Bushmen win right to roam on their own bit of desert

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The Independent Online
THE BUSHMEN of the Kalahari, made famous by the soldier-philosopher Laurens van der Post, will today complete their retreat from a nomadic lifestyle, once centred on tracking and hunting with poisoned arrows.

At a ceremony in the South African desert, 300 of the world's remaining hunter-gatherers, known as the San or Bushmen, will for the first time have their own land -125,000 acres given by the South African government. But it wil be land enclosed with fences.

The Bushmen have suffered cruelly over the years, though they have inspired. Sir Laurens's experiences in the Kalahari, where he lived with San and learnt their "click'' language, contributed largely to his visionary philosophy. "I do not want everyone to become like Bushmen," he said, "but we must become whole again."

The Prince of Wales, for whom Sir Laurens was a kind of guru, has taken a personal interest in the Bushmen's fate. He telephoned Clare Short's Department for International Development last month to ask what was being done specifically for the Khomani.

The Prince, who in 1987 spent several days in the Kalahari with Sir Laurens, was inspired by the values that he found here. But though much of what he witnessed is vanishing, the change to land ownership is also a victory of a kind.

Dawid Kruiper, 64-year-old headman of the Khomani clan, is not a purist. "I felt choked and bound," he said, holding his arms in a cross over his chest. "But the day has come when everything that was closed is open," he added, holding out his hands in a cup-shape.

At today's ceremony, on sun-baked scrubland between vermillion dunes, the 300 Khomanis - who make up one of only three San clans remaining in South Africa - will receive 60,000 acres around Molopo.

They will also become the landlords of about 65,000 acres of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, 30 miles north of here, from which they were evicted in 1973 because the South African government deemed them "too westernised" to cohabit with wild animals.

With their transistor radios, T-shirts and bottles of beer, the Khomanis were moved to shack-land - a local authority-owned sand patch called Welkom, situated between two cattle farms near the southern Twee Rivieren entrance to the park. It was the final humiliation in a genocide that had continued for generations. White settlers who arrived in the 17th century hunted Bushmen for sport.

Despite the land settlement, Kruiper believes the majority of the Khomani will remain at Welkom, eschewing a nomadic lifestyle in favour of "sharing our knowledge with the world" - a metaphor for becoming a tourist attraction.

Welkom villagers change from jeans and T-shirts into buckskin loincloths when visitors arrive. Necklaces and bracelets made from porcupine, cattle bone and ostrich-egg beads are produced for sale.

It all accentuates the San's difference - the honey-coloured, elephant- wrinkled skin, high cheek bones, oriental-type eyes and stunted growth - and the fact that, in a world of fences, only tourism can save the relics of this 30,000-year-old culture.

Fiona Archer, director of the South African Sani Institute, which provided the legal back-up for the land claim, said: "The San know very well what appeals to the rest of the world. In a sense they have created that image. I think it is a credit to them that they have found a niche in the new- age market." But Archer can see many pitfalls ahead for this culture impaled on a telephoto lens. Using funding from Britain, the institute's role will be to manage the new land and help the Khomani.

In Welkom, the problems are clear - alcoholism, a tendency by the San's neighbours to treat them as vermin, the loss of traditional hunting skills, failing language knowledge and changes to the vegetation.

Klaas Kruiper, 36, reeks of alcohol and proudly shows off the ingredients of his brew - moss, roots, lentils and the lining of a bird's nest, fermented in the juice of melons. He talks with disdain of the local farmer who pays a day rate of just 10 rands (pounds 1) for odd jobs. Kruiper believes he is worth 50 rands.

Near Kruiper's pre-fabricated one-room house, a woman is skinning a buck. "Hardly any of the men has the skill to hunt with a bow and arrow or the patience these days to follow an adult buck for the hours it takes before the animal dies from the poisoned arrow," she said.

Archer says support from the park warden is "non-existent" for plans to develop hiking safaris for tourists on which San would share their knowledge of tracking, plants and animals.

There is also tension with the area's 5,000-strong Mier community - settled, mixed-race farm workers - who will receive a similar land settlement.

Nevertheless, the Khomani are the luckiest San alive. Up to 100,000 San are believed to have survived - half in Botswana, and the rest spread between Namibia, Angola, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The vast majority live in shanty towns.

Kruiper said: "We do not expect problems, as long as everyone respects us." Always fenced out of the cattle-rearing, acquisitive world around them, the San have never commanded respect. Perhaps being fenced in will finally give them a measure of protection.