We may be few but we're proud to be Basters

BENEATH his "national" flag - a set of rectangles in red, black and white - Dap Isaaks, the middle-aged acting Kaptein of Rehoboth, suddenly sticks out his chest and throws back his shoulders. "I am a Baster," he says. "And I am proud to be a Baster."

It must be odd to live your life rejoicing in a bastardisation of "bastard". But then Rehoboth, a little town in the middle of the wild, arid plains of central Namibia, and its 30,000 residents - the world's entire Baster population - are fittingly peculiar.

With its neat little streets and Poundstretcher-type stores, Rehoboth is remarkable only because it grew here at all. Nothing else seems to thrive in the hot semi-desert where spindly trees shrivel to thorny bush and motorists, heading north to Windhoek, Namibia's capital, can only rely on the occasional kamikaze baboon to break the tedium.

But inside the Basters' hall it is as surreal as a Monty Python script. "Black is for our bleak past, red for the blood of our forefathers and white for peace," says Mr Isaaks, explaining the flag before moving on to the embroidered Baster national anthem. While he translates the fulsome praise to Basterland into English, Hans Diergaardt, the last Kaptein (leader), who died in February, smiles benignly from the wall.

Later there is a tour of the Baster treasures: the museum where the Basters' 1868 trek from South Africa's northern Cape into the Namibian wilderness is lovingly traced; the little brick monument to the five Basters killed in battle in 1882 by the local Nama tribe; and the Baster TV station - Reho-TV - which broadcasts from a local lock-up.

The Basters have survived tumultuous times. But modern, post-independence Namibia - and a bitter row over the election of a new kaptein - may prove their greatest test yet. "We are a people with a proud history and we need a kaptein," says Mr Isaaks, who happens to be standing for election. But not everyone in town agrees that the past was entirely glorious or that another leader is needed.

All Basters can at least take pride in the trek. Forced by their Coloured (mixed-race) heritage to live on the fringes of white 19th-century society, they became the only mixed-race group to migrate from the Cape Colony when new laws were introduced preventing Coloureds owning land. Many Afrikaners had already set off east to escape British rule when 90 Baster families headed north into the wilderness to escape whites of any kind. A third died or turned back before they reached Rehoboth, a promised land complete with hot springs, in 1870.

Through perversity or defiance they hauled the name Baster along with their wagons and possessions. On the road they elected their first Kaptein, Hermanus Van Wyk, now mythologised as the Rehoboth "Moses". Through war with local Namibian tribes and during long periods of German and South African colonial rule, the Basters clung stubbornly to the idea that they were a people apart.

In 1978 their passion for self-determination came together in an ugly ideological marriage with South African apartheid. With Namibia under South African control, the apartheid homelands policy was posted north. Mr Diergaardt became the third Baster Kaptein and a homeland leader, but the dream of a Republic of Rehoboth died with Namibian independence in 1990, despite Baster sabre-rattling including threats to take on United Nations troops.

Dr Beatrice Sandelowsky, Rehoboth museum's curator, agrees that the Basters have survived by perpetuating the racism they tried to escape. Even today Mr Isaaks insists Rehoboth Basters are not "Coloureds". He places them "above" Coloured and just "below" white. Still speaking Afrikaans, the Basters now have most in common with the small bands of Afrikaners who have responded to President Mandela's rule with 20th-century treks into the wilderness. "Yet ironically there are two things a Baster hates," says Dr Sandelowsky. "The Boer [Afrikaner] and the Black."

By trying to keep the Baster line pure - a fundamental contradiction - the oppressed turned oppressor. Mr Isaaks rants that the black Namibian government has stolen land the Basters purchased from the Nama tribesmen. But at the local black "location", separated from the Baster suburbs by a large expanse of wasteland, Alfred Dax, local organiser for Swapo, the former black liberation force now in government, says the Basters were bullies, not victims. During the homeland era they adopted the South African policy of forcing blacks into ghettos.

"We lived together here like human beings," he says. "But under apartheid our homes were bulldozed and our land handed over to rich Basters."

Along with a century of narrow-minded racial exclusivity, however, grew a fierce individualism. The 20th-century Basters are a divided people. Attendance at Baster meetings to discuss the election of a kaptein is poor and meetings often break up amid bitter rows. Some ask who needs, or wants to pay for, a kaptein in addition to the Namibian local council? Some Basters even support Swapo.

In her little office, Liesel Ockheuzen, 21, editor and entire staff of the Rehoboth Gazette, a two-page weekly newsletter, says she will never leave Basterland, and insists it will fall apart without a kaptein.

She is an acute observer of xenophobia, usually other people's. She says she was recently turned down for a job on an Afrikaans paper because her skin was too dark. "Eighteen years ago Namibia was all for whites and now it is just for blacks. In Windhoek they look down on the children of Rehoboth but I am proud to be a Baster."

But she admits her peers think she is mad. "Some of the boys ask why I continue living in this dump. Mercy me, but some are even rejecting the label, Baster."

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