Our Platfontein Story Making Waves

The Journalist… sparking debate & providing context

Recently we ran a personal column written by University of the Free State students, Palesa Morei and Lerato Molisana, after a visit to the San settlement at Platfontein (View original article here). It has sparked a robust response from Professor Keyan Tomaseli and his team at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS). The CCMS team has been working with indigenous communities in the Kalahari for 22 years, and has had intensive collaboration with the people of Platfontein.

The very well-written and highly engaging articles on a visit by a group to Platfontein in The Journalist caught the attention of some members of my research team here in The Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS), University of KwaZulu-Natal. Our interaction with this community has included video production and a reception study of the video, photography, art and heritage, development and health mapping, development communication using subject-generated grassroots comics and body-mapping, and in comprehensively studying XK-FM (governance, reception, programming).  In addition, we have worked at Platfontein on health baseline surveys, on concepts of indigenous medicine and with regard to the study of child imitation behaviour.  A current project by an MA student, Itunu Bodunrun, who was the first to respond to The Journalist article, is analysing hip hop as a sub-culture of style amongst the Khwe youth and how this genre is leveraged to engage more fully with post modernity.

We commend the authors of the article on their writing expertise, and on the evocative honesty and intense self-reflection of their brief encounters with the Platfontein folks.  Their welcome admission on their own naivety as they try to make sense of their own thoughts and feelings is appreciated.

We are responding to the two reports because in the ten years that we have interacted with the Khwe and the !Xun none of the scores of CCMS researchers have related  the same experience of alienation, embarrassment or sadness  as is offered in The Journalist by Polesa Morei and Lerato Molisana.

In fact, the opposite has occurred:  our students working in both the Kalahari and in Zululand on cultural tourism and heritage representation found themselves intensely and critically interrogating themselves, their own identities, theories and research practices and then re-orientating their methodologies to respond organically to the conditions they were taught about by their indigenous hosts. They junked the conventional text books, interrogated Western and received stereotypes about the other and of themselves, and broke with conventional ways of seeing, developing what is now known as critical indigenous methodologies. Their own stories about how they attempted to come to the consciousness of those with whom they are working can be found in the CCMS student research magazine. (A link is provided elsewhere on this page.)

Here the students discuss how their encounters with their hosts fundamentally changed them, how they devised new methods and theories arising from the context of the research participants, rather than leaving sadly with a sense of utter alienation.

Conceptual and methodological innovation occurred  because the students set up medium to long-term  relations with their hosts, got to know them as individuals, and conducted both participatory and action research to involve them as co-researchers, co-video makers, graphic artists, and also as research participants. What do we in the process of interaction learn about each other? – Rather than just writing about our experiences as brief observers we have engaged with our research participants over many years.  

Paul Weinberg in the video clip is framed as talking about ‘Them’; he is misconstrued as an endistanced commentator and as being part of the problem rather than as someone who did get to know his subjects, who did expose their ill-treatment but who also through his photography conferred dignity to people who were often treated without dignity by so many historically.  Paul’s photography, as with our own work, is not based on an endistanced relationship.
Clearly, a short bus trip jostling with over 180 delegates being herded through the area in a single day is going to create its own challenges.  In such conditions, passengers who are cast by the conference organisers in the role of ‘tourists’ are not going to enable an intensive or culturally sensitive research outcome, as is obviously realised by the two journalists. But as Tom Hart writes below, the reality at Platfontein is very different to the image constructed by the two well-meaning and self-reflective journalists who were responding to the nature of the tour rather than the Platfonteiners themselves.   While our impressions are different, we do appreciate the validity of the journalists’ own emotional responses, as these are valid, organic and real.  Their observations on others in the group who did not respond thus are instructive.

We just ask that the context of cultural tourism be examined more critically and sensitively as the practice means something different for the hosts.   Often, such activities that are trading images and performances of one’s authenticity, may be one of the few income-earning opportunities available to isolated folks who have been dealt dreadful cards by history. But let’s also agree that such folks have agency, they don’t see themselves as cultural victims, but as earning a living, just as do the performers at Shakaland or Lesedi, who act in movies and TV ads, host groups of school children, and who are constantly reading and rereading history in making their interpretations of it accessible to tourists.  There is agency at work in such situations.  Negotiations are happening, nothing is static even if it seems so. It is we-the-observers who interpellate such cultural performers as victims.  That is a projection that objectifies the folks with whom one interacts even more.

Tom Hart worked at Platfontein for many years with CCMS researchers, his own research resulting in two studies (Hons project, MA) of XK-fm; he made an M-Net sponsored video, Voice of our Forefathers, scripted in conjunction with the community, and latterly he assisted on a HIV/Aids baseline survey at Platfontein.
Hart’s comments on the story are: 
“Wow what emotional articles from people who only got to know the place and people for a few hours and thought that that is how they live. It’s true that the community is neglected by the provincial ANC government as well as the residents of Kimberley. It’s true that there is high unemployment in the community due to this neglect and isolation from the rest of Kimberley. However, if people would look deeper than just the superficial impression of cultural tourism they would understand that the Communal Property Association that owns the land is also at fault for their isolation due to corruption.

