A History Told In Painful Spectacle

Two young women refuse to be tourists at the Platfontein San ‘Cultural Village’

After a recent 5-day International Conference – Freedom Our Responsibility by the Lyndi Fourie Foundation – at the University of the Free State, the organisers arranged a trip to Platfontein, in the Northern Cape. The San community in this neglected settlement have a painful history that goes back to the days when some of the men were trackers for the apartheid army in Namibia. Changing times meant they were treated like discarded army surplus and dumped in a makeshift settlement. Two decades after democracy they are still battling to build a viable community. Questionable tourism exploits bring some income and sometimes a confused gaze. Our University of the Free State student writers Lerato Molisana and Palesa Morei refused to tow the tourism line and compiled this outstanding multimedia story.

Lerato Molisana

Lerato Molisana

Lerato Molisana writes…

We leave carrying nameless faces in our cameras. Snapshots of a history told in painful spectacle. Dances and displays of a culture they tell us is ‘vanishing’. We shoot video clips but can’t explain the feelings of embarrassment.

The clicks in the San language are sharp and angular. There is no translator to round it out into something we understand. The tongue meeting mouth tones mock our efforts to connect. I rely on my intuition to make sense of what I see at the !Xum Cultural Village in Platfontein.

We travel there for 2 ½ hours by bus. Tyres aggressively bonding with the sandy road and churning up dust. The children don’t mind the fine powdery sand in their faces. They run towards the bus with smiles and an uncontainable excitement. We stop at the entrance and the children crowd around us.

So far it is a scene I’ve seen played out on TV shows and in documentaries. I always cringe. The girl in the blue anorak could be me in my primary school days. Her mates could easily be doubles for my childhood friends. So why am I here?

Each delegate steps from the bus into the dust, their sleek city shoes triggering a power play. I don’t know why but my heart begins to hurt. Instincts struggling with the tableau. Intentional or not, there is a tangible sense of supremacy. People who have come from far away places to soak in the rich culture of the “African” people. A spectacle to take home.

I step out of the bus in a rush, driven by discomfort. I hurry past the children. Putting distance between myself and the others. When I stop to think about what I am doing a shaky inner voice, lacking in confidence, says: “I don’t want to participate in patronising dialogue, flashing a smile and a camera at ‘them’ with a language barrier between us”.

I feel overwhelmed as I step into the dusty mud homesteads that make up the “cultural village”. All my senses become occupied, very busy. Singing and dancing. Children giggling. Women adorned with bright beads. Colourful artefacts laid out on the ground, flea market style. A show to celebrate the !Xum people’s culture. I should feel a festive excitement. The spectacle has been laid on especially for us. But my heart is not fooled. I make a conscious decision to let my intuition guide me. The language barrier prevents the words that could so easily escape mouths to power fake smiles.

A female elder claps her hands to accompany the singing. I can see the fatigue in their limbs as they dance. Young girls looking distant. Bodies going with the motion but minds seem to be elsewhere. The louder the singing becomes, the deeper the gloom that descends. They mask it with smiles that don’t go all the way. Their cold smiles nudge my tears and just before it flows I break away from the group. I am baffled by my reaction. As I stand near a fence I notice elderly women, behind one of the mud houses, changing into modern clothing. With no privacy they’ve developed a skilful way of quickly getting out of their traditional attire, while ensuring that they stay covered. There is probably another equally nimble means they use to switch from this charade to real life when we are gone.
After pulling myself together and rejoining the group, I stand next to a fellow visitor. She sounds South African. I am carrying a small bag with my essentials – cellphone, wallet, pen and notebook. Slung across my chest, loosely I don’t pay much attention to it.

“Watch out for your bag. Clutch it as close to you as you can. It’s not safe here,” the woman says. I can sense her genuine unease. I look from her to the girl with the blue jacket. Faces from my childhood that make my heart even heavier. I don’t reply to the warning. Defiantly I keep my sling bag exactly where it is… hanging loose. I stay standing next to her just long enough for her to notice my silent rebellion. Then I step away so that I can stand closer to a group of elderly San people.

I think of my nanny who was from the rural areas. She was a no-nonsense, elderly woman who held on to her traditional beliefs fervently. Occasionally, she would lock herself into one of the bedrooms, put Sesotho music on full blast and dance “litolobonya” (a traditional Sesotho dance). The outfit one wears for this dance consists of an undergarment that has bottle metal caps attached to them, to make percussion sounds with every movement. The attire is worn around the waist and barely covers the thighs. Topless and with a whistle between her lips she would go for about an hour, ignoring my pleas to be allowed to watch. She’d tell me that an elderly woman’s body was no spectacle. It deserved to be respected and honoured. Only women whose bodies had borne children had the right to watch. The men in my family made snide remarks when an elderly woman had her upper arms exposed, or showed off too much leg, or wore anything too tight. This was not good grounding for the Platfontein display.

