SUNDAY TIMES - Meet the mysterious Sackcloth People of Table Mountain (video)
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Sunday Times News By FARREN COLLINS, 2016-01-24 00:03:00.0

Meet the mysterious Sackcloth People of Table Mountain (video)

Nestled between skyscrapers in Cape Town's city centre, a group of people wearing sacks flog their wares on the bustling pavement.

Unlike many other hawkers, they aren't selling cheap Chinese imports, but medicinal herbs, roots and plants.

Barefoot and clad in hessian, the Sakmanne, or Sackcloth People, live in caves on Table Mountain but venture down daily to trade at the city's markets and railway station.

They are an offshoot of the Rastafarian culture, have renounced material possessions and live off the vegetation they forage on the mountain. They also smoke dagga regularly, especially before prayers.

Neatly displayed on a blanket on the pavement are herbal remedies selling from about R20 to R60. They include buchu, mountain garlic and red carrot to treat conditions ranging from cancer to high blood pressure.

Zebelon, 24, says the Sackcloth People have the same bloodline as the "Khoisan of ancient days".

"The Sackman is a holy man [that] is connected with God," he says. "We don't eat eggs, no meat, no fish or anything that is from blood. Everything we eat comes out of creation and we make our own bread."

Zebelon has been a Sackman all his life. He has no surname, no ID and no birth certificate, like most other members of the group. They are strict vegetarians and do not drink alcohol.

He speaks with a rehearsed rhetoric common to cults or sects.

"We don't deal with IDs because we are not from Babylon," he says. "You can fool some of the people but not all of the people, you see, so the government wants to fool people, they don't want us to be free."

The group in Cape Town boasts about 100 members. Similar groups exist in other parts of the Western Cape, as well as in the Northern and Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Money from the sale of roots and herbs is used to buy fruit and vegetables not found on the mountain, although vegetarian pizzas and curries from a food market are not off- limits.

As dusk settles on the city, the Sackcloths pack up their stalls and make the hour-long trek to their caves nestled in the side of the "holy" mountain, where they spend most evenings praying around a fire.

The chairman of the Khoi and San Active Awareness Group (KSAAG), Bradley van Sitters, said Sackcloth was a "complete commitment" to a lifestyle.

"The Sackcloth is a total devotion to nature, to the point where we are denouncing Western clothes and accepted norms."

Van Sitters, who lived as a Sackcloth for several years, said: "There is a complete breakaway from the normal standards of living. [Theirs] is a long history with a biblical connotation."

He acknowledged that despite the Sackcloths' attempts to completely remove themselves from mainstream society, they are forced to interact with the city and its people to survive.

Sack men sell their herbs in Darling Street, Cape Town. Image: RUVAN BOSHOFF

"It is a very interesting situation where there is a give and take with the city," he said. "It is a love-hate relationship. On one hand they are now conforming to the city but only as a means of survival. They are bringing their produce from the mountain to the city because it is congested with people. The calling is to heal people and offer the public another alternative."

The group's knowledge of indigenous plants had been passed down through generations of the Khoi and San people, Van Sitters said.

"There is a deep historical link between the Sackcloth, and some of the Rastafarian community, to the Khoisan. They are nature-bound and centre around nature. This knowledge has been passed down and the Sackcloth keep it alive."

The future of the Sackcloth depended on themselves, Van Sitters said.

"I think the biggest threat to the Sackcloth, other than the system, is them themselves. If they maintain the fundamental basics of the Sackcloth then they have got a long future. If they start compromising and doing things not within the accepted guidelines, then they will weaken the concept of the Sackcloth."

Zebelon and Naftuli on Table Mountain in Cape Town. Image: RUVAN BOSHOFF

However, not everyone is a fan of the group's foraging.

SANParks said that although it was not aware of the Sackcloth People living on the mountain, it knew the group was roaming the mountain to harvest plants illegally.

"In terms of the Environmental Management Act of 2003, nobody is allowed to live in a national park or harvest plant material in a national park," said SANParks spokeswoman Merle Collins.

"They are not allowed to live on the mountain and if we become aware that there are groups living on the mountain the necessary steps will have to be taken in terms of our legal mandate as set out by the Environmental Management Act."