A lot was spent on that road leading into Platfontein; however after six years one can’t get a normal car into the community through that road. Thus, the objectives of the road, to have a transport network into the community to allow for taxis and buses to operate on, have just become skeletons of modern development. For the criticism of the cultural tourism, I am not a fan of it either. But to say with such angry voices that this is exploitation of the highest degree is unfounded. The cultural village was established by the CPA, SA San Institute and the leaders of the community to keep their traditions alive and to exploit some cultural cash off Eurocentric gazes. Thus the cultural villages were not built by some colonial white man but by the community themselves. Most of those old ladies that dance and parade their traditional clothes for a few minutes outside of their modern attires are actually proud of their dance groups.

Dance  is the last thing they have to claim as their own and a part of their identity with the past in a society that pushes and shoves them between the forced identities of either the modern South African or the romanticised representation of a “Bushmen”. Why can’t they live between both representations if they so choose? Why can’t they use these representations with freedom and at any time like we do as modern South Africans? I am sure that the two writers at UFS as students live a Western life, atoning to Western customs of socialisation, communication, production, consumption, representation, identification and regulation. However, when they go back home for their wedding or a wedding of a family member they too also put up a cultural show at the wedding, dressed in traditional attire, dancing traditional dances and singing traditional songs in home languages.  So my question for these two writers is, why did they push the !Xun women present at the cultural village into the forced representation of the exploited, the poor and the colonised. Why didn’t the writers give freedom to these women to choose their own representations of who they are?

I remember the day quite clearly in 2008 when one by one each dance group from both communities came up to the radio station to request that their dances be recorded on video for them to keep as a record and as a visual cultural artifact for their own consumption just like a photographic portrait of themselves. This event was not started at all by me. Some women had heard I had a camera that I was using to record interviews at the radio station and wanted to use it. The women then filmed each other dancing for the next three days. I was not behind the camera, one of the Khwe that learnt to use my camera was the cameraman. He later went about recording community life for his own use and what came out of it was an intimate look into a very close community with hopes, dreams, aspirations, love, hate, relationships, careers, family etc. All things that we as middle class people also live. The event of the women requesting to film themselves dancing highlights a community still proud of their traditional and past representations and customs. And the short doccie created by the Khwe film-maker highlights a community that interweaves between modern and traditional identities and representation with freedom and when it suits themselves. This freedom suggests that they have ownership of their identities and representations and is not the situation that these two writers pronounce as tear jerking exploitation as witnessed during colonial times when there was a cultural slavery over African communities in order to suppress their pride in who they are and provide entertainment for European gazers. I hope that these two writers after writing that article, choose to follow on with what they said by researching the issues they highlighted within the two communities over an extended period of time in order to get a full picture of everyday life of the !Xun and Khwe and do not follow a path of one-hit-wonders that bolt in and out of communities and write papers that in return destroy years of research, development and policy work and community engagement with development workers as well as again force the Bushman into representations decided by people outside of their communities.