Women, some elderly dancing, breasts and thighs exposed. I want to take my jersey off and cover them. I want to stop what I see as an assault on their dignity. I see younger men looking at them inappropriately. One youth gets aroused by the dance. With my anger rising rapidly, I walk away again. Then I begin to think about how my environment, background and past experiences have shaped how I see the world.

Feeling my reaction is unreasonable, I ask some of the delegates to share their impressions. Sakira Suzia who was born in the United Kingdom but is a third generation Bangladeshi, says:

“My parents come from Asia and I know how it is. Bangladesh, it’s a very poverty stricken country. But I’ve been to countries where this is on show and it’s like a zoo. This is the worst thing. I am very guilty of it as a Westerner. I go and see these cultures and I appreciate their culture and sometimes I think on the flip side it’s important. Go inside their culture and be amongst the culture. Live with them. But I am guilty of taking pictures because I’m here temporarily. I want to take something back to show my family. But morally it is wrong and I would not like it myself.”

Mike Muikia from Kenya says he wants to apologise to the !Xum people for the lack of respect that he feels some of the tourists are showing.

“In our youthful nature we may touch the way we want and hug but there are limits. But in this case I saw some instances where someone just come and hug you. You know these are elderly people we should respect. And then they would take pictures and they’re pushing them and I can see they are not really comfortable. And then I want to say please, please.”

Mike praises the energy of the kids and says he feels inspired by it. He says their happiness comes from within. When I ask if his reaction would still be the same if the setting changed to Kenya with the Maasai people his response is:

“Not really.”

The sun is dropping down to the horizon when we leave the cultural village. We are taken to a church close by. Some of the community members are with us in the church. I try to speak to an elderly couple. After many failed attempts at communicating with hand gestures, we give up. I mutter the word “dankie”. They beam and I return to my seat frustrated.

This outreach excursion of a University conference has not even bothered to bring a translator. It speaks volumes.

With the engine of the bus roaring the crowd of children gather, embracing some of the delegates. The warmth of their gestures melts some of my anger. But only the girls are hugging the delegates and shouting; “I love you”. The boys stand at a distance just watching.

Palesa Morei

Palesa Morei

Palesa Morei writes…

Arriving in Platfontein after the 178 km of chitter chatter on the bus, I feel like a tourist in my own country.

We check in at the Horseshoe Inn in anticipation of seeing the Bushmen. I do some research and remember in my mother tongue hearing about ‘Basarwa’. I never really knew what it meant as a child. I knew it had something to do with people that were different from us, the rest of the human species.

Before we leave the University of the Free State documentary photographer Paul Weinberg takes us through his talk and slide show: “In Search of the San”. To my amazement I learn that ‘The San’ are not just one group called KhoiKhoi. There is the Xun from Namibia, the Kwe from the border of Angola, Botswana and Zambia. There are over 100 000 San people living in Africa and more than 35 languages.

We arrive in Platfontein, after looking at rock art on the nearby koppie. It is a yard of festivities. Children run up to the bus as if they are puppets… auto cued to ‘get excited, because the tourists are arriving’. Cameras flashing I almost feel ambushed. But the children’s excitement becomes infectious and I want to see what they are offering.

At the far end of this yard of a “Cultural Village”, women are standing next to their tattered huts humming songs. I can only assume they are singing a welcome. The crowd moves past the women selling crafts. They drift toward the dance. I imagine the vigour and the shaking is for the gods. Then I see a young girl being pinned down on the floor and it makes me cringe. Each time I recall the moment, it makes me uncomfortable.


As the crowds move to the next group of men and woman dancing, Lerato and I hear a whisper in our ears:

“Beware of your valuables. This man just came to tell us that. These children move about, just to confuse you and take your stuff.”

I start doing the famous, uniquely South African, ‘check-i-coast’ and make sure everything is in my pocket where I can feel it. And just about then I have had enough.

I can’t behave like a tourist anymore. Taking pictures like I’m not bothered by looking at someone’s mother trying to keep herself warm. Just because she has to perform for the visitors. Never mind that she isn’t dressed, bare breasted. A continuous beating of the drum and high pitched vocal sounds. Calling the gods? I step out of the crowd, switch off my camera and talk to Lerato.

We start wondering about why people are not as uncomfortable we are. Why is it that I can’t bear to watch a man in sheer skimpy cloth and a woman old enough to be my grandmother shaking her body for us?

I ask the white African standing next to me and she says: “If I was their gods, I would be angry at showing people my sacred rituals.”

The day ends with a visit to a local church. More confusion. The drums and melodies have stopped. We are in church to listen to a performance by another group of San people. Tradition and culture. All the girls have long, artificial tresses. Hair weaves that look all Western. Not a single one of them with natural hair.

And then it’s time for the ‘tourists’ to return to the Horseshoe Inn base camp. We eat a polite dinner and head back in a much quieter bus. The long drive back to Bloemfontein does not bring me or Lerato any answers. Just confusion. Now I don’t want to think about Platfontein anymore. Every recollection brings way too many questions.