Good years ahead on native land

Africa: The head of the Kalahari Bushmen sees portents of kinder weather as his people celebrate the return of their ancestral home.

January 01, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WITDRAAI, South Africa -- As the dawn of year 2000 dims the diamond-bright stars above the desert here, David Kruiper, chief of the Bushmen of the southern Kalahari, is free of millennium worries.

Without a power supply to fail, a phone to go dead, a computer to crash or a bank account to freeze, this 64-year-old man of nature is immune to the threat of technological chaos.

He hasn't even heard of the Y2K bug.

The lines on his face deepen at mention of the possibility of the year 2000 bringing problems to the modern world. Then he shakes his head and smiles.

He has, he says, looked up at the clouds and down at the spiders during the last weeks of the 1900s.

The way the patterns are forming above and the insects are behaving below tells him that the coming years promise only positive change for his people.

`Weather is turning'

The long, hot dry summers of the past 25 years, he predicts, will give way to cooler, wetter weather.

That is a welcome prospect here, where the red dunes of the Kalahari desert shimmer under a blazing sun and only the toughest of grasses, and plants as hardy as the camel thorn and wild cucumber, can survive alongside the enduring Bushmen.

"Something with the weather is turning," says Kruiper, his taut, diminutive body bare except for a pair of springbok-hide briefs. "There's going to be rain, and the dry is going to end.

"My name is David, and I want to be like David in the Bible and see the sheep in green pastures."

Here is a man who was taught by his father to use a notched stick as a calendar, to tell the time of day by the length of the sun-cast shadows on the sand and the time of night by the coolness of the ground.

Return to the old ways

In the year 2000, he wants nothing more than to return to the ways of his hunter-gatherer ancestors, using the bow and arrow to put meat in the cooking pot, which is stocked with wild plants and heated over charcoal.

And, under what is known as South Africa's "new dispensation," the clock is actually being turned back for the local Bushmen in these hot, arid parts.

This awesomely inhospitable place has been home to the Bushmen -- or Khomani-San, as they call themselves -- the indigenous people of southern Africa, since long before the first outside settlers disturbed their way of life more than three centuries ago.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the San -- like many other indigenous peoples around the world -- have been displaced, urbanized, marginalized and assimilated by settlers, colonists and, here, even by conservationists who turned them off their land in the 1930s to create a national park.

Woes rise; numbers dwindle

They have been afflicted by poverty, alcohol addiction, unemployment.

A century ago there were an estimated 100,000 Bushmen living and hunting in these desert dunes of the southern Kalahari, according to the Cape Town-based San Institute, a nongovernmental organization charged with supporting the Khomani-San community and its culture.

Now there are fewer than 1,000 scattered across South Africa and neighboring areas of Namibia and Angola.

As they dance through the dunes, singing their traditional songs, the local San have more than a new year to celebrate.

Under black majority rule, their ancestral lands have been returned to them -- 90,000 acres inside the Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park, and an equally large tract of farmland outside the park.

`Previously disadvantaged'

It is part of the government's plan to redistribute land to those termed "previously disadvantaged," who lost their traditional homes under apartheid or colonization. The local San filed a claim for restitution in 1995. It was granted in March.

The San are now busy deciding what to do with the returned land. The Kalahari-Gemsbok parkland must remain a conservation area, in which they cannot resettle. It will be controlled by the parks service, but the San will be able to profit from commercial tourist ventures -- a game lodge, four-by-four trails, Bushman treks.

The farmland will be used for game reserves, tourist rest camps and residential areas. Financing is likely to be obtained through partnerships with private businesses.

Almost inevitably, there are disputes within the community over who should get what and how the land should be developed.

"The needs in the community are varied, so not everybody's priorities are the same," says Derek Hanekom, the former land minister who was the government's chief agent in returning the land to the San.

Roger Chennels, the lawyer who pursued the San's successful land claim, says: "They are full of hope, but there are a lot of frustrations."

Protect own culture

Chennels, who has represented the San for six years, credits the new South African constitution with giving better guarantees to the indigenous people in this country than those enjoyed by Bushmen groups in Botswana and Namibia.

But, he cautions, the San throughout southern Africa must protect their own culture.

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