First People Still Come Second

By Glenn Ashton · 23 Feb 2011

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Picture: DragonWoman
Picture: DragonWoman

Namibia, Namaqualand and the Namib Desert are all named after the first people who lived in that area, the Nama. Where are the Nama today? The reality is that they have largely become forgotten bit players in a complex world.

The indigenous people of various nations, descended from traditional hunter-gatherer clans, are broadly referred to as the “first people” or “first nations.” These first nations generally still receive second-class treatment across the world. This remains largely true across Southern Africa. 

While the past few decades have seen marked changes in attitude towards the world’s first people, some remain amongst the most persecuted, the most open to racial abuse and the least protected from exploitation. Why?

Firstly, modern power is primarily dependent upon wealth. The first people have seldom acquired any meaningful degree of wealth, nor gained access to political power. The corporate-political nexus continues to exclude the interests of the dispossessed and the traditionally exploited.

Secondly, the discourse of ‘civilised’ vs. ‘uncivilised’ has been adopted by post-colonial governments to a shocking degree.  On a subtle level, first people remain perceived by the elite as unproductive, uncivilised and as being totally outside the realm of modern developmental paradigms. 

There are profound ironies in the failure to recognise first nations, especially by the supposed liberators of post-colonial and post apartheid Africa. This is despite extensive shared genetic heritage between first nations such and tribes such Xhosa – even Mandela has been shown to have significant Khoisan lineage. 

On the other hand, any last vestiges of economic worth controlled by first nations, usually in the form of traditional knowledge, continues to be exploited. This usually occurs without any form of recompense or recognition, although this is gradually changing.

Another reason that the political and economic elite has failed to overtly recognise the first nations is because of dispute about just who constitute the “first people.” Black Africans dispute the term because they consider themselves to be just as much first people as anybody else. Indeed the genetic lineage is often shared, yet equally often denied.

The historical record shows that Khoisan people, who themselves often reject this modern nomenclature in favour of the term ‘Bushmen’* have certainly been established throughout the region for at least the last 25 – 50,000 years. This is far longer than the so-called Bantu speaking people who evidently migrated into the southern reaches of the continent around 1,000 years ago.

This uneasiness about just who are designated as the first nations remains problematic, especially as the terminology is perceived to emanate from a racist, western-based anthropological framework. These juxtapositions also revolve around the concepts of ‘the other’, which continue to polarise race relations. 

Perhaps the most persecuted first people are the Bushmen of Botswana, where they are disparagingly referred to as the Baswara, a locally pejorative term. Various statements from prominent members of the Botswana government have underlined a racist current bubbling beneath the façade of this purportedly modern, faux-egalitarian state. 

Kitso Mokaila, the Botswana Minister of Environment stated that Bushmen are "living in the Dark Ages in the middle of nowhere." Botswana’s current President Khama commented that their hunter-gatherer lifestyle is an "archaic fantasy," while his predecessor, Festus Mogae, was rather more blunt in stating that they were "Stone Age creatures who must change, or otherwise, like the dodo, they will perish."

Against this background it is unsurprising that the Botswana government has done everything in its power to disrupt the traditional lifestyles of the first peoples of their nation. They have been evicted and harassed from traditional migratory areas under numerous questionable pretexts. 

The reality is that these ancient traditionalists were removed from economically exploitable areas. This land is rich in diamonds and suitable for cattle ranching, which has devastating environmental consequences and is incompatible with migratory hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Recently, the Appeal Court of Botswana struck down a ruling that forbids the central Kalahari Gana, Gwi and Tsila Bushmen to return to their ancestral home or use a water source provided for them and later destroyed by the state. The 5 000 people who previously lived in this area have been relocated to camps where unemployment, alcoholism, AIDS, TB and other social ills have manifested in a pattern familiar to first nations around the world. Forced assimilation has clearly failed these people and condemned their community to gradual extinction.

Botswana is the home to more than half of the remaining Bushmen in Southern Africa with an estimated 50,000 out of a regional total estimated at around 95,000. Yet elsewhere in the region there have been some rather more hopeful developments.

Namibia leads the way. It has granted virtual autonomy to many of the larger Bushman clans and enabled them to continue with traditional lifestyles under their own auspices, while supported by state structures. Health, education and infrastructure are provided while self-governance is promoted. The only complication has been that some clans remain nominally leaderless. With no vested leadership structure, authorities find it difficult to determine hierarchical responsibility. These inherent problems are gradually being addressed.

South Africa, as the most recently liberated country has not managed quite as well. Namibian !Kung and Khwe Bushmen who served apartheid South African forces in Namibia as trackers were initially resettled at Schmidtsdrift near Kimberley on disputed land. They have since managed to secure a more viable long-term land tenure arrangement. However tensions remain amongst this community, just as other land settlements around the country have been dogged by controversy.

The historic court victory – the richest grant made to land claimants in South Africa – granting the Nama people of the Richtersveld restitution for land seized from them to mine diamonds, has resulted in 4 years of ongoing community strife. Various factions and outsiders have squabbled over the potentially rich spoils, while core community structures remain sidelined.

Similarly, the first major Bushman land restitution awarded to the ≠Khomani clan adjacent to the Kalahari Gemsbok Trans-frontier Park has been plagued by social instability and infighting between traditionalists and more politically savvy members.

A major problem, not only in resettling and creating restitution but in enabling stable systems for the first people, is to address the inherent tensions between westernised clan members and those still clinging to established traditions, language and practices. These conflicts could benefit greatly from the participation of sympathetic and well-informed mediators, able to address these tensions.

While the ways that these issues are addressed by governments differ widely, first nations deserve better. The vast differences between people who identify themselves as part of this small but exclusive group need to be met in ways that are flexible enough to enable their disparate elements. On the one hand people must remain in charge of their own destinies. Mediation must revolve around devising ways to prevent continual cycles of failure. 

There are several models that could be investigated. A lot of experience has been gained in establishing practical communal management practices through the global eco-village networks. There are thousands of these ‘intentional’ communities in over 70 countries around the world. 

These communities of up to 2000 people have discovered that ways of managing social dynamics are just as important as managing sustainable lifestyles. These communities could be tapped as a wellspring of experience. 

Other conflict resolution tools such as those developed by the Conflict Resolution Centre at the University of Cape Town could also be adapted to suit these particular communities. 

The importance of employing these management tools reaches far beyond these communities. With increasing land restitution and the subsequent social and economic demands within these resettled communities, these dynamics are experienced beyond the realm of first nations.

Just as we have much to learn from and about first nations, hopefully we can attempt in turn to use our collective experience to assist them in achieving greater success and recognition. Through managing to cross-pollinate our mutual experiences and enhancing our respective social strengths we can hopefully move toward realising viable and harmonious communities from all backgrounds. 

*Use of terms San, Khoi, Khoisan, Bushman

There remains serious disagreement about the uses of these terms. Many first people reject being called San or Khoisan as they claim the term to be either unfamiliar or to be pejorative. Academics tend to prefer the use of ‘Khoisan’ while some amongst them insist that ‘San’ has pejorative meanings. The largely colonial term Bushman is ironically preferred by many first people but rejected by academics. In reality there is no universally acceptable term that collectively describes our first peoples, besides the use of clan names, which are themselves sometimes disputed. Bushman is probably the most sensible as it has universal acceptance, both internationally and internally, but then it is both politically incorrect and gender specific. Unless there are Bushmen and Bushwomen?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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