!Xun and Khwe Artists
ART: This month we feature the artists of Schmidtsdrift, who now live in the new community on the farm Platfontein. But what is the history of these !Xun and Khwe people? In this extract from My Eland's Heart, by Marlene Sullivan Winberg, we offer some answers.
History of the !Xun and Khwe
The !Xun and Khwe belong to the San family, the aboriginal people of southern Africa whose distinct hunter-gatherer culture stretches back well over 20 000 years.
Before the 1960s the !Xun and Khwe lived in Angola, mainly following a hunting and gathering way of life. But in the last forty years their lives have changed dramatically as a result of their involvement with the Angolan and Namibian wars. The San men were employed by the South African Defence Force (SADF), mainly as trackers who used their traditional hunting skills to locate enemy troops, while their families were brought together in army camps where a new generation was taught by white, Afrikaans-speaking personnel. This war service was not always voluntary: in 1998 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard several first-hand accounts of forced conscription and brutal treatment of men in the so-called Bushman Battalion.
Before joining the army under a common ‘Bushman' identity given them by the SADF, the two communities had almost no contact with each other. Most of them still do not speak each other's language, and communicate primarily through the medium of the Afrikaans learned in the army.
When Namibia acquired independence in 1990, the SADF relocated the !Xun and Khwe to Schmidtsdrift in the Northern Cape. Here, in a makeshift tent town erected by the army, they awaited their fate while disputes over land issues delayed their settlement in South Africa by almost ten years. In 1994 they heard that the country's first democratic government had come into being and, with it, a promise that they would obtain security of tenure. It was then learned that the BaTlhaping, a Tswana clan, had lodged a claim for Schmidtsdrift to be returned to them, having been ejected from the land by the military during the apartheid era. The !Xun and Khwe feared that as a result they would be sent back to Namibia. Hope rose, waned, and rose again.
Finally it was announced that the government had purchased the farm Platfontein, just outside Kimberley, for the two communities. In May 1999 the !Xun and Khwe joyfully celebrated the official handover of the land at an occasion attended by former President nelson Mandela. Some 12 500 hectares of bushveld at last belonged to them.
The beginning of the art project
It was during their sojourn at Schmidtsdrift that the !Xun and Khwe San Art and Culture Project had its humble beginnings. The project's founder, Catharina Scheepers-Meyer, an artist and cultural worker describes those early times. ‘When I heard about the plight of the relocated soldiers at Schmidtsdrift, I was hopeful that the people there could possibly experience the empowering benefits from an art project. In1990 I had started Kuru Art Project in Botswana and saw how San shepherds and domestic workers with no experience of ‘fine art' blossomed into strong artists, recognised internationally.
‘I called the commanding officer of the military unit at Schmidtsdrift and introduced myself. Soon afterwards I faxed through a proposal emphasising job creation and increased self-esteem. It was accepted and funds were invested from the unit's Officer's Fund.'
What the project means to the people
Extract from the foreword to My Eland's Heart by Kapilolo Mario Mahongo:
‘Each artist and each storyteller in this book has their own position of worth in the !Xun and Khwe community. They are the interprters of our existence and the historians of what we do, live and experience every day. They are the minute-takers of our lives. We honour them, respect them and treasure them as an essential part of our existence. That is why this book is a window into our lives - each work, each story, is unique and has its own value.'
My Eland's Heart, a collection of stories and art, from !Xun and Khwe San Art and Culture Project by Marlene Sullivan Winberg was published by David Philip Publishers in Cape Town in 2001.
All images by Cat Palmer
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