of being San. The San cannot win any argument against this feline complaint; the critics have set up a neat little double bind in which the San are trapped whichever way they turn. But the catch 22 is also irrelevant. In reality, the modern resources of the San consist in a fascinating mix of the new and the old, a creative and entrepreneurial development of just the right forms of ‘impurity’.

Next month I will continue to think about land claims, but make a leap from the southern Kalahari to the western desert of Australia.


Bushman rock painting

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