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'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most Indigene of us all?'

Posted on January 24, 2012
Africa - once the richest continent, endowed with oil, lush forests, precious stones and metals, water, wildlife, soil, land and agricultural products. The indigenous people are important to their ecosystems by virtue of their lack of sophistication and ability to manipulate the natural resources around them - they have found a way of life that is harmonious with the environment. Their rituals and practices have become a part of the fragile balance of nature that maintains a stable ecosystem. Yet strong voices within the indigenous movement were missing at COP17, resulting in issues that strongly affect indigenous communities being sidelined or not heard.

It is in following some of the discussions around the COP17 UN Conference on Climate Change in Durban last year that I found myself in the presence of many indigenous activist groups, Chiefs, and individuals who have been working tirelessly to bring Indigene heritage issues to the public and government's attention. While noble intentions are evident, looming tensions and uncertainty ails the movement and its leadership. And even though some activists are involved with the current movement, there are still many others alienated by it. Why?

I had a limited knowledge of the indigenous people, and unlike what I have been taught much that had occurred in Cape Town and South Africa before the settler occupation was good. If you feel like you have been dispossessed, if you feel like you have been skinned alive, remember that it is the indigenous people who experienced that first on these lands.

The terms 'indigenous rights' and 'post-apartheid' raise a number of questions in the context of southern Africa

The situation with rights is straightforward enough: we know that South Africa has been grossly flawed in maintaining those (at least until 1994); but what about indigenous rights? What exactly does indigenous mean in the "democratic" South African context? And how do we gloss over post-apartheid South Africa, since the laws are no longer on the books but the constitution of violence established by colonialism and apartheid still affects the lives of millions of people?

The deliberate trivialisation of South Africa's indigenous communities' heritage, culture, and their political, socio-economic struggles is being overlooked, so too the 370 million global indigenous communities worldwide. It becomes clearer that our government's imposing administration favours only a portion and not the whole. The stark reality is that preferential treatment is given to those who are supposedly more indigenous than others. Preference with respect to jobs, business, promotion, whatever... It goes without saying that this group of people is being painted out of the South African landscape. What is upsetting is that the views of our contemporary minority African elite closely mirror the arrogance of the white settlers of the 19th century.

However I am genuinely concerned that links to the Khoe, San/Boesman identity are the most salient side of the over 2.5 million classified coloured population in South Africa. It does not take a rocket scientist to know that this group of people are South Africa's underlings, ridiculed by all and sundry. Why? It also goes without saying that the struggle for identity in South Africa lies heavily on them. Millions of South African Indigenes and their descendants, notwithstanding Africa, are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and debt.

This exclusivity contradicts of course, the more than 300-year struggle and resistance of indigenous African peoples against genocide, expropriation, racism, oppression, and underdevelopment under the reign of the European colonialists. It is well known mainly in academia that the standard explanation for the numerous click sounds found in modern Zulu, Swazi, and Xhosa is the linguistic influence of click speakers, assumed to be female, intermarrying with Bantu speakers. And that even during the last millennia, the Khoe, San/Boesman have been the exclusive occupants of significant portions of southern Africa, living as autonomous hunter-gatherers in parts of the Karoo, Kalahari, and Namib deserts. They coexisted with, and were eventually assimilated to, the Bantu speaking chiefdoms that now form the bulk of South Africa's population. It would seem that it is not in our so-called democratic government's interest to acknowledge Indigene, otherwise automatic access to land rights and natural resources would be the honest thing to do.

The indigenous movement requires strong individuals who will pledge their commitment to these challenges

But can the current leadership live up to the expectation to unite their five respective houses San, Cape Khoe, Nama, Korana and Griqua, who are recognised as vulnerable as a result of historical injustices, and few or skewed representations? This might be a tall order knowing that we are the very people that entrusted corrupt state officials with our livelihood in 1994; we do at each general election. Will history not repeat itself should we allow this government to exploit the fact that we are divided?

Yet it is not all doom and gloom. I am proud to announce the opening of South Africa First Peoples' Museum at the end of last year and following the launch of the foundation Friday 16 December. Watch this space! On a personal note, first I have to deal with my forced polyglot ancestry now I am an Indigenes great granddaughter. What does it imply for me and many others, should we lay claim to our First peoples' status?

I would like to conclude by quoting my dear adopted mother who is 95 years of age, living in Paarl, who herself is the daughter of an indigenous mother from Namaqualand.

'Byna ma nie geheel, Byna ag baat nie veel, waar, waar is u deel' (Almost but not whole, Almost but not enough, where, where is your whole).