People of the Great White Lie?


John Paul Myburgh's film People of the Great Sandface (1986) has apparently been well received in Britain and Europe and hailed by respected, well-informed and critical South African media commentators as a breakthrough in South African ethnographic film. Yet People of the Great Sandface raises troubling questions, not only about how we portray the human dimension of southern Africa, but about the very nature of the academic enterprise known as visual anthropology. This film reaches new heights in the art of mystification; indeed, it might more accurately be titled People of the Great White Lie. Ultimately, Myburgh is concerned not with history but with perpetuating myth. And is a dangerous, even a killer myth: the myth of the wild Bushman.

Myburgh claims to have contacted and lived with the last group of "wild" or autonomous Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, implying that he visually recorded their last days as independent foragers before they threw in the towel and settled at a government-provided waterhole. Since they do not live "traditionally" anymore, we have no way of verifying Myburgh's account and must take his footage as irreplaceable documentation of their supposed last days of hunting (thus enhancing the value of the footage).

Several filmmakers and anthropologists who have worked with Kalahari peoples have publicly expressed strong skepticism about the authenticity of this film, and it is skepticism well founded. The water-pump settlement which is the Bushmen's final destination, for example, features prominently in John Marshall's 1975 National Geographic classic, Bushmen of the Kalahari. Indeed, just prior to that film's release it was pointed out that Myburgh had rounded up a number of former foragers and gone back into the wilds to film their "traditional lifestyle" (Tomaselli et at. 1986).

People of the Great Sandface can be discussed on two fronts: What it says (and how it is said) and what it does not say. If this film had been made 30, or even 15, years ago, it would have been hailed a a masterpiece. So overwhelming has the political dimension been in southern Africa, however, that only a foolishly naïve or a conservative positivist filmmaker would not at least make some passing reference to the wider sociopolitical climate.

Moreover, even in the well-worked field of Bushman/San studies there has been a shift in paradigm from studying Bushmen as if they were the isolated last remnants of the Stone Age - people who might somehow inform us as to how our paleolithic ancestors lived - to treating them as an integral part of a larger social system. In the emergent paradigm, most powerfully and eloquently argued in Wilmsen's Lan Filled with Flies (1989), they emerge as an impoverished rural underclass.

Myburgh refers to his /Gwi objects (not subjects) not as "San" but as "Bushmen." San derives from the Name sab ("robber"); the term Bushman derives from the Dutch word meaning "bandit" or "outlaw." The term San serves to perpetuate the mystification process. (Many Namibian schoolchildren, for example, believe that while the San have always been found in the Kalahari, Bushmen have long since died out.) More importantly, however, the term Bushman was a lumpencategory used by the colonial authorities for anyone who resisted colonial rule. They did not get this label imposed upon them by living in the splendidly harsh, isolated, "survivalist" world of the central Kalahari.

Perhaps it is time to make Bushmen (and banditry) respectable again. Unfortunately, this film achieves the opposite: it panders to the dangerous myth of the "wild Bushman," offering an exceedingly narrow pair of ideological blinkers with which to survey the Kalahari. What the film does not say is in this case more important than what it says.

The War Against Bushmen

Of all the people living in southern Africa, those labeled Bushmen have been the most victimized, brutalized, and oppressed in the region's bloody history. It is a brutal tale of organized anti-Bushmen commandos and debates during the German colonial era in the Windhoek Landestag as to whether Bushmen should be declared vermin. Yet all Myburgh says in his film is that "Time and history have taken a toll on their numbers."

The war against Bushmen is still going on, now in more subtle forms. The main goal is still to dispossess Bushmen of their lands. In the region where Myburgh based his film, this dispossession took the following form. At the end of the nineteenth century, Cecil John Rhodes, British imperialist par excellence (and founder of the Rhodes scholarship), wanting a buffer against any German expansion eastward from Namibia, sent up an expedition that led to the creation of the so-called Ghanzi Block, an area settled by white South African farmers. Among the many - mostly Bushman - people dispossessed by this act were the /Gwi. The aboriginal owners found themselves to be squatters on their own land. (One of the academicians who provided a rationale for this land theft was Siegfried Pasarge, who was later to achieve renown as a Bushman "expert."

Many Ghanzi Block farmers flouted one of the unspoken laws of the Kalahari - namely, that one person never refuses another water. Indeed, most of them chased Bushman squatters off their land. These Bushmen were driven into the largely waterless central area where the film was made. In the late 1950s, as Botswana was being readied for independence by the British, Raymond Silberbauer was appointed "Bushman survey officer." Silberbauer was concerned about the dispossession of Bushman land, but because of the pervasive obnoxiousness of Apartheid could not very well recommend a reserve for Bushmen based on ethnicity. Instead, he managed to pilot through the creation of the 52,347-km² Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961. In this large, seasonally waterless tract, Bushmen would be allowed to remain and practice their "traditional" lifestyle.

The Growth of Tourism

As European tourism developed in Botswana, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve became a popular spot. Part of its attraction was precisely its Bushmen (or Basarwa, as they are officially known in Botswana) (Hitchcock & Brandenburgh 1990). Naturally, some of these tourists grew upset when these Bushmen did not measure up to their expectations, which were fed largely by pulp movies such as The Gods Must Be Crazy and Laurens van der Post's musings. Moreover, the Bushmen they saw engaged in such disgustingly irritating behavior as "begging" (simply an extension of foraging). These European tourists, being highly conservation-conscious and being of the bourgeoisie, carried weight back in Europe. Their clout had an impact in the Kalahari because the Botswana government, ever eager to "develop" - especially if it could lessen its dependency on South Africa - was anxious to export beef to the European Common Market. Thus pressed by the needs to open areas for cattle production and placate the European conservationist lobby (which felt that Bushmen were killing too much game), the Botswana government announced in December 1986 that "the reserve would lose its integrity if people were allowed to stay there."

While this war was raging Myburgh was filming his "isolated" band, ostensibly blissfully ignorant of the tense political climate. To proclaim as he does at the conclusion of his film that "You see, no one is to blame" is to display a dishonesty of ethnocidal magnitude.

In the film itself, the subjects are not allowed to talk. Instead the filmmaker paternalistically describes the action, rather like the BBC's Barbara Woodhouse explaining how and why our pets behave the way they do. It is a narration filled with naïve romantic psychologisms that classify the Bushmen as a contemporary throwback to some imagined primeval man ("His only reality is to be a hunter"; they have "instinctive rhythm"). It is claimed that the consciousness gap between Bushmen and others cannot be bridged. Compared to other documentaries and ethnographies, Myburgh's /Gwi seem to have an obsession with killing which can be read as a sign of manliness (both for the objects and for the filmmaker) - the theme of survival pervades the narrative. The political implications of this claptrap are deadly and need to be located firmly in the sociopolitical milieu in which Myburgh is operating.

The truth of the matter, as John Marshall so eloquently pointed out at the showing of People of the Great Sandface during the 1900 Northeastern Anthropological Association meeting, is that there have not been any "wild Bushmen" for a very long time. Moreover, many of the "kills" were setups.

Creating a Cultural Icon

So why was this film so well received? Myburgh's claim to have spent several years with the Bushmen (Tomaselli 1989) and the moving vignette of Myburgh on South African state television's Uit en Tuis dressed up like a Bushman while ostensibly revealing how he did field work (Tomaselli et al. 1986) must have convinced some of the authenticity and authority of his project. The film is vastly superior to the South African government-sponsored pseudo-scientific documentaries. And yes, it does boast superb cinematography and indeed many of the sequences are stunningly poetic.

But can a filmmaker make liberal use of "poetic license" and then claim to have produced a documentary? And why did so many South Africans believe this film to be the definitive study of the last "wild" Bushmen? It is not as if South African academics are naïve; on the contrary, academic boycott notwithstanding, they are remarkably au fait with cultural studies and other developments in communications.

The wave that took People of the Great Sandface to its modest triumph was the same one on which The Gods Must Be Crazy rode to box office success (in South Africa and elsewhere), caused by a long and old groundswell. To understand this one needs to consider the role of the Bushman as cultural icon within South African society and the way aspects of fascism have permeated the unassuming nooks and crannies of South African intellectual life.

"Wild Bushmen" are a crucial piece of the white South African self-image. Discovering the "last wild Bushmen" has become something of a South African tradition. Myburgh's project has a long intellectual pedigree.

It is not fortuitous that the largest curio-store chain in South Africa is called "The Bushman Curio Shop" or that one of the hit attractions at any settler historical celebration in South Africa is a bevy of loinclothed "wild Bushmen," courtesy of an enterprising white Namibian impresario. Nor is it coincidental that the South African Defence Force (SADF) used Bushmen extensively in its counterinsurgency operations, and that at one time the Bushmen held the dubious distinction of being the most militarized ethnic group in the world. One of the major reasons for recruiting them was the belief that Bushmen were "natural" hunters and trackers, and thus would be effective counterinsurgency operatives.

The SADF also exploited the Bushmen culturally: so proud was it of its contributions to these "last representatives of the Stone Age" that, as a matter of course, it sponsored tours for visiting foreign journalists to the main Bushman base in Namibia, appropriately named Omega. These journalists recorded a rich fund of characteristics promoted by white soldiers. "The Bushman's senses in the field are unbelievable. If a patrol has a Bushman with it, then it is unnecessary to post guards at night. The Bushman also goes to sleep, but when the enemy is still far away he wakes up and raises the alarm," said one senior officer (Die Burger 1/6/82). Another white soldier believed that "They have fantastic eyesight and they can navigate in the bush without a compass or map... With the Bushmen along, our chances of dying are very slight. They have incredible tenacity, patience and endurance. They've taught me to respect another race" (Time 3/2/81). Even experienced, battle-hardened mercenaries were impressed. A Soldier of Fortune article exulted:

Able to survive long periods on minimal food and water, the Bushman has an instinctive, highly developed sense of danger, and has proved to be an astoundingly good "snap" shot... [but, his] [f]orte is tracking... If you've never seen a two-legged bloodhound at work, come to South West Africa and watch the Bushman. Actually, the Bushman puts the bloodhound to shame. [In addition, they are] good at estimating mortar projectile strike distances because of their age-old weapons - the bow and arrow. (Norval 1984:74)

These superhuman qualities of Bushmen were grounded not in humanity but in animality. Their inability to keep cattle was attributed to their lack of self-restraint. Because they are "extremely emotional," women cannot do without the men and this determines the length of patrol (Pretoria News 2/26/81). Time magazine (3/21/81) assured us that they are often distracted from a guerrilla track by honey and that the sighting of a hyena would provoke uncontrollable laughter.

The issue of Bushman rights is still very much alive. Five days before Namibia's independence, South Africa relocated some 4,000 military Bushmen, who apparently chose not to be demobilized, to a base in South Africa. The source of their military efficiency is not their "inherent tracking ability" or any such "natural" quality, but arises rather, as Enloe has suggested, from their pariah status in the wider society (Enloe 1980).

The white bourgeoisie's love affair with "wild Bushmen" is long and complex. As the urbanizing whites grow more alienated from their society, they mythologize Bushmen as the antithesis to society's problems. But also, as Maughan-Brown has recently suggested, the myth provides whites with moral absolution from accusations of racism (Maughan-Brown 1983).




The crass use of names and icons to sustain the SADF's symbolic dominance is a phenomenon worthy of further analysis. The original base used to train Bushman trackers was called Alpha ("the first"). Omega ("the last") base was later built to house Angolan Bushman refugees who were mercenaries in the Pied Crow battalion in which emblem, needless to say, the "white head of the crow symbolized the white leadership element."

This is a widespread idée fixe. According to another Soldier of Fortune article:

Troops of the Bushman Battalion are perhaps the best indigenous trackers in southern Africa today. Much of their skill comes from the Bushman's inherent tie with the land, their nomadic hunter-gatherer heritage which ensured that only those with the sharpest eyes, best hearing and most empathetic feel of the bush survived. (Mill 1987:32)

Details on the Bushman situation are to be found in a monograph (Gordon 1984). Some newspaper reports also hint at this and anthropologists agree. Some of the most knowledgeable experts believe that all Bushmen born after 1960 have lost the ability to track and most of their veldcraft (wilderness survival) skills.


Enloe, C.

1981 Ethnic Soldiers: State Security in a Divided Society. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Gordon, R.

1984 The San in Transition, Vol. II: What Future for the Ju/Wasi of Nyae-Nyae? Occasional Paper 13. Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival.

Hitchcock, R. and R. Brandenburgh

1990 Tourism, Conservation, and Culture in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana. Cultural Survival Quarterly 14(2):20-24.

Maughan-Brown, D.

1983 The Noble Savage in Anglo-Saxon Colonial Ideology, 1950-1980. English in Africa 10(2):55-77.

Mill, D.

1987 SADF's Bushmen: Desert Nomads on SWAPO's Track. Soldier of Fortune (January):32-37.

Norval, M.

1984 SADF's Bushman Battalion: Primitive Trackers Fight 20th Century War. Soldier of Fortune (March):71-75.

Tomaselli, K.

1989 Interview with Paul Myburgh. CVA Newsletter.

Tomaselli, K.,A. Williams, L. Steenveld, and R. Tomaselli

1986 Myth, Race and Power: South Africans Imaged on Film and TV. Bellville: Anthropos.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: