Tribe owns its land after 20,000 years

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The Independent Online
DESCENDANTS of the world's earliest inhabitants, a clan of the near-extinct San (bushmen) of the southern Kalahari, marked the end of years of official persecution yesterday when they received 155,000 acres of land from the South African government.

Beneath scorching sun on the dunes of the Kalahari, it was left to /Guna Rooi, 70, to sum up the historic event. She hugged Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's deputy president, and said "/aise". It simply means "thank you" - the slash denotes a click in N/u, the original language of the Khomani clan. Mrs Rooi is one of only 15 known speakers of it. Mr Mbeki understood the sentiment, if not the word.

"Today marks the rebirth of a people who were landless and were called thieves when they asked for the land back," he said, marking South African Human Rights Day.

"This land is a place to rebuild a community. Here the Khomani can fulfil a dream that can be lived collectively by all people."

Yesterday's settlement - the most poignant among hundreds aimed at compensating South Africans for apartheid - included an equal land gift to the 5,000- strong Mier community, also of the Northern Cape. Both the Khomani, one of three San clans in South Africa, and the Mier, who are mixed-raced settlers, were expelled from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park between 1931 and 1973. San in Botswana and Angola are still subjected to forced removals.

The San, nomadic hunter-gatherers of small build who have distinctive high cheek-bones, were for hundreds of years the targets of a genocide by white and black settlers who saw them as sub-human. Their traditions, which include hunting with poisoned arrows, date back at least 20,000 years and co-exist uncomfortably with settled farming.

"Some of the Khomani may decide to live in the traditional, nomadic San fashion, and others may prefer to use the land to combine their historic way of life with a more modern approach," said Alec Harper, of the Department for International Development.

As part of an aid policy with a new focus on human rights, Britain has pledged pounds 600,000 to the South African San Institute (Sasi).

The institute has been charged with helping the Khomani to manage the land awarded to them yesterday. Early plans include raising rents from farmers on 100,000 acres and from the parks board on 55,000 acres in the Kalahari.

Sasi is proposing an eco-tourism project - under which Khomani might lead trails following animal tracks - but the national park is resisting it.

There are many questions over the extent to which the Khomani, who have alcohol problems and live a settled existence in a shack village, will thrive on their new land. But the land claim has brought about a new sense of identity and has saved the N/u language.

Mrs Rooi, who lives in Upington, a large town 160 miles away, was taken from the Kalahari with her two sisters to be an exhibit in the 1936 Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. She was never allowed to return to her birthplace - beneath a tree where the warden of the national park now lives.

Nigel Crawshaw, the Sasi linguist who found her thanks to word-of-mouth contacts, said: "Until 1997, the park was still claiming that no Khomani were ever removed. Finding /Guna was a crucial moment for the land claim and the language." Her friend and fellow N/u-speaker, Anna Kassie, said: "When I am no longer here, and I die, I want it to be known in my language that this was our land.

"N/u is very beautiful and expresses things you can never say in Afrikaans. When you learn it, you first get to know all the animals' names and then what they do," said Mrs Kassie, whose age is unclear but who has a 27- year-old daughter. She also has four other daughters and four sons. She said: "I spoke the language to my children but it was always when I was disciplining them. So they did not like the language."

Her 27-year-old daughter Lena said: "I knew N/u when I was small but Afrikaans was the language of school and it was not comfortable to talk our own tongue."