Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
I never met Dawid Kruiper or ‘Oupa Dawid’ as he was universally known. Not in the flesh, at least. However, the legend of this great elder, healer and leader of his people was inescapable, so large did it loom. Today that spirit has passed on. But the example of Dawid Kruiper, leader of the #Khomani San, will continue to inspire his people – and all who struggle in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds for justice and dignity – for generations to come.
I was supposed to meet Oupa Dawid – just last month.
In May, the African foundations of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), which includes OSISA, hosted a three day OpenForum in Cape Town. Oupa Dawid was invited to speak on a panel entitled Streams of Blood, Streams of Money, convened to reflect on the colonial genocides against indigenous peoples in Namibia and South Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the continuing impact of the terrible events on his community and other San communities.
Although, interestingly, Oupa Dawid did not call himself San. He was, he said, a Bushman – hence the title of this tribute.
His fellow panellists at the OpenForum were Mohamed Adhikari, an associate professor in the history department of the University of Cape Town, and a scholar of settler genocides in southern Africa and elsewhere, Casper Ehrichsen, the co-author of a The Kaiser’s Holocaust, and Keikabile Mogodu, the Executive Director of the Khwedom Council, a San advocacy organisation in Botswana.
But then Oupa Dawid was taken gravely ill and was unable to travel down to Cape Town. And so I never had the chance to meet this remarkable old Bushman man about whom I had heard so much. Nonetheless, Oupa Dawid managed to be there with us in spirit and spoke to us, even though he was absent.
My involvement with Oupa Dawid, such as it was, began with Richard Wicksteed, a documentary filmmaker who, some months earlier, had sent me a proposal to fund the completion of a documentary about him. Entitled A Bushman Odyssey, the film was ‘the story of one Bushman family’s struggle to reclaim their ancestral land and spiritual essence in the Kgalagadi wilderness, after surviving four generations of colonial genocide, apartheid dispossession, and post-apartheid social reorganisation’.
At the heart of the story were 76-year-old Dawid Kruiper and his extended family – one of South Africa’s only Bushman families to survive genocide and dispossession with unbroken links to their ancestral past. And the film would follow ‘their return to their ancestors’ hunting and gathering grounds in their Kgalagadi heartland’.
Intrigued, I met with Richard at the first available opportunity, and during the course of that meeting and many subsequent conversations, he introduced me to the story of Oupa Dawid, the Kruipers and the #Khomani San – and their epic struggle to regain their ancestral lands in the Kalahari.
There is a sentiment one hears expressed by a number of indigenous peoples, including the San, that the fact of their continued survival, the fact that they are still here, despite all the atrocities and injustices visited upon their peoples, is in itself an act of resistance. By living and expressing their culture, by remembering and teaching, they are resisting ethnocide, expressing their refusal to be made invisible, refusing to be defeated. It is this same spirit of determined resistance which I heard in the film footage of Dawid Kruiper as he recalled the terrible secrets revealed to him by his grandfather, and which Dawid, sensing perhaps that “his time was near”, felt compelled to share.
In this, as in so many ways, he embodied the spirit of San/Bushman resistance and the will to survive.
In this, I am also reminded of the dedication to a San shaman in Mohamed Adhikari’s book, The Anatomy of a South Africa Genocide. The story moved me the instant I read it and resonated with me even more as I considered Oupa Dawid’s incredible demonstration of courage and commitment to the future of his people, as he becomes both witness and prophet to their fate.
The dedication is to ‘an elderly San shaman, !Huin T Kuiten, who passed on the protocols of rainmaking despite being mortally wounded by a Boer Commando’. This is the essence of Oupa Dawid’s ‘last testimony’ in the film A Bushman Odyssey.
Speaking on film to an assembled audience of San youth from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, and local and international human rights activists and policymakers, Oupa Dawid engaged in an act of remembrance as vital, as defiant and as ancient as his people and the memory and wisdom they carry with them, and every bit as bit as important as the transmission of that ancient knowledge passed on by the !Huin T Kuiten.
In the film, he transmits the living memory, passed on to him by his grandfather Ou Makai, who lived through those terrible times, lived through the genocide committed against his people by the German imperial troops in Namibia – and now their story is there for all of us to see. It cannot be forgotten.
But Oupa Dawid also fought to change the present – not just to remember the past.
It is easy to romanticise the Bushman, to enclose and freeze them in amber, to imagine them as a people untouched by what we so glibly call civilisation. “Children of the wind”, “Scatterlings”, “noble savages”. The truth, as always is much more complicated.
In 1994, Oupa Dawid spoke on behalf of his people at the United Nations, in support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples. In 1999, after a long and bitter struggle, led by Oupa Dawid and others, the #Khomani San regained a portion of their ancestral lands in a historic land claim under South Africa's post-apartheid land redistribution policy.
However, their success has not resolved their unrelenting poverty and marginalisation. A once flourishing community is now, as a direct result of the genocide and continuing racism and neglect they face, reduced to a broken, impoverished and extremely marginalised population of less than 2000 people. Alcoholism, endemic hunger and extreme poverty continue to plague the San in southern Africa.
Oupa Dawid, as a prominent and involved member of this community, did not escape the chaos, poverty, dysfunction and division which, sadly, still characterises their abject circumstances but, ultimately, his example of resistance, dignity and steadfastness will be his legacy to his descendants, to the San, or Bushmen as he would have preferred, and to all indigenous peoples the world over.
Because he has now gone. This ancient son, this bearer of a memory, wisdom and culture older than most of us can conceive, this embodiment of the nobility, resilience, wisdom and tragedy of the entire human race, this Great Spirit, has passed.
And on behalf of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Programme of OSISA, I can only join the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, his many friends across the world, and, in particular, his family, friends and community in mourning the death of an elder, leader, healer and teacher.
Though not in the language of the first inhabitants of these troubled lands, as has become customary in South Africa, I extend to Oupa Dawid the traditional farewell reserved for freedom fighters: