How did it happen that most South Africans know virtually nothing about our First Peoples, their history and cultures, asks the writer. PICTURE: THOMAS HOLDER
How did it happen that most South Africans know virtually nothing about our First Peoples, their history and cultures, asks the writer. PICTURE: THOMAS HOLDER

Honour Khoisan by learning about them

Time of article published Dec 16, 2014

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Breaking news: the Suurrug Suurtrappers are the winners of the 2014 South African Rieldans Competition, with the Nuwe Graskoue Trappers taking the title of junior champions.

Say what? Rieldans?

Exactly. The fact that most of you don’t know what I’m talking about is precisely the problem.

The rieldans is the oldest dance form in South Africa – quite likely the oldest in the world. It derives from the ritual dancing practiced by the First South Africans, the Khoikhoi and the Bushmen (also called the San, but that name is regarded as derogatory by their living descendants).

The dance never disappeared and was made popular again in recent years. There are 96 active rieldans groups and the national championships was held in Paarl two weeks ago. Teams have names like Boesmanland Bitterbessies, Griekwa Kersvlakte Rieldansers, Betjies Rooirots and Loeriesfontein Kliptrappers.

It wasn’t originally called “riel”. But the original Khokhoi and Bushman languages had mostly disappeared and in South Africa these groups mostly speak Afrikaans. The word was later borrowed from “reel”, a Scottish folk dance. Among the Nama the dance is known as !khapara.

It is a high-energy circular dance with very fast and precise footwork, imitating animals like baboons, ostriches, snakes and meerkat. This kind of dancing, often around a fire, was the ancient Khoikhoi and the Bushmen’s way of celebrating a good hunt or a joyous occasion. I witnessed such a dance in remote southern Angola 39 years ago when I visited a tiny surviving community of Bushmen hunter-gatherers.

The first European to witness and describe the ancient Khoikhoi dance was the Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama, who encountered the Khoikhoi near present-day Mossel Bay in 1497. In 1661 Pieter van Meerhoff, a Danish doctor working for the Dutch East India Company, described such a dance while on an expedition north-west of Cape Town. He wrote in his diary: “Between 100 and 200 fine persons arranged themselves in a circle, each holding a hollowed reed in the hand, some long, some short, some thick, some thin. In the middle stood one with a long staff, and he sang while the others blew into their reeds and danced in a circle, making many beautiful movements with their feet.”

How did it happen that most South Africans know virtually nothing about our First Peoples, their history and cultures? How can we make sense of our history or of who we are as a nation if we don’t know who the people were that came before us?

Most of us know about the great early African chiefs and kings like Ndlambe, Makhanda, Moshoeshoe, Shaka, Dingane and Sekhukhune. We also know much about the early European settlers and their descendants, like Jan van Riebeek, Piet Retief and Paul Kruger. There are many books about them and the cultures they came from.

But have you ever heard of the powerful Chief Sousoa of the Chainoqua, of Ngonnemoa of the Cochoqua, or Gaukau of the Hessequa? Do you know anything about Nommoa (aka Doman), the young Khoikhoi leader who was taken to Batavia in 1657 by the Dutch, just to return to the Cape and wage the first war against the men of the Dutch East India Company?

(By the way, did you know that an analysis of the DNA of Nelson Mandela revealed that his mitochondrial DNA was pure Khoikhoi?)

The Bushmen and Khoikhoi (often grouped together as the Khoisan) were not only the First South Africans, they represent the oldest lineage of our human species.

Most recent researchers agree that the Khoikhoi’s ancestors were of the same stock as the Bushmen living in the area of today’s northern Botswana and southern Zambia. Around 2 000 years ago, they believe, these ancestors came into contact with black pastoralists and gradually drifted away from hunting and gathering towards herding sheep. They then moved south and west through Namibia and the north-western Cape, where some of them settled, and eventually to the southern and western Cape. In all these areas they came into contact with established Bushmen societies.

The Khoikhoi had a rich culture and spirituality, but they were very vulnerable to the encroachment of the first European settlers who arrived after 1652. They quickly lost most of their grazing land and their cattle, and a large number of them were killed in a smallpox epidemic starting in 1713. Within two generations they ceased to exist as a separate entity, with many survivors working as farm labourers.

And so our history and national consciousness came to be dominated by the stories and cultures of the descendants of the Bantu-speaking farming groups and the European settlers.

But the Khoisan live on in the genes of many South Africans, coloured, black and white. They are us. We should honour their memory and learn more about them.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed heres are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Times

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