Hope lies broken in desert sand

This is an op ed piece I wrote on the San Bushmen.

I met Jan van der Westhuizen who sees a world filled with spirits and believes if we return to nature we will become a better people.

It is nice to know there are still people like that around.

Jan van der Westhuizen spends his days in his kantoor where he chases away tokoloshes and mixes medicinal herbs.

His kantoor is his consultation room where patients come, sometimes travelling long distances so he can cure them of illnesses or drive off those bad spirits.

TRADITIONALIST: Oom Jan van der Westhuizen, a Bushman shaman from the Witdraai region. Picture by Antoine de Ras

It’s people like Oom Jan the tourists hope to see when they head up to this remote corner of Northern Cape. They want to see that romantic image of the San Bushmen of old, living off the land, untouched by modern living.

But Oom Jan’s nights are spent in a shack in Andriesvale, and it is here where that the tourist image of wilderness paradises shatters.

Living around Oom Jan is a community divided, ravaged by poverty and some say forgotten by their own government.

DISADVANTAGED: Hendrik Brits, an inhabitant of Witdraai, is one of many locals who has to walk a distance to fetch drinking water for his family.
Picture by Antoine de Ras

Some of its broken inhabitants wander around offering to tell the “ou stories van die Boesman” for a couple of rand, just enough for a swig of that cheap wine known locally as “killing me softly”.

Children peddle curios to tourists, when they should be at school.

The old and the new. Traditional Bushmen are trying to hold on to their culture in a rapidly changing world. Picture by Antoine de Ras

These are a people that divide themselves into those who are either traditionalists like Oom Jan or embrace the West’s lifestyles – seeing themselves as part of modern society, looking to own cars, televisions and pay a mortgage.

Oom Jan’s friend Dawid Kruiper, who was buried on Saturday, was also a traditionalist.

Kruiper always slept under thatch and was happiest in his traditional skins.

CASTLE IN THE SAND: The small shack where Hendrik Kruiper, brother of Dawid Kruiper, lives in. It is just a stones throw away from where Dawid lies buried. Picture by Antoine de Ras


Just over a decade ago, the area where this collection of corrugated iron shacks now stand was meant to be the promised land. Six huge farms were handed over to the Khomani San as part of an historic land deal in 1999.

“These are the people who are the ultimate have-nots,” says Roger Chennells, a lawyer who helped the Khomani San get their land deal.

But it is these have-nots, explains Chennells, who remind us of what we once were.

“I think what we find intriguing is that this was how we lived 10 000 years ago,” says Chennells, “A time when we had zero security, and we lived life on the edge.”

One of the fundamental problems facing the community exists right in Oom Jan’s yard. There is a water pump – but when cranked it spits out nothing.

Clean water requires a walk to some tanks.

On Saturday, poet Paul Swartbooi lamented that Oom Dawid Kruiper had died without seeing his people get water.

Back in 2004 the SA Human Rights Commission in a report called on the local municipality to provide basic services like water. This report had a range of recommendations, that included better treatment of the community by the police, improved education and better social welfare.

Shortly after the release of the report, a task team was formed that included members of the government and community.

The only improvements said Phillipa Holden, an environmental consultant who has been working as an adviser to the community since the 1990s, was better policing and improvements in local education, which includes a school bus service.

“This community is still facing a spread of issues,” says Holden.

Some of these issues are not just particular to the Bushmen San, they plague aboriginal people across the world. One of these is alcohol and drug abuse. Dagga is smoked openly.

Oom Jan said he doesn’t even walk outside his house at night, because he fears being attacked.

“Drinking takes the spirit away,” says Van der Westhuizen. “We need to rehabilitate the city people.”

Oom Jan adds that he feels that the drive to put money into back pockets is killing the community.

Holden believes that full-time counsellors are needed to help deal with the alcohol and drug problems in the community.

The community, she believes, needs to deal with trauma.

Another issue is education: while there might be transport to school, the quality of schooling is poor, says Holden.

“The education system is not working,” says Holden, “some of these children are preforming poorly and their parents don’t have the resources to send them to better schools.”

To make the farms profitable, managers are required and business plans need to be set up.

“You wouldn’t run a company without a business plan, so why not here,” said Holden.

But under a tree in his garden, Oom Jan says his dream for this shanty town would be to turn it into a Bushmen cultural village.

A place were Boesman have enough room to practice their beliefs, where there is enough water and the gees can soar without the negative influences of drink and the violence. Just like it did once before.

About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
This entry was posted in human evolution, journalism, stories behind the news and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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