Boesman, Hotnot, gam, bushie, amalawu, kleurling and the catchall… coloured. Name-calling, an insidious remnant of a battle that started centuries ago. But a movement towards a Khoisan revival that resonated at the United Nations in New York this week, could turn the tide.

Opening the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that deliberations and decisions made during this week’s event would reverberate across the world, with concrete impact on the lives of millions.

Indigenous people and the descendants of First Nations make up only about five percent of the world population but when we examine the 900 million poor people around the globe, especially in the rural areas, they are over represented. Among the poverty stricken up to a third are likely to be indigenous. That means you are six times more likely to be poor if you are descended from South Africa’s First Nations.

“The success of this Conference is integral to progress for all humanity,” Ban said as he opened the World Conference at the UN Headquarters in New York this week.

Convened as a first high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly’s 69th session, the two-day World Conference brought together over a thousand delegates to discuss the realisation of human rights, including pursuing the objectives of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the Assembly in 2007.

Healing Historical Trauma

In Cape Town at a small corner of the Open Book festival two sessions explored issues of identity. One focused on Khoisan poetry and another on ‘healing historical trauma’. At both places the passion of the discussion overshadowed the size of the audience. The audience represented a groundswell that is driving the key issues of the Khoisan revival. Issues that resonate with struggles elsewhere and that the UN addressed this week.

The Mantis features prominently in the Heroes Project graphic novel.

The Mantis features prominently in the Heroes Project graphic novel.

At the Open Book Festival Lesle Jansen introduced the Heroes Project that addresses the healing of historical trauma. She is a lawyer with the Natural Justice NGO and their mission is to facilitate participation of communities in the development of policies that relate to the protection of cultural heritage.

Lesle Jansen says:

“We are lawyers that try to find innovative ways of working with the law. We use psychosocial approaches to complement our legal empowerment processes. But we realise the problems communities are facing needs more. And so the Heroes Project comes as an innovation to supplement our legal work.”

For the Project Jansen and a group of colleagues at the Natural Justice organisation have collaborated with the LED Lab in India. With LED’s graphic artistry they have started to revive the mythology and folklore of the Khoisan as a spiritual and cultural solace for the day-to-day socio-political struggles.

Phase one of the project led to the creation of a workshop model for teenagers. The workshop combined elements of theatre, dance, shadow puppetry and mythology to create a space for sharing personal stories and experiences. The idea came from the ancient, almost lost storytelling culture of the Khoisan. The creativity intends to bridge the gap between the reality of personal stories and the mythology or folklore. Phase 2 of the project has involved creating a series of graphic narratives about the Khoisan.

“We have produced this graphic novel that is anchored on the Khoisan mythology or ancient stories. We are trying to see how we use those myths and stories as a cultural resource for youth today to help navigate the modern day challenges that these communities might be facing. Our next step is to get a publisher. The underlying message is universal. We hope that it could be a bonding factor for everyone in South Africa. It could be a resource for all youth that might be struggling with challenges. Hopefully help them find ways to navigate life or just get inspiration.”

The Heroes Project Graphic Novel.

The Heroes Project Graphic Novel.

Key Challenges

Some of the key challenges that the descendants of Southern Africa’s first nations, loosely and without historic regard lumped together as ‘coloured’, are experiencing include:

  • Land Rights
  • Protection of Indigenous Knowledge
  • Fair representation in the media
  • Language Rights
  • Recognition of Khoisan symbols by Christian churches
  • Repatriation of Khoisan remains from around the world. Many bodies were taken over the years for so-called scientific research

In many of the communities under stress the social pathologies can be related to problems of identity, cultural cohesion, historic recognition and deep-seated, untreated historic traumas.

Lesle Jansen presenting the Heroes Project at the Open Book Festival.

Lesle Jansen presenting the Heroes Project at the Open Book Festival.

“So much of the coloured community’s youth is in prison. In all 18 prisons in the Western Cape the coloured community, many Khoisan descendants, make up the majority. That alone tells us that people are struggling to make positive choices,” says Lesle Jansen.

At the end of the UN Assembly the Draft Resolution will be ratified affecting the lives of millions of people around the world. There have been consultative processes globally to inform the “Outcomes Document”. But what does it mean in South Africa where people are still struggling with a sense of identity and the basic issues like what we want to be called.

First Nations Most Marginalised

Fazila Farouk, Executive Director of the SA Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS), says:

“First nations or indigenous people are amongst the most marginalised in the world. They are often people who were unable to fight back against stronger invading nations that forcibly removed them from their ancestral land and consequently denied their land rights, especially the right to benefit from natural resource extraction. In many parts of the world indigenous peoples’ struggle are about systematic expulsion and exclusion from the benefits of ancestral land development by more powerful groups and or not being adequately compensated for their loss.”

SACSIS is a nonprofit news agency promoting social justice. They are seeking answers to the question: How do we make democracy work for the poor? We asked Fazila Farouk what local people could expect from the UN General Assembly historic conference.

“There is recognition of this by the United Nations at the global level, which together with the ILO, is trying to improve indigenous people’s living and working conditions, lift their standard of living, as well as respect their cultural traditions. What is interesting about the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People that was endorsed by UN member nations this week is that it recognises the right to self-determination and governance by indigenous people.

“This could be a harbinger of more compelling indigenous peoples’ struggles in the future and it will be interesting to see how the first nations of South Africa relate to this right. It has been sad to note that it took seven whole years for the UN declaration to be adopted by member states. So the impact of the adoption of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People still remains to be seen.”

Fazila Farouk, Executive Director of SACSIS.

Fazila Farouk, Executive Director of SACSIS.

Fazila Farouk articulated some of the key issues facing indigenous people:

“There are many challenges facing South Africa’s indigenous people, that are largely related to their marginalisation and underdevelopment. But the biggest challenge remains lack of clarity over the right to the title of “first nation”. While there is widespread acknowledgement that Khoisan people who have been in South Africa for more than 25,000 years ought to be recognised as SA’s “first nation”, this is still disputed by so-called Bantu nations who arrived here about 1,000 years ago. With the so-called Bantu nations now also constituting the political elite, there is a perceptible side lining of indigenous people’s aspirations and rights.”

Mining Communities’ Rights

Several years ago the South African government voted in favour of accepting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but has yet to ratify ILO Convention 169 that deals with the rights of mining communities.

Says Farouk:

“The important thing about ratifying international conventions is that South Africa can be held to account to a higher international authority should it be violating the rights of South Africa’s first nations. The problem in South Africa, of course, is that the very nature of our economy has always been characterised by exploitation of less powerful groups by more powerful groups. This coupled with the mineral-industrial-political nexus has meant that powerful elite groups have been reluctant to recognise the rights of South Africa’s first nations. The dispute over who exactly South Africa’s “first nations” are, clearly feeds into South Africa’s reluctance to ratify Convention 169. I think there is a direct link between South Africa’s reluctance to ratify the ILO’s convention 169 and internal battles over the right to natural resources.”

The UN Outcomes Document states:

We reaffirm our support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007, and our commitments made in this respect to consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them, in accordance with the applicable principles of the Declaration.

Because the United Nations works by consensus, the resolutions often fall short of people’s expectations. But in this case it is a framework that Southern Africa’s indigenous people can use when negotiating with governments and when demanding recognition.