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History of the San

History of the San | Khomani San

Most palaeoanthropologists and geneticists subscribe to the ‘Out of Africa’ theory that the ancestors of modern humans arose some 200 000 years ago in Africa, with the earliest modern human fossils being found at Omo Kibish, Ethiopia (Shreeve, 2006).

They also agree that all the variously shaped and shaded people of Earth trace their ancestry to African hunter-gatherers.

Ancestral DNA markers turn up most often among the San people of southern Africa and the Biaka Pygmies of central Africa, as well as in some East African peoples (Shreeve, 2006).

From this, we can reasonably deduce that the San form part of our ancestry, as well as being the first people of southern Africa, as is evidenced by a vast rock art record that is to be found on the sub-continent.

The San were pushed into remoter and drier regions by two major, relatively recent migrations of other peoples.

Approximately 2 000 years ago the sheep and cattle herding Khoekhoe peoples migrated south from Namibia and Botswana, pushing San people away from the coast and river areas.

About 800 years ago, a major migration of Bantu-speaking peoples entered eastern South Africa (Huffman, 2006); it would seem that early relations between hunter-gatherers and the agro-pastoralist peoples were often positive and involved a degree of intermarriage with the retention of the independence of San languages and culture.

This changed with the arrival of European explorers and settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries, after which land was gradually carved up into freehold farms, displacing the indigenous people onto smaller tracts of communal land, particularly in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The expansion of European colonisation caused great strain on land resources; San hunter-gatherers were victimised by the European settlers as were Khoe and Bantu-language groups, all competing for resources in the face of European territorial expansion. Over this period, disease and other genocidal activities decimated most San clans in South Africa and Namibia, with the last permit to hunt a Bushman being issued by the pre-apartheid state in 1927 (Gall, 2001).

The ‡Khomani San are descended from several original San groups, including the ||Ng!u (close relatives of the !Xam, who lived south of the !Gariep River), the ‡Khomani who spoke the same language as the ||Ng!u but had a distinct lineage, the |’Auni, the Khatea, the Njamani and probably others whose names are now lost to us. Most San of this bloodline now speak Khoekhoegowap and/or Afrikaans as their primary language. There are only five of the original 23 confirmed speakers (there is no reference point for this statement – in 2016, for example) of the ancient N|u language, constituting an important component of the few surviving aboriginal South African San. Approximately 1 500 adults are spread over an area of more than 1 000 square kilometres in the Northern Cape Province. Approximately 8002 people live in the northern reaches of Gordonia, at Witdraai, Askham and Welkom, just south of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and in the towns of Rietfontein, Upington, Loubos, Olifantshoek and surrounding villages and settlements.

The ‡Khomani San Today

Ouma Anna Swarts | Khomani San
Dawid Kruiper Tradtional Leader of the Khomani San | Khomain San
Ouma Una Rooi | Khomnai San

When the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park was proclaimed in 1931, the livelihoods and freedom of movement of some of South Africa’s last remaining first peoples – Bushman as we call ourselves – were curtailed. Some people were settled at the national park headquarters at Twee Rivieren, and some gained employment with SANParks. Many others, having been dispossessed of their land, dispersed into Namibia, onto nearby farms and further afield.

The Mier people inhabited an area that has been incorporated into the Park, and they too have a history of dispossession. Like the San, the Mier were allowed to continue living in certain areas within the Park, but lost their rights to hunt and manage stock on the land and were eventually forcibly removed to state land reserved for them under the settlement schemes of the 1930s.

The proclamation of the Park was followed by the gazetting of Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park in 1938. The two parks were amalgamated as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) in 1999, following the signing of a bilateral agreement between the governments of South Africa and Botswana.

In 1995, the ‡Khomani San community lodged a claim for the restitution of 400 000 hectares of land in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. In December 1998, the Mier community, represented by the Mier Transitional Local Council, lodged its own land claim for land both inside and outside the Park. After protracted negotiations, the claims were finally settled on 21 March 1999, with the official transfer of title to six Kalahari farms (approximately 34 728 hectares) to the ‡Khomani San Common Property Association (CPA), a form of collective trust allowed by the Communal Property Associations Act (No 28 of 1996) for use by communities that have benefited from land restitution under the Restitution of Land Rights Act (No. 22 of 1994). Supplemental to this, in 2007 it was agreed that a further two farms (Sonderwater and Rolletjies – approximately 6 020 hectares) be transferred to the ‡Khomani San CPA.

In addition, after further negotiations, on 29th May 2002 the conditional allocation of some 57,903 hectares of land within the Park – to be managed as a Contractual National Park, namely the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park – was committed to the ownership of the ‡Khomani San and Mier communities through what is known as the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park Agreement. In this agreement the ‡Khomani San community was also granted preferential tourism rights over 80 000 hectares south of the Auob River inside the Park, and the right to use 473 830 hectares of land between the Auob and Nossob Rivers for symbolic and cultural purposes.

In the years after the land claim was settled, little development occurred, with growing social decay and disintegration, lack of post-restitution support from the South African authorities, divisions within the now disparate community, and no significant improvement in the welfare of most community members being the order of the day.

In 2012 fifty Rotary clubs in Germany and 3 clubs in South Africa in collaboration with Peace Parks Foundation set up a project to break down the historical imbalances and to give the ‡Khomani San the desired guidance and assistance for the sustainable operation of the !Ae !Hai Kalahari Heritage Park and the development and operation of the joint farms which were given to them by the South African government in 1999 and 2002 after a successful land claim. The project is designed to give the ‡Khomani San a chance to live in peace, freedom, dignity and economic independence while retaining their traditional identity. The German Ministry for International Cooperation and Development (BMZ) joined Rotary to support the project for four years (details under section Projects and Donations).

