Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

Of Bosluisbasters and other hybrids

“My father and them trekked with a donkey cart”, Floors explained. “It was a long distance to cover in that way and some families had it very hard. Somebody’s wife went into labour and they stopped at a farm. But the farmer wanted to know nothing and chased them away.”

One of the government officials in our little group on the stoep of the Wag-‘n-Bietjie guesthouse in Eksteenfontein turned his face away and blew his cigarette smoke into the dry wind. “Die bliksems …” he said bitterly.

“The next farmer took them in,” Floors continued. “But the little one died. The farmer said that they could bury her in the goat camp. The family visited it forty/ fifty years later and found the grave. Put up a memorial stone.”

Floors was talking about the Great Trek of the Bosluisbasters from the emptiness of Boesmanland to the even emptier Richtersveld. That was back in 1949, one year after the National Party had managed to secure their hold on state power. Translated directly the clan name means “Bush Tick”, which according to Floors derives from the farm, “Bo-sluis”, which was contracted into “bosluis”.

The Bosluisbasters had started to feel progressively unwanted in Boesmanland. They owned no land and had to trek from farm to farm to graze their stock, always dependent on the permission of the landowner.

“This was not easy, especially in droughts as you can imagine,” Floors said. “Then there was always that other thing: the farmer coming to ‘visit’ and not too long thereafter you have the embarrassment of that little one with the blue eyes.”

Eventually the Bosluisbasters decided that they had had enough. With the help of a certain minister Eksteen they started looking for a place where they could have land of their own, eventually sending out a four man commission, in the age-old trek tradition, to assess the lands in the Richtersveld far to the northwest.

The commission was impressed with what they found in spite of the rugged remoteness of this mountainous desert region. It had strong water, good grazing and firewood and was inhabited by a small population of Nama, who still maintained a fairly traditional way of life as semi-nomadic goat and sheep herders. The commission, whittled down to three as a result of one being arrested in the nearby town of Springbok, met with the Namaraad from which they obtained permission to settle.

The Bosluisbasters established their little dorp in an area called “Stinkfontein”, translated directly from the Nama, “Xhobes”, like so many of the other names in the region. “Stinking Fountain”, or so the story goes, derived from an incident where a group of Kora, another Khoikhoi clan, murdered the children of the local Nama and gruesomely threw their heads into the fountain to rot.

The prelude to this brutal act was the incursion of Khoikhoi pastoralists into the region, a spin-off effect of the Great Migration of the Bantu-speakers into the subcontinent. It led to the establishment of Nama as the lingua franca in the region and the eclipse of the ancient Bushman languages.

After the establishment of the Dutch colony at the Cape much later, broken and partly acculturated Khoikhoi tribes and Afrikaans-speaking “Euro-Khoi” or “baster” clans would similarly radiate outward into this hinterland; so too a melange of bandits, escaped slaves, missionaries, prospectors, trekboers and seasonal biltong and ivory hunters.

As the Nama before them, the Basters brought with them a new way of life, complete with the Bible and front-end loader. Each wave of inkommers (“in-comers”) left bones, kraals and names scattered across the landscape.

The infamous Jan Jonker Afrikaner, bandit and pioneer left the most indelible mark of all, subjecting the Nama and fighting the Herero in the north to a standstill. In the process he established the hegemony of Afrikaans over a vast stretch of dry, transfrontier land, which ranged from the fringes of the Cape Colony far into what would become Duitswes and later Namibia.

The turmoil of that era is still testified to by the new hybridities that it brought about. Another member of our small group on the stoep has a dark, black African skin colour and wide, generous Herero features. Yet he shifts between Afrikaans and Nama with the greatest of ease and speaks not a word of Herero. His forebears, he explains, were abducted and kept as slaves by Jan Jonker’s clan, later re-establishing their autonomy.

The history of the great northwest, from Cape Town all the way up to Windhoek, is all but unknown to the majority of South Africans. Few know or care to know about the stories of the Bondelswarts, bombed into submission from the air by Jan Smuts, the Velskoendraers and the host of hybridised Khoi tribes and clans and pioneers with “funny-sounding” Afrikaans names.

This bitter history, I would venture to suggest, is a mite too hybrid for the liking of the powers that were and those that be. We all grew up on the stale history along the Cape Town/ Pretoria axis — one in which liberal and Marxist English academics colluded with Afrikaner and African nationalists to create a mutually exclusive, bipolar story in which there are few shades of grey.

Lecturing to a group of third year students a few years ago, I was stunned to realise that the majority of them found it difficult to believe that “black Africans” had started to penetrate and settle in what is now South Africa only some 2 000 years ago; that once they too had perpetrated a “settler-economy” of kinds on the landscape (if you will excuse terminology used so frequently by the ZANU-PF spin-doctors and apologists).

“We’ve always been here!” as one of the students said. His voice had the same intense, emotional tone that black South Africans often have when they talk about Cape Town and Table Mountain.

There is a nervousness about any version of history that does not confirm baasskap over the country in its entirety. There is a nervousness too about the “foreign” nature of the Cape and its hinterland, if the Cape Times is to be believed. According to a recent article in this paper, “black professionals” are (unblushingly) alienated by the Cape, among others, because of the “widespread use” of Afrikaans.

Time to get the Human Rights Commission involved; also to address that niggling little issue of the widespread use of Zulu in Durban, not to mention all the Tsonga and Venda in Limpopo. Let English, that biggest, hybrid bastard of all, reign supreme.

The Bosluisbasters, in all their hybridity, make no bones about the fact that they were inkommers in the Richtersveld. They intermarried with the local Nama and today form an integrated community with a mixed heritage that is somewhat famously riven with internal strife and dissent.

Stinkfontein made way for “Eksteenfontein” in honour of the Boere dominee that had helped the clan with its great trek. Today there is still a memorial to Eksteen in the local church and his descendants visit on important occasions. The Richtersvelders are in the process of establishing a large world heritage site adjacent to the national park to protect both nature and culture. Nama may soon take its rightful place as the 12th official language of the country.

Floors Strauss wears a Blue Bulls jersey. His wife named their son Breyten — after the poet, not the rugby player — and the story goes on …

“Ons is ‘n bastervolk met ‘n bastertaal”. Breyten Breytenbach, 1973.