To find their future, South Africa’s first people look to the past

Petrus Vaalbooi, the current traditional leader of the San, stands for a portrait. In his elder years, a focus of Vaalbooi’s role is to pass on his knowledge of San culture to the next generation. His son, Ivan, assists in arranging youth conferences where Petrus can talk to the younger generation.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan
By Jim Tan
Published 1 Dec 2022, 13:58 GMT

GROWING UP, Luce Steenkamp was a quiet child for whom school was tough. Always told she was ‘different’, in 1999 at the age of 16, her world changed. she found out she was San – an Indigenous group, also known as bushmen, who were South Africa’s first people.

“I didn’t have any confidence and I didn’t feel good about myself,” said Steenkamp. “But when I found out about being bushman I felt really empowered. Like I’m someone, and I know where I come from.”

Steenkamp is still a quiet soul, but there’s a steely confidence to her demeanour, a prerequisite for the work she now does as administrative manager for the ǂKhomani San Community Property Association (CPA), a role that all too often sees her caught between her community and bureaucracy.

The CPA is the official body that manages the land which the South African San community won, under the banner of the ǂKhomani San, in their historic land claim in 1999. It was through the land claim that Steenkamp, along with many others, discovered her Indigenous heritage as the legal team representing the San sought out those with links to the community to add to the claim.

Andriesvale, the largest of the Khomani San settlements. There is often not enough funds available to ...

Andriesvale, the largest of the Khomani San settlements. There is often not enough funds available to pump water to the large tanks above the village. The community regularly goes several days without running water.

Photograph and caption by Jim Tan
A young boy watches the world go by on a Saturday afternoon. There is limited entertainment ...

A young boy watches the world go by on a Saturday afternoon. There is limited entertainment for young people in Andriesvale, and many struggle at the local schools due to the stigma of being San, or bushman, that still exists in South Africa.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan
Elvis collects water for a friend from outside his home on the Witdraai Nature Reserve.

Elvis collects water for a friend from outside his home on the Witdraai Nature Reserve.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

Twenty years on, the community’s fervent hope that a return to the land would be the start of a better life has not quite come to pass. Outside Steenkamp’s office window, a forlorn collection of broken-down game viewing vehicles stands as a reminder of initiatives enthusiastically started, which never quite delivered.

“There are a lot of obstacles, a lot of internal conflict and politics within the community,” says Steenkamp.“Things can change – we just need to find a way to work together.”

The ǂKhomani San community defies simple classification. Like the shifting sands of the Kalahari, the view can change depending on where or when you choose to look. Love, tolerance, pride and respect are all ubiquitous; so are alcoholism, unemployment and teenage pregnancies. At the heart of it all is the San identity, ravaged by history, almost erased by apartheid and many feel still not fully recognised to this day.

“My heart is very broken,” says Petrus Vaalbooi, the current traditional leader of the San in South Africa. “There is still not healing from all the damage done in the past. Things are still not as they should be.”

Hans sets out items on his stall in the early morning. The road to the Kgalagadi ...

Hans sets out items on his stall in the early morning. The road to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier park runs through the San community's land; selling at the roadside is a source of income for those still practising traditional crafts.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan
Luce Steenkamp drinks a coffee outside her home before beginning her day. In her role as ...

Luce Steenkamp drinks a coffee outside her home before beginning her day. In her role as an administrator for the CPA (Community Property Association), Steenkamp often feels she is often caught in disputes between the community and the CPA . After serving the community for 10 years through the CPA, she is frustrated by the lack of change.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan
Young men killing time by the side of the road outside Andriesvale. The lack of opportunities ...

Young men killing time by the side of the road outside Andriesvale. The lack of opportunities in the Kalahari leave many young San people feeling frustrated. Much of the community relies on government grants for its survival. Many turn to alcohol and dagga (marijuana).

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

A torrid history

“Indigenous peoples and first peoples almost everywhere in the world were absolutely helpless against those who came in with stronger powers,” says Roger Chennels, a human rights lawyer who acted on behalf of the San during the land claim. “The San literally had genocide in the early years. They were looked down upon, they were beaten, they were dominated.”

During the 17th and 18th century, European settlers could apply for an official permit to hunt San on their land. So-called ‘commandos’ waged what has been described as a ‘genocidal war’ under the rule of the Dutch East India Company.

By the turn of the 20th century, only a tiny remanent of the San people were left in the Kalahari region of the Northern Cape – some of the least productive and harshest land in South Africa. In 1931, the last stronghold of the San in South Africa was gazetted as the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, and whilst park management initially allowed the San to continue living in the park, they were soon evicted for good.