Through the involvement of various parties this situation is slowly being turned around and there have been many successes in the last few years that are cause for optimism. The community is also now starting to stand together to take control of the situation and with external assistance has and will continue to develop its assets for the good of the community, This primarily entails the development of tourism facilities where visitors may experience the unique attributes of this arid region and its people.

Our Vision

The ‡Khomani San community seeks to be “an empowered and vibrant community that values and is grounded in its culture and tradition, deriving optimal benefit from the various resources and assets owned by and available to it, including land both inside and outside the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, interfacing with the modern world in a constructive and beneficial way, with a positive outlook for future generations”.

About the Kalahari

Brown Hyena cub (Credit: Gus Mills) | Khomani San

A vast mantle of windblown sand, now red, now pale, organised by ancient winds into undulating dunes and inter-dune streets, or flat further than the horizon, covers much of the land stretching from near the Orange River in South Africa, to the Congo Basin in the north.

From Kimberley, where the earth has yielded riches in the form of diamonds, through the arid Northern Cape Province of South Africa, rolling across vast portions of neighbouring Botswana and Namibia, through Angola and Zambia to the mighty Congo River basin, this is one of the largest sand basins on earth. Permanent surface water is scarce or absent. Ancient fossil river beds and pans indicate ages gone by when climates were different.

Life-giving rain fills the pans for short periods of abundance, whereafter those who live on the land rely on ancient knowledge, transmitted through generations, to guide them unerringly to a myriad sources of moisture, albeit in quantities that would barely satisfy the raging thirst of visitors to this evocative environment.

Aridity, the passage of time and extremes in temperature, have moulded the inhabitants of this region. From the majestic eland and oryx, with physiological and behavioural adaptations to enable survival in this harsh environment, to the iconic barking gecko’s, characteristic of Kalahari nights, numerous life forms enhance the natural splendour of this age-old landscape. The sheer diversity reflects how various life forms occupy every available niche. From stately camel thorn trees, many home to the architecturally wondrous sociable weaver nests, with hundreds of living compartments to house these industrious workers, through waving stands of golden bushman grass, abundant after life-giving rains, starkly absent during dry years, to the unimaginably delicious Kalahari truffles, the !Nabba of the people who know, live in and respect this land.

Several species of the cat family occupy the plains and dunes with feline purpose: from the legendary black-maned lion to the rarely seen African small footed cat. Aardvark, pangolin, honey badger, fox and jackal liven the night, affording rare glimpses to those with patience. By day the springbok may exhibit their characteristic ‘pronking’, seemingly for the sheer joy of being. Here a trapdoor spider reveals engineering works to marvel at, there a penduline tit nest provides a spectacle as the sun shines through the early morning dew trapped on its silkiness.

And the people who know, love and respect this land, who know its moods, its nuances, its secrets are the last of an unbroken lineage with ancestry stretching back to times when humankind first walked the earth.

The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park

The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park | Khomani San

The world-renowned Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park invisibly straddles the border between Botswana and South Africa. No fences, no boundaries separate the participants in this celebration of trust and peace, acknowledging and respecting time-honoured movements of the land’s people and wildlife. Movements are both purposeful and opportunistic, as demanded by this arid environment, and are based on the need for food and moisture, as rains tease by their absence or bring blessing and patchy abundance in this vast arid area.

At the south-western tip of the Park, lies some 28 000 hectares of land, restored to the ‡Khomani San in the historic settlement of one of democratic South Africa’s significant land claims. Together with a similar area granted to the neighbouring Mier Community, the Heritage Park, as it has been named, provides an opportunity for ‡Khomani San and sensitive visitor alike to immerse themselves in all facets of Kalahari life.

The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park | Khomani San

Proclaimed as a Contractual National Park by South Africa’s parliament, it enjoys the highest level of statutory protection while conferring certain rights on the ‡Khomani San – the rights to enjoy the use of the land and its living resources in a manner that contributes to the maintenance of time honored knowledge, culture and practise in a sustainable manner.

The Heritage Park is managed under the auspices of a Joint Management Board comprising members of SANParks, Mier and ‡Khomani San. Mindful of their responsibilities, a ‡Khomani San Park Committee manages access, issues permits and is implementing a Cybertracker-GIS based monitoring system to ensure sustainable use of key resources on their land, including a variety of medicinal plants.

A rustic facility provides relatively sheltered accommodation for groups of elders and children as knowledge, language and custom are transmitted.

Here is a recent educational video produced on CyberTracker in English http://vimeo.com/5639008, Spanish http://vimeo.com/5639841 and French http://vimeo.com/5640170.

The following video deals with San and Nama efforts to retain traditional knowledge of plants, their benefits, to fight plant poaching, and to conserve biodiversity. http://ipacc.org.za/eng/default.asp

World Heritage Site Status

The ‡Khomani are the last surviving indigenous San community in South Africa and their living cultural landscape is an important aspect of national culture. The San of southern Africa have left a unique artistic tradition and archaeological record throughout the sub-continent. In very few places is there any documented historical or contemporary evidence of their less tangible cultural practices, or recorded evidence for interpretation of what remains physically evident. This site is unique in this regard.

There has already been a tentative listing of the |Xam and ‡Khomani Cultural Landscape. There is now an initiative underway that aims to prepare the ‡Khomani San Cultural Landscape for nomination as a World Heritage Site, including the compilation of the documents necessary for the sensitisation of the community and the establishment of the necessary WHS management structures. The development of a world class Heritage Centre in the Kalahari is also being planned, in order that material that has been collected and recorded over the last 100 years can be returned to the community and showcased to local and international visitors.

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