Indigenous Liberation Walk: A Human Rights Focus
In recent times South Africans have learnt that resounding victories can be attained with the simple act of walking in protest. Unarmed protestors are more powerful than guns, our history has taught us. Pilgrims know that following in the footsteps of great people can be life changing. Every year at this time a small group, descendants of our First Nations, hit the road to raise awareness and explore their own interior landscapes.
The last of the summer heat waves descends from an incredibly blue sky. Hoerikwaggo, the mountain by the sea, watches a tableau that would have been impossible not so long ago. Khoisan chiefs in their traditional skins walk through the entrance gates of The Castle built by Van Riebeeck and his cohorts, to claim their place in the 21st Century sun.
“Voet vir voet, hardloop vir hardloop, asemhaal vir asemhaal (step by step, one run at a time, breath by breath),” said one man.
If even one prominent South African had walked for eight days from the Northern Cape to The Castle in this way, the welcome would have been rousing. A small group of no more than 50 people are gathered to cheer the walkers as they cross the finishing line, the 17th Century cobbled paving stones. The building has bastions called Buuren, Oranje, Katzenellenbogen, Nassau and Leerdam. Said together the names sound like a colonial salvo, reminding us of a time when the problems of today’s walkers were born.
In the Footsteps of Gaob David Kruiper
“It was a great walk. We went into every town connecting with every Khoi San group from Cape Town to the Kalahari and met a lot of people. We walked in the footsteps of our great leader, Gaob David Kruiper,” said elder Daan Saaiman.
Saaiman, whose indigenous name !Au-Aob means hunter, uses words like amazing and proud to describe his journey.
“God protected us all the way because we walked in safety and without injury. We did it by the grace of God. This walk was important for us as a people. Our schools have been shut down and that is not good. There is a yearning, especially amongst the children, to learn our languages instead of Afrikaans and other languages,” he said.
The eight day walk was not the last for him.
“I am definitely walking again. We can’t sit quietly without doing anything. We must do something. We asked the Lord for direction and this is the instruction he gave us as an indigenous people,” Saaiman said.
This year the Indigenous Liberation Walk, an annual event now, focused on International Mother Tongue Day on 21 February. It is also a commemoration of the Khoe-San victory over the Portuguese forces led by Francisco D’Almaida on 1 March 1510.
A media release issued by Activists for the Liberation of the Indigenous Peoples of South Africa (ALiPSA) says:
“We started this Liberation Walk to offer indigenous First Nation descendants hope for the future with the vision of a South Africa in which South Africans have control over their jobs, their money, their health and spiritual well-being – enabling them to make informed decisions about their financial well-being -in turn, securing a sound economic future for themselves and their communities.
Secondly, building a society where indigenous First Nation culture and history is a respected and valued part of South African life.
Thirdly, to preserve, protect and promote indigenous First Nation culture of South Africa and in doing so, bridge the cultural gap between indigenous First Nations descendants and the wider community.
We hereby present a firm commitment to show fellow South Africans and the world that people of different cultural beliefs and values can work together as embodied in our National Motto !ke e/xarra //ke.
We believe that our organisational endeavours have always been aligned with the strategic agenda of lobbying government for indigenous First Nation Peoples’ Constitutional accommodation and the implementation of legislature to allow us to be part of the mainstream economy and acknowledge us as the owners, custodians and protectors of our indigenous First Nation cultural heritage.”
More than just a walk
Ulrich Steenkamp was one of the seven who participated in the walk when it began in 2013.
“The walk for me is a way of unifying myself with the way my ancestors roamed the southern tip of Africa for millennia. I walked because I also want to make a statement to the world and South Africa at large that we are still here. Yes, we are bastardised, racially mixed, but the spirit and the essence of my culture and my heritage still runs deep. I also walked to fight against oppression and to stop the stagnation and death of my culture,” Steenkamp said.
He said that the walk has improved since inception in terms of logistics and resources.
“We literally walked from Mossel Bay to Cape Town in the first year. We were seven in 2013, 12 last year with one support vehicle and had relay teams. 21 people walked this year with two support vehicles,” he said.
The walk has had a spiritual effect on Steenkamp.
“It makes you long to sit around the ancient camp fire where our traditional dances were danced and when our religious songs were sung. Also when praises to God were said and we sang in our tongues,” Steenkamp said.
According to him, the truth needs to come out in order for healing to take place in South Africa.
“We have been struggling under the yoke of oppression from colonisation up to the new South Africa. Even now we are still struggling. During the course of colonisation, imperialism and apartheid, within those three centuries, our language and cultural practices were made illegal. Basically anything that is of us was declared illegal and hideous. Our people were tortured for even speaking their language and they were tortured within the cellars of this Castle itself. We were brutally, viciously assaulted and our great grandmothers were raped by coming in of both African and European side, which is more documented than when the Nguni side came down from North Africa. That truth needs to come out,” Steenkamp said.
He had a strong message for government:
“Government needs to stop messing about. Our languages should be made legal official languages and our cultures need to be restored so that we as a people can reconcile with ourselves and with others. We need a formal apology from both sides of the foreigners who came here. The Africans who can from the North and the Europeans who came from the South West. They squished our borders smaller and smaller until we were either assimilated into their masses, or mixed and then shunted again or we were shunted to the Kalahari and we were just killed,” he added.
Even though March was Human Rights month, Steenkamp said it excluded his people because of an oppressive Constitution that excludes his culture and languages.
Language & Identity
Another walker, Neal Hartman, was touched deeply by the visibility of the KhoiSan language during the journey.
“Apart from the spirituality aspect, walking into a house where you can hear an entire family speaking in a language that you once believed to be dead and you find generations of the family speaking it was one of my main highlights,” Hartman said.
According to him, now is the time for a revival of the culture of the First Nations.
“If you go into the rural areas or areas where we stay you can see how sick our people are, they are disconnected from each other, from this country and from anything that makes sense and I think that’s mainly because we do not have an identity that we can fall back on. You know like Xhosa’s and Zulus and even the Afrikaners. They have something they can fall back on. They have people, they have icons and they have heroes and something to look up to and strive to. We as a community have no one that we are taught about in our history books.
“I feel like it is important that we bring to light all those freedom fighters who died in this Castle and all around this country in wars that we don’t know anything about because it isn’t taught in the schools and not being talked about. It has to come back and be talked about for us as a nation to be healed,” Hartman said.
The walkers arrived early on Saturday morning and a healing ceremony took place at the Castle of Good Hope the next day on Sunday 1 March.
One of the Leaders of the Khoisan Active Awareness Group (KSAAG), Bradley ‘Bradlox’ van Sitters said the walk had become like “a pilgrimage for him”.