Bushmen take refuge in game reserve

February 14, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

KAGGA KAMMA GAME RESERVE, South Africa -- About 50 bushmen have returned to the rugged land of their ancestors here, hoping to preserve prehistoric traditions and save a vanishing tribe.

Dressed in antelope skins and armed with wooden bows and arrows, they hunt small game across miles of rocky terrain in the manner that bushmen hunted in this region for thousands of years.

The bushmen are an oddity now in South Africa, with its modern cities and modern-day struggles for power. They are hunters and gatherers who once moved freely through the country, from the Kalahari Desert to the Cape of Good Hope.

But the bushmen have been killed off or pushed aside by the advance of Western civilization, which began in this country more than three centuries ago.

Now, there are fewer than 100 left, half of them living in this dry, mountainous region in the western part of the country where centuries-old bushman paintings can still be found on massive rocks.

"These are among the last of the South African bushmen," said Hennie P. Steyn, an anthropologist at the University of Stellenbosh who has studied the community that came from the Kalahari two years ago to resettle here between the Sederberg and Swartruggens mountain ranges.

"But obviously, this is not a group of people living a traditional lifestyle," he said. "They are not living off the land. They are living off tourism."

In their struggle to survive and hold onto their old ways, the bushmen have latched onto something new: the 8,000-acre Kagga Kamma Game Reserve, about 150 miles northeast of Cape Town. They have resettled on the grounds of this privately owned reserve, established in 1989 on old bushman hunting grounds by a white South African who originally bought the land for a sheep farm.

"It's not a very good sheep area, but we decided it must be good for game," said Pieter de Waal, a white Afrikaner, who discovered bushman rock paintings of hunters and animals on his farm.

Instead of sheep, he purchased exotic antelopes -- springbok, gemsbok, eland -- and then invited the small community of bushmen to come and live on their ancestral land in a re-creation of life in this ancient valley.

At the time, the bushmen were struggling to survive on the edge of the Kalahari, where they lived as squatters and worked occasionally as farm laborers on land where their forebears used to hunt freely.

"The bushmen in their present cultural adaptation go back at least 20,000 years, while blacks are more recent and whites are even more recent. That makes it all the more tragic that they are on their last leg now," Mr. Steyn said.

"The bushmen were the first inhabitants of the area. They hunted, but later Westernized people came and they cut up the land into farms, and now the land belongs to everyone that owns a farm. The bushmen couldn't hunt anymore. So they had quite a bad deal," Mr. de Waal said.

"That was the problem. They didn't have any money, and the only way they could earn money was for the men to go and work on the farms. And they're not bred that way. They're bred to be people that hunt. They don't like to do ordinary work. They don't like it, and they don't want to do it."

So Mr. de Waal, who also owns grape farms in the wine-growing region south of here, proposed a deal that he thought would benefit both the bushmen and his new project.

He would allow the bushmen to live on his land, erect their own village and hunt the smaller antelopes. In return, he asked them to meet tourists once a day at a large community hut, where they often perform dances and demonstrate how the men hunt.

They also sell bows and arrows and other crafts to the game reserve,which puts the profits into a "bushman fund" to be used by the villagers on their rare shopping expeditions to town.

"Some people told us when we took the bushmen to town, 'you're exploiting the bushmen and using them to promote Kagga Kamma,' " Mr. de Waal said.

He also caused a major traffic jam at a Cape Town shopping center when he came in with a group of the small, brown-skinned people dressed in nothing but little strips of animal skin.

"But they wanted to go shopping. What were we supposed to do?"

Mr. de Waal readily admits that the bushmen are an attraction for his game reserve but said he also offered them something of value in return -- something no one else had done. "One can't deny that some people want to see the bushmen. And they come to Kagga Kamma," he said.

"I think we've got a good deal on Kagga Kamma's side," he said. "But, of course, the bushman have got a good deal too. It's quite a big area for them to move around."

The bushmen seem satisfied with the unusual arrangement, which allows them to maintain their traditions and return to a lifestyle they prefer -- living in harmony with nature and taking from it only what is necessary to survive.

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