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Descendants of the Kalahari San getting back on track

The heirs to a cultural history brutally interrupted by colonialism and apartheid are relearning the skills of their forebears in the red dunes of the Kgalagadi

13 May 2018 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER

Oom Jan Tities grew up on a farm in the Northern Cape near the Kgalagadi, where bald red sand dunes stretch for miles until the summer rains coax tufts of foliage from the ground.
Hunching over some jackal paw prints in the sand, he says: "We can reignite the flame of our culture again. We need to keep the last flicker of the candle burning so the youth can bring the flame alive. The more we teach young people in our community about tracking, the more it could become part of our lifestyle again, even if not for hunting."
As he bends down even closer to the paw prints, he sees that the jackal must have rested for a moment on its forelimbs, maybe to catch its breath or survey the land.
For his Kalahari San ancestors, the ancient art of tracking animals through an intimate knowledge of their prints was a crucial part of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
But the curio-shopped version of a singular San heritage in the region has left little room in the public mind for the different cultures within that or how they have been trampled. Animal tracking is but one thread of an ancient lifestyle that now really hangs in the balance.Pulled apart by invasions, colonialism, apartheid, and the modern economy, almost all the community members on the South African side of the Kalahari speak only Afrikaans, live in poverty-stricken communities on the edges of small towns, and eke out an existence in a province where the real unemployment rate is even worse than the national average.
"Our culture could possibly die out completely," says Tities in his distinctly Northern Cape Afrikaans, "and nobody will ever track animals or practise other parts of our culture here again."
But this year a strong drive to revive the culture is coming into its own: two groups of master trackers in the Kalahari who have been relearning the art for more than a decade have been able to establish themselves as global experts.
They will now be able to issue certificates to those they train, and can run their own tracker schools. This means they can impart skills to the next generation, and establish tracking as a formal profession.
Tities is one of these master trackers. His brother-in-arms, Louis Liebenberg - who calls himself a "citizen scientist" - lives a thousand kilometres away in Noordhoek, Cape Town. For three decades Liebenberg has been eating, sleeping and breathing his dream to keep the art alive by formalising a curriculum for learning as the last living trackers grow old.
Working with the ‡Khomani San in South Africa, the Ju/'hoansi San of Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia, and /Gwi San and !Xo San in Botswana, Liebenberg has captured as much information from nature and indigenous knowledge as he can in written and picture form, and has used his own resources (and funding from Rolex's enterprise awards) to collaborate and close the gaps created by an erosive history."I have been working with Kalahari San master trackers since 1985," he says. "Over this period about 90% of them have passed away. Our society would suffer a permanent and irreplaceable loss if their knowledge vanished."
The importance of Liebenberg's project was recognised by Rolex who honoured him in 1998 by selecting him as one of five global Laureates in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise Initiative.
Like Tities, Liebenberg is haunted by the dying words of a man called Vet Piet (Fat Piet) who had tried to lead his ‡Khomani San community back to its roots.
"Vet Piet said years ago that if we all embrace cultural programmes rather than shunning them, we will benefit one day and our culture will grow again," says Tities.
Liebenberg also developed CyberTracker, a simple picture-based app that can be used to digitally collect data on animals through their prints, and he soon realised the technology could be used to monitor, predict and help prevent irreversible damage to our ecosystems. He sees tracking not only as a cultural practice that should be preserved, but as a crucial resource as Southern Africa faces the consequences of climate change.
"Trackers play an important role in education, ecotourism, search and rescue, antipoaching, wildlife monitoring and scientific research in nature reserves, and creating employment opportunities for trackers provides cultural, social and economic benefits to local communities."
For young trainees, time spent camping and tracking in the dunes of the Kgalagadi with Tities and Liebenberg is an investment in the future.
Under a scorching sun, they spend hours recording minute details of tracks that to the untrained eye appear as nothing more than patterns in the sand. From large buck to the tiny toes of lizards, the sand becomes the universe.
They stare for ages at three claws and the partial toe marks of a bird.
"Kori bustard," they agree.
A clearer set of tracks reveals the toe pads and back toe, and their conclusion changes: it's a secretary bird.According to the Youth Explorer Portal, in the district from which the young trackers hail only 40% of people aged 20 to 24 have completed matric, more than half of those between 15 and 24 live in income-poor households, and 25% of those live in a house with no employed adults.
Says 29-year-old Corne Witbooi: "I learnt some tracking as a child from the elders but I have learnt so much from Louis.
In five years' time I see myself training other people to track, especially small children. I hope to help revive tracking. It is possible."
Makai Kruiper, 27, from the nearby dorp of Andriesvale, is as passionate about tracking as Tities and Liebenberg.
"I have had a big change since I started learning tracking 15 years ago. I do piece jobs, which take me from one day to the next, but now I have more of a direction."
With their cultural heritage so brutally interrupted by history, it has taken deliberate actions to preserve what is left.
One such action came from the South African government in 2002 when the rights to around 27,800ha of land in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was restored to the ‡Khomani San as part of the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park Agreement.
It is on this pristine piece of uninhabited land, blocked off from tourists driving around the park, that Liebenberg and Tities have permission to hone their skills in tracking and pass them on to Witbooi, Kruiper and three other youngsters.
On the edge of the land is !Xaus Lodge, an accommodation and tourism facility managed by a black-empowered company on behalf of the ‡Khomani San, who benefit from it commercially.Tities, who grew up as the son of a shepherd on a farm in Rooiwal, Taung, where he "got his passion for nature", sees the return of the land as a symbolic part of a whole.
"We have the lodge, we have cultural programmes and events organised by government, and we have people like Louis. Some of our languages have also now been restored in books.
"You can say it is forcing the culture to still try to live, but by doing this, it gets passed down and will catch on again. That is what Vet Piet told us. The traditions will burn like a fire again."
As he scours the ground for more jackal prints, he says: "We need more awareness of our heritage among the communities here. We believe our new President Ramaphosa is going to tackle these problems. We see fruit in our future."READING THE WALLS
More wonders of human heritage can be seen in two exhibitions opening in Johannesburg this week.
From Thursday to October 1, The Wonders of Rock Art: Lascaux and Africa will be at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, and The Dawn of Art will be at the Origins Centre Museum at the University of the Witwatersrand.
The world's first examples of art and symbolism, found in Southern Africa, are more than 100,000 years old, while Europe is home to some of the world's most well-preserved prehistoric cave-art sites.This is the first time the replica of the Lascaux cave paintings exhibition will be seen in Africa.
The Palaeolithic paintings, found in 1940 in the Lascaux cave near the village of Montignac in Dordogne, southwestern France, are around 17,000 years old and are mostly of large animals native to the region at the time.
They are regarded as masterpieces because of their outstanding quality and sophistication. The cave, a Unesco World Heritage site, was closed in 1963 to protect the paintings.
The travelling replica is an exact reproduction - meticulously recreated using materials and tools identical to those used by the original artists - of more than 2,000 figures painted on the walls of the caves.
They will be shown alongside prehistoric South African rock art, celebrating the earliest works created by humans on two continents.
Visit scibono.co.za..

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