Under the dark days of apartheid, the San were not recognised as an Indigenous group but reclassified as ‘coloured’ – one of the four racial groupings devised by the apartheid regime – and stopped from speaking their language and practicing their traditions.

“The apartheid government made sure the bushman culture died out,” says Petrus. “We had to live the way the apartheid regime wanted us to live – that’s why I wasn’t able to share the knowledge I got from my great grandparent, to transfer it to my children.”

Beulah Witbooi prepares roosterkoek, a traditional South African bread, on the fire.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

A man and his donkey cart rest under the shade of a tree outside the largest Khomani settlement on the farm of Andriesvale. Donkey carts are an important form of transportation for many in the community.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

Sean Witbooi outside his roadside stall. Many stallholders wear traditional dress, changing into it specifically when they come to the stall.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

With no land, the San dispersed, eking out an existence as labourers on white farms and in the isolated rural towns where the apartheid government dumped those who didn’t fit their racial ideals.

When the apartheid government came to an end in 1994, the newly formed South African government, led by Nelson Mandela, created the Restitution of Land Rights Act to try and right the wrongs of the past. The original land claim was made by the Kruiper clan under the leadership of Dawid Kruiper.

The Kruipers were the last of the San groups to be living in what became the Gemsbok Kalahari National Park – so could prove they were evicted from the land after 1913, a requirement of making a land claim. In recognition of the significance of a claim by South Africa’s first people, the government asked the Kruipers and their legal team if they would extend the land claim to include others of San heritage who couldn’t prove a link to the land.

Sat in his bohemian Cape Town home, Chennels is in a reflective mood as looks back on the historic events in which he played such a pivotal role. A warm smile comes to his face as he recalls Kruiper’s response to the request.

“Dawid Kruiper said, we’re going to include the others,” says Chennels. “He had a metaphor, he said ‘We’re driving on a bus, and we’re going somewhere and there’s room on our bus, let them climb onto our bus’.”

“What you need to understand is this is a hybrid community… and it’s quite a gap to bridge between the very traditional and very formal members.”

Dirk Pienaar

In 1999, the ǂKhomani won their land claim with six farms covering 34,728 hectares handed over to them. In 2002, the community were granted a further 57,903 hectares of land within the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park to manage as the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park. The community was also granted the rights to use 473,830 hectares of land within the national park for symbolic and cultural uses.

A troubled start

Winning the land claim was a historic event, celebrated as a moment of progress in the new South Africa – but it did not take long for cracks to appear. One of the principal issues was that the roughly thousand-strong group of claimants were never previously one single community. In San society, clans or family groups would travel around according to the conditions, coming together with others for a time, and then going their separate ways.

Histories and motivations of community members varied from the Kruipers – who had a clear link to the land and had been living a semblance of a traditional life ever since being evicted from the park – to those who had no knowledge of their San roots at all. In some cases of the latter, they had no interest beyond the chance to live on a piece of land they could call their own. The ǂKhomani San community was in essence a construct; once they collectively owned land, they had to work as one, but their differences inevitably led to conflict.

“What you need to understand is this is a hybrid community… and it’s quite a gap to bridge between the very traditional and very formal community members,” says Dirk Pienaar, Tourism Officer for the CPA. “We need to try and bring the community together because at the end of the day it’s the same community. It’s from the same lineage, [but has been] dragged away from each other by different circumstances.”

Left: Top:

Johan Vaalbooi outside his home on Andriesvale. Vaalbooi is a qualified nature guide but struggles to find enough work in the Kalahari.

Right: Bottom:

A home-made child’s toy outside the farmhouse Petrus Vaalbooi and his family live in on one of the farms now owned by the San community.

photographs by Jim Tan

The community was not also prepared for the challenge of formal property management, especially not with the added complication of group ownership. For the more traditional sides of the community, the required committees, policies and procedures were an anathema to traditional San culture. For those who had been living as ‘coloureds’, the conditions of apartheid had been intentionally designed to keep them down with limited education and no experience of managing property or businesses.

Successive CPA Committees, tasked with managing the land for the community, failed – and were removed from office for mismanagement by the then South African Department of Land Affairs. In addition, some interventions from outside the community have been less than helpful – such as the tavern and bottle store which have been built just outside the entrance to the community’s land, which profits from selling cheap alcohol to the community with little attempt to offer more useful services.

As the hoped-for changes failed to appear division increased in the community, fuelled by jealousy and suspicion. For many, life was still a challenge. There are few opportunities in the Kalahari, and the management failures on the community’s land meant there were fewer still. With an ongoing stigma around being San and lack of understanding about San culture, the community’s children struggled badly at local schools and often dropped out.

Dirk Pienaar is the tourism and conservation officer of the Community Property Association. Building new tourism operations requires the buy-in of the whole community – an important safeguard, but also a significant challenge when many of the community have a lower educational level and limited understanding of business operations. A large part of Pienaar’s role is to speak with the community to ensure the actions of the CPA are understood.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

Lydia Kruiper stands on the Wiitdraai Nature Reserve. The Kruiper family are among those considered the most traditional in the community.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

“The social problems are really damaging,” says Steenkamp. “The younger people, they just see alcohol or abusing alcohol as more like something to keep them busy because there’s not a lot of opportunities and most of them are living day to day.”

In the last twenty years, psychologists have begun to have a deeper understanding of an issue known as intergenerational trauma, when the difficulties of one generation go on to influence subsequent generations – an issue first recognised in the children of Holocaust survivors. Chennels believes this plays a role in the San’s struggles too.

“There’s such damage been done to their psyche over the years, there is a healing needing to be done,” he said. “The result of this… is a lack of self-worth, a lack of self-confidence which lends itself to being more susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse.”

Glimmer of hope

“There’s been a lot of improvements in the last seven years,” says Pienaar. “It’s just that certain processes, and coming from a traditional way of thinking, it takes a long time to materialise.”

When things have improved, it’s often where the community came together to find the right solution for them. One big improvement is the primary school the community now runs on its own land where San children can be taught in a way most suitable to them, as well as learning about their language and their culture. The community have also proactively gone out to share their culture with surrounding communities – which is helping to tackle prejudices grounded in ignorance.

Luce Steenkamp: “When I found out about being bushman, I felt really empowered. Like I’m someone, and I know where I come from.”

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

Issac Kruiper on the Wiitdraai Reserve.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

When funding allows, the community runs a veldt school where groups of all ages spend time together in the park. The veldt school aims to practice intergenerational knowledge transfer, where the elders pass traditional knowledge onto the younger generation, whilst the younger generation help teach the older generation about the formal processes required to work in the tourism industry. In practice, the two-way knowledge transfer isn’t easy says Pienaar, but a step in the right direction.

For all the problems that have come with it, owning their own land is still deeply significant for South Africa’s San. After ten years of fighting for change for her community, Steenkamp is tired and frustrated, but on a visit to the community’s land inside the national park, land which has a particularly deep meaning for the San, she visibly relaxes.

“For me [the park] is my place to go when I feel I need to refresh and just get my energy,” she says. “You just feel like you are at home.”

It’s a feeling shared by many in the community and echoes the experiences of other Indigenous groups whose link to the land is so important.

Johan Vaalbooi opens the gate to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The park sits on land where the San once freely roamed. The community has the rights to use 473,830 hectares of land in the park for traditional use, but very few in the community still have the ability to do so and the park bureaucracy is a challenge for the more traditional community members to navigate.

Photograph and caption by Jim Tan

“If you remove Indigenous groups from their land, they don’t have a classroom to teach,” says Ivan Vaalbooi, a campaigner for Indigenous rights with the NGO Natural Justice in Cape Town, and San leader Petrus Vaalbooi’s youngest son. “You are creating a future of people who are very disorientated because they don’t know where they are coming from.”

Like Steenkamp, embracing and learning about his San heritage has helped give Ivan a sense of purpose and place in the world. Ivan has been able to travel with his father to visit important historical sites for the San in the Kalahari and his grandmother, Elsie Vaalbooi, was discovered to be one of the last living speakers of N|uu, which had previously been thought to be a dead language.

“For me it formed a very good basis of understanding where I am coming from,” he says. “Once you have that background knowledge, you can comfortably say I am San, I am from the Kalahari.”

ǂKhomani San traditional leader Petrus Vaalbooi sits for a portrait. Prior to the land claim, Vaalbooi was a farmer and had largely left his San heritage behind.

Photograph and Caption by Jim Tan

Not all young people in the community are as eager to embrace their San identity, in part due to the stigma still attached to the term in South Africa – a situation that is slowly improving. For those who do want to know more, Ivan is organising youth conferences through the Elsie Vaalbooi Foundation, named after his grandmother, to help transfer knowledge to the next generation.

“We have already lost a lot of our elders, so with the few elders we have left now is a very urgent time,” he says. “We need to collect those stories from the elders so that those stories can be kept alive.”

In the grand scheme of things, twenty years is not a long time to rebuild a culture and community, points out Chennels. With their futures now bound by their joint land ownership, South African San’s fortunes will depend on the ability to find a way to work together, and perhaps that starts with understanding their shared identity.

“Culture is everything, if you don’t know where you are coming from it’s very easy for a young person to get lost in all the chaos,” says Ivan. “If you want to change, it starts with changing the mind.”

Jim Tan is a photographer and conservation writer based in North Wales. Follow him on Instagram.


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