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The ‡Khomani San Land Claim

In March 1999, the world media carried a picture of South African President Thabo Mbeki embracing Dawid Kruiper, leader of the ‡Khomani San. The ‡Khomani land claim, lodged under the legal framework provided by the 1996 post-Apartheid constitution and settled out of court by the South African government, is the only current example of a successful aboriginal land claim in southern Africa, and provides an area of 65,000 hectares to the San in addition to extensive land use rights in and to the recently renamed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP).

The "Southern Kalahari San" were evicted from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park soon after its formation in 1931 and dispersed over the southern Kalahari in a wide diaspora into South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. At the time of the land claim’s launch, they were no longer a functioning or definite community. In common with other displaced indigenous peoples, they had to a large degree become assimilated in or dominated by the local pastoralist groups, and their ancient cultural practices were sporadically maintained in isolated groups. The Southern Kalahari San were comprised of disparate groups known as the ‡Khomani, |Auni, and N|amani-speaking San. In seeking out members of the various clans and families with origins in the claimed land, anthropologists working for SASI discovered at least 20 old San community members still speaking a San language confidently pronounced "dead" in the early 1970s. After further study and analysis by socio-linguist Nigel Crawhall, this ancient language was named N|u (see page 49). A dynamic cultural resource management project is under way now with the aim of recording all existing forms of San culture and encouraging ways of reincorporating them into daily life. An entire dictionary is being prepared for the language, N|u songs are being taught to children and elders, and N|u original place names are being recorded. The process of restoring the language and associated culture from a position of near-extinction is dynamic, and has great power to resonate with and empower the reviving community.

In March 1999 the first phase of the land claim was settled. It returned to the San 38,000 hectares of farming land around the confluence of the Molopo and Nossob rivers, about 50 kilometers south of what is now called the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The second phase of the land claim was held in abeyance for a period of two years as the scattered members of the estimated 1500 ‡Khomani San (named after the largest of the original Southern Kalahari San groupings) organized their own self-government and began the novel process of managing communally owned farms. What made this process challenging was the community’s dispersion; no central coherence remained. Elected representatives had to lead a reconstituted and "virtual" community without the benefit of past policies or practices. Many of democracy’s lessons had to be learned, and in the absence of a functioning "tribal council" or other authoritative body, legislation required the San leaders to operate in accordance with received Western notions of "representative democracy."

A particular challenge facing those facilitating the process was difficulty in ensuring that the interests of the more "traditional," less modern, or less educated members of the community were sufficiently protected. A significant number among the ‡Khomani San abhor the constitutional instruments required to manage their affairs. Holding meetings, recording decisions, keeping minutes, and formulating land use plans and the like in accordance with government requirements are processes totally foreign to these San who "vote with their feet," living apart from civil society. While their existence is clearly of importance to the emerging community’s identity, ensuring that they get a fair slice of the resources and are not sidelined by their more worldly-wise and therefore more effective colleagues is an ongoing source of conflict and debate. Their supporters want the community to experience the full extent of this conflict so that a solution will emerge from its own political process and not be imposed from outside.

With community-building processes underway, negotiations recommenced in May 2001 to finalize San rights to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The agreement is now close to completion, even as internal struggles continue. In essence, what the San will achieve as a result of the emerging agreement is summarized as follows:

1. Ownership of 25,000 hectares on the Park’s southern boundary, within which they will be relatively free--within the limits of a "contract park agreement"--to carry out cultural practices, hunt, collect bush foods, and conduct ecotourism ventures. These will include walking and overnight trails, and 4x4 vehicle routes. The San accept the provision that no permanent residence will be allowed inside the Park itself.

2. Priority commercial use of the area between the owned area and the Auob river. In this zone, the ‡Khomani will be entitled, in addition to all cultural practices, to formulate and conduct ecotourism projects, with the SA National Parks Board (SANP) or other partners.

3. Symbolic and cultural use of an area comprising about one-half of the South African section of the Park--about 4,000 square kilometers in the southern section. This right means, in effect, that the San are able to use the entire region of their traditional and ancestral use for any other than commercial reasons. Groups of elders and youth, for example, may travel deep into the Park and experience the Kalahari as it was, living off the land as they once did. One or more central sites will be developed where the elders can gather regularly to travel into the vast red-duned interior of the Kalahari.

4. Commercial opportunities. The SANP has recognized that the San heritage is--and should be--inextricably linked with the identity of this section of the Kalahari, and it intends to find ways to give that notion substance. A jointly owned (San and SANP) commercial lodge at the confluence of the Auob and Nossob rivers has been agreed to in principle. The San will be employed there, not only as trackers but also in other capacities. Further commercial opportunities, where guests will be able to explore the Kalahari through the eyes and experience of the ‡Khomani San, are now being discussed.

5. A community nature park, shared between the San and their rural neighbors. The community of Mier has been agreed to in principle, covering the area between the small town of Welkom, 10 kilometers from the Park gate, and the Park itself. This nature park will provide opportunities for the sale of crafts and artwork to tourists who do not wish to engage in more arduous journeys into the Kalahari.

6. An international heritage listing will be applied for in due course to register the interaction between the ancient culture of the ‡Khomani San and the conservation of the unique Kalahari ecosystem. The Government of South Africa will thus become a stakeholder and partner in the process.

The entire ‡Khomani San/SA National Parks enterprise will be subject to a contractual "joint management" regime comprised of elected San individuals with appropriate skills as well as representatives from a council of elders who bring their deep knowledge of the traditional areas and cultural practices to the management. The plan draws on "joint management" experiences from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, as well as national parks in Australia. All parties recognize the importance of sensitivity by both the San and the national conservation authority to the cross-cultural nature of the agreement and to the importance of bridging differing worldviews and priorities.

It seems safe to predict that the agreement will be finalized by early 2002, and that a joyous "First Peoples" celebration, which aboriginal peoples worldwide will be invited to join, will be scheduled for August or September 2002.

The ‡Khomani San have, to the present, been preoccupied with their own historic struggle, and have not engaged actively with indigenous communities worldwide. With the celebration of their land claim planned for later this year, they welcome expressions of interest from communities that want to participate in the celebrations, share experiences with the ‡Khomani, or engage with them in any way. Correspondence should be addressed to the ‡Khomani San at the following address.

The Chairperson, ‡Khomani San Communal Property Association, PO Box 124, Mier 8811, South Africa. Telephone Mier (0020) number 36 (alternatively via the South African San Institute at, telephone 021 6897732).

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