Assimilationist – A response to the UFS students

Siyasanga M Tyali

The problem with some people of African descent who have become Eurocentric assimilationists is that they tend to feel an irrational sense of “shame”, they “cringe” and give all sorts of misguided interpretations when confronted with some cultural and traditional customs that are drawn from history. This is the problem with the widely reported experiences of the UFS students who recently travelled to Platfontein. Instead of asking and trying to understand from the theatre and cultural exhibitors of the Platfontein people, these students took an analysis that is self-centred, naïve, misleading and has overtones of self-importance. In other words the cultural exhibition becomes about them and less about the exhibitors. What is clear from both of their analyses is that there is no appreciation of diversity for cultural and traditional customs that are not their own. Their shameful Eurocentric gaze of life in Africa has allowed them to feel a sense of embarrassment when viewing practices that are not drawn from what is familiar to them. This is the sort of Eurocentric gaze that makes people “cringe” when the Tswana wear their customary loin skins; when the Xhosa undergo their annual traditional circumcision rituals or even when Zulu maidens decide to undergo the annual virginity testing.
When ‘we’ apply a self-centred and elitist viewing of all these diverse customs (some of which are open to the public and some aren’t) ‘we’ tend to measure them on what ‘we’ would do. Hence it has become easy for one student to bring their customary beliefs on how an elderly woman should be dressed. The problem is not the nakedness of the women. It is in the ludicrous reasoning and actions of the students and the whole group that travelled to Platfontein. The student references their nanny’s and how many in her childhood would frown at women who aren’t supposedly dressed well. Instead of interviewing a community member – a shameful omission for a journalism student – and trying to understand the nuances of the cultural exhibition, the students drew their own misguided understanding of how cultural and traditional custom should be conducted in Platfontein. By the way, some of the people in Platfontein speak Afrikaans and a bit of other South African languages. Why wouldn’t they? I have spent weeks in Platfontein and I have never, ever felt a sense of shame in being with the Platfontein people. What’s there to be ashamed of?! Most of their life resembles my village life in the Eastern Cape Province (by the way, a simple history check would tell them that the people I descend from – Xhosas – have relations with the San community going back hundreds of years: including intermarriages between the two groups). Therefore my question is: is it ok to watch Simba on Broadway – paying exorbitant ticket prices – and not support local cultural and customary exhibitions of the Platfontein people? 
Just like in my village, there is excruciating poverty; occasionally some people get by from their customs and using those to leverage the debilitating capitalist system. In other words they occasionally sell what has been passed to them from time immemorial. The Platfotein cultural village is therefore a strategic income generation tool. There’s no shame in using what one has to try and survive in life. Anyone who knows me knows that my ideology tends to be Africanist and I tend to challenge prejudices – something I have done even using national platforms. In all my time at Platfontein, I haven’t seen or been alerted to prejudice acts that the Platfontein people have not been able to handle. That strangers who have not even spent a day there would unashamedly draw such conclusions is an act of scraping from the lower barrels of sensationalism. Why the fuss about “shame” and “cringes” from the two students one ask themselves then. Well the problem lies in their Eurocentric assimilationist gaze and how everything that they do not recognise is not worthy of being exhibited or even being understood. Platfontein took them out of their comfort and black middle class zone. Unfortunately their whole life is that which had been limited to what I would presume to be seSotho customs. They need to get out more, visit other ethnic groups, learn from other people and stop thinking that their lives are the centre of the universe. We would have less “shame” and less “cringe” if we understood each other as South Africans and more especially as people of African descent. Theirs is the type of Africanist thinking I always shy away from. It is alarmist and tends to be sensationalist in its interpretation. It distracts us from analysing and explaining some of the problems faced by South Africans.       
Itunu Bodunrun, and MA students from Nigeria, writes:
I had the same impression as the UFS students when I first encountered the !Xun and Khwe Bushmen last year . I was particularly taken aback by the Khwe youths who weren’t so different from us (from UKZN). They had the same dreams, aspirations and goals, they were exposed to the same media as us – they listen to Jay Z, Nicki Minaj etc. and many were already on social media networks.

In short; take away their shacks/RDP homes and replace them with regular city houses and they’ll be just like any enthusiastic African youths. As a young boy who grew up in the rural parts of Nigeria, I saw too many bits of me in them and regard them more as friends/brothers than Bushmen.

That is why I am presently undertaking an ethnographic study that documents the daily lifestyles of the Khwe youth subculture. Enough of the romanticised representations and images; Having lived in the community for weeks, I intend on painting a true picture and state of the Khwe Bushman of Platfontein whose popular myth, culture and styles have been redefined by modernity (and other factors). I’ll explain in details the problems blighting the community as a whole.

– Itunu is completing his Masters dissertation at the Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS), University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Dissertation Title: The Emergence of Hip-Hop Subculture Among Khwe Bushmen In Platfontein
, Northape.

Min Kong, CCMS MA student 
Many thanks to the two UFS students for sharing their real personal experiences. I actually understand their anger, confusion, and embarrassment because I share a bit of the same feelings. Even though I have never done any research in Platfontein, I have visited the Bushmen community there twice with other CCMS fellows. The two visits gave me a lot of insight about this indigenous community.

Frankly speaking, the security and safety for visitors from outside the community is quite worrying. As a matter of fact, on our second trip to Platfontein, we proceeded with much caution.  Andrew Dicks (a member of CCMS research team) parked our van near the SABC station with some guards watching it. However, our two laptops and a SLR camera which were inside the van still got stolen!

Another interesting experience was when one of my friends and I were wandering in the community road and we could even smell the alcohol in the air.  We proceeded to ‘join the party’ and have a wine festival when I noticed a drunk lady dancing with a baby on her back. Quite amused by this scenario, I asked if I could take a picture of her. She became more excited swaying her body emphatically. I understood her reactions as allowing me to take pictures. When my friend and I were ready to leave with our pictures, she caught up with us and asked some money as an exchange for her images.

My intention is not to judge or critique the people. Rather, I want to write the truth and sincerely respect the indigenous customs, including their current livelihoods, religious activities, and their habit of drinking. However, one fact I want to speak out about is their current condition of abject poverty. Being indigenous is not synonymous to being poor or relying on government relief. Being indigenous has no relations to what clothes they wear, what kind of food they eat, or what kind of job they do. Indigeneity has always been deeply rooted in their history, blood and their dancing and singing. However, the fact is that the Bushmen in Platfontein have to locate themselves in the current modern society, which is a challenge for them, because they need to decide what they have to change, what they must remain on a daily basis. From Kimberley to Platfontein, half an hours’ driving, the short distance witnesses what a difference between the downtown and the suburb, what a gap between the “modern rich” and the “indigenous poverty”. The questions in my mind remains, “what elements contribute to the present Platfontein community” and “what future do the Bushmen of Platfontein have?”