Khadija Magardie
Khadija Magardie

Airbrushing the boesman

Just what does a coloured have to do these days — short of knocking out the rest of his teeth or picking up the banjo — to get noticed in South African national debates?

One really wishes the government would make up its mind. First they were saying there’s historically been an ‘over-concentration’ of bruin-ous in the Western Cape, then they’re saying they’ve never really been there — ‘historically speaking.’

As we now well know, a cabinet minister a few weeks ago told Parliament that there simply haven’t been ‘Africans in particular’ in the southernmost tip of Africa until fairly recently.

The outrage that greeted this non-controversy (for it’s been the subject of debate among real historians since the Seventies) was to be expected. Truth is it’s a stale debate — a kind of political non sequitir.

Pieter Mulder’s assertions about there being no ‘Bantu-speaking’ tribes in the region when the Europeans came is a long-discredited theory that’s been around since Vasco da Gama’s ship dropped anchor.

The little yellow people running around the Cape of Good Hope in the old days didn’t even warrant a mention. No disclaimer or caveat: Niks. Just like that.

What pretty much everyone took issue with was the bit about the ‘Bantu-speaking tribes’.

Whether by design or omission, the Khoi and San received scant mention beyond a few comments on the letters pages.

Either because they’re not ‘African’ by the Freedom Front Plus’ definition or, tellingly, they didn’t (and don’t) matter in the debate anyway.

This has pretty much determined the way in which land rights of the Khoi and San people have been addressed in post-apartheid South Africa: either met with ridicule, or ignored.

In a headline dripping with sarcasm, a local newspaper reported on a claim made in 2001 by a group of Khoisan descendants for land in the Western Cape, saying the group ‘demanded valuable Cape land’, including the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Then, like now, such claims will be dismissed and ignored.

A startling omission that would invite charges of ‘genocide denialism’ in another context. The cause of First Nation people — as aboriginal people are now called — isn’t sexy enough.

Unless, like the Aboriginals of Australia they’re dik gesuip on the reserve, or streaking across the Amazon in full war paint.

Despite land dispossession, plunder, rape, pillage and the pox, there aren’t many aboriginals around the world who’ve managed to get their land back, because of the myths peddled by revisionist historians like the ones Mulder claims to have on speed-dial.

A group of Khoisan protested in Pretoria last week demanding recognition of their status as First Nation people — an undeniable fact to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of South African history. The UN recognised their First Nation status back in 1998 — but it’s likely this petition, like those before it, will fade into obscurity.

Despite his cuteness on The Gods Must be Crazy, the “Happy Hottentot” hasn’t become a cause célèbre in South Africa yet.

The enthusiasm with which certain causes are adopted by the world, and even the South African activist community — from Palestinian rights, to the emancipation of the Western Sahara: sadly doesn’t extend to this community that remains on South Africa’s margins.

Such was the importance the new South African government attached to the aboriginal South Africans that our national coat of arms includes words and symbols in the /Xam language. Now we have Pieter Mulder, effectively dismissing their right to be even counted as Africans — in our democratic parliament.

Descriptions by the early Dutch settlers of the Khoi and San people as mendacious, murderous ‘vermin’ — now translated into the latter-day ‘boesman’ — a term seldom used in a postive context; but more one that conjures up a phuza face and a loincloth.

Or of course, as it applies to many of their decendants, the so-called coloureds — an image of a toothless gangster with a knife in his Jack Purcells.

The aboriginal people of South Africa have over the years been reduced to the status of depressed drunks or simpletons — in no large part due to state neglect, both under apartheid and after its demise.

There have been claims lodged by various Khoi and San communities to have land reinstituted to them; but they’ve been claims fraught with technical difficulties. Part of the problem is because land claims in South Africa have a 1913 cut-off date; whereas many of these communities were shuffled off ancestral and hunting land way before then. Then there’s the reality that the San, in particular, were migrants and nomads.

Even with a hut or some gravestones to prove a historical right to a piece of land, it’s pretty hard enough to negotiate the bureaucracy of the Land Claims Commission. But try proving if your people didn’t plant vineyards, or ‘leave traces.’ Your very existence on that land will always be in dispute.

And with the exception of the stories being kept alive by historians and artists — including a new exhibition at the Origins Centre — the only type of “bushman” we seem to talk about in South Africa today is not a person who really exists — and is a part of South African society like anybody else: but the bow and arrow man of rock art fame: a relic belonging in a museum.

If Pieter Mulder and his party owe anyone an apology — it’s them.

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