Because of their complexity and depth, the tides and currents of xenophobia that have swirled though our country will only return to calm if diverse, precisely targeted strategies are used to ease tensions. Foremost amongst these is the address of poverty, a debilitating phenomenon that underlies almost every other social ill in this country. This is where the past Masifundisane project could help.
A few years ago, the Masifundisane literacy programme was run successfully in KwaZulu-Natal, under the conscientious leadership of Mrs Cynthia Mpati of the Department of Education. It was directed at adults whose education had been fractured by apartheid. Cuba provided a model. Local unemployed KZN matriculants provided much of the teaching manpower, but local communities owned it and provided monitoring.
Masifundisane gave participants an education focused on their home language Zulu, as well as the language of the economy and much of the outside world, which is English. A more widely-scoped curriculum is now needed.
We need a national endeavour that encompasses;
The home language and English literacy
Numeracy and financial/business literacy
Entrepreneurship and how to run a small business such as a co-operative
Economic geography of the surrounding environment, business opportunities
Selected vocational skills suited to the region
Every component of the courses would be focused on achieving economic independence for the participants in the region in which they live, either as an individual, member of a collective or seeker of employment. There would be no wasted theorizing; just solid, practical, usable knowledge and skills. The development of suitable certification would be explored.
Every component of the curriculum above should also be integrated into the public schooling system, perhaps in the Life Orientation curriculum of Grades 7, 8 or 9.
We could adopt the Masifundisane (Google it, or check www.alexeducational.co.za and its linked sites for a summary) project as a model. It was a brilliant endeavour. Lessons were run in community halls, churches and school classrooms after hours, and every other venue available was employed in the task. Unemployed matric students taught for a modest salary, and the local community monitored and reported on progress.
SABC radio and television programmes, NGOs, churches and businesses could be harnessed. SETAS could be incorporated (but solely for initial, basic curriculum content and emphatically not for the suffocating administrative and bureaucratic constraints the SETAS must implement).
Instead of trading insults on the floor of parliament in the unseemly manner that has recently held sway, politicians might join forces to ensure that the proposed programmes work. Our society has not benefited from the past, indulgent mud-slinging; the fracas has given the nation a particularly bad model to follow and we are currently reaping the whirlwind. We need a return to propriety and proper work.
Although a measure of socialism underlies the suggested scheme, businesses must surely see the advantage of striving to develop social equilibrium based on a proliferation of micro- and meso-businesses. Big companies and banks might adopt a local or municipal region and reap some cudos from their investment. ‘Ordinary’ citizens might contribute greatly. Basic funding can be built into the education budget each year, and some money might be transferred from the SETAS.
Politics would have to be kept out of the mix as far as possible, if a programme such as that envisaged is to be run successfully throughout the country. The goodwill, input and resources of all political parties would have to be invited and accessed sensitively, while retaining a healthy measure of independent action and conscience.
At a time of acute stress in international relations generated by the recent outbreak of xenophobia , the added burden of inviting internal social and political collaboration would be difficult to orchestrate. With the inbuilt oppositional tensions inherent in our democratic Westminster parliamentary system, it might prove impossible. But it is surely worth discussion and if feasible, implementation. The benefits of success would be enormous.
A model derived from Cuba, involving government initiatives might smack too much for some people of ‘creeping socialism’. On the other hand, success would bring economic freedom for many, with a measure of independence from the present widespread state support. I believe that in this case, the ends justify the means. It would mean a brave new world for many.
Desperate people are fleeing out of both ends of Africa; the north and the south. In North Africa, refugees are searching for a better life in already-crowded Europe. Many have come from war-torn countries. As a result of desperation, many have endured terrible deaths at the hands of brutal agents bent on making a quick buck without regard for the savage fate to which they are committing their victims.
Politicians in European countries are searching for ways to accommodate a regulated, ‘manageable’ number of migrants. In this, they are discharging the first duty of any government, which is to secure the safety of their citizens. They are also attempting to stem the tide at source by targeted action on the African continent itself. They face a titanic battle between expediency and conscience, with the lives of thousands at stake… and also the reputations of their countries.
In the far south, South Africa has over the years accommodated several million economic and political migrants, some of whom no doubt also qualify as refugees. Past Government immigration policy had been one of benign understatement. Now for some migrants as well as ‘local’ people, especially for those deeply in poverty, a breaking-point has been reached.
While most of South Africa has gone about its business relatively unperturbed, pockets of vehement, violent conduct have broken out. Many migrants, especially those who are involved in commerce, have been generalised as corrupt, ruthless, exploitive, and perhaps even ‘colonialist’. Only now as mature reflection intrudes at last, is their economic contribution to society being recognised.
South Africans think so easily by classifying individual human beings into ‘groups’. We are besotted by ‘group-think’. One’s race, social class and family name come before one’s personal identity, character, service or other achievements. I do not blame any single sector of our population for this skewed thinking, which often leads to tremendous injustice, as the apartheid years showed. Group-thought and mindless generalising are alive and well. We all do it. Individual character, service and personal accountability are often glossed over.
Where their citizens have been terrorised or even killed, African Governments have responded vehemently. Some response from these countries is justified, understandable and worthy of recompense and an assumption of responsibility on the part of the South African Government. Yet, a considerable number of perpetrators of violence were tried and sentenced after the 2008 riots.
In the short term they were no doubt slow to react to the present eruption, and in the long term, poverty has remained addressed less effectively than it should have been. In that regard, we citizens who actually comprise ‘the state’ are also culpable. We have become numbed. It’s not only Government.
In a few cases, there is a distinct taint of politics inherent in some of the statements from Africa; also a measure of envious denigration and no doubt economic competition. I doubt whether any other state in Africa could have acted with any greater speed than our Government did. To prove the case, readers can choose from many recent examples of laxity on the part of other governments. Indulge yourself.
My wife and I are white South Africans, born in this country of parents also born here. I did not support apartheid, although I enjoyed its benefits. As educationists, my wife and I pursued education as career paths, and both of us served until it hurt, drawing salaries no greater than the comparable salary paid to any other ‘cultural group’ of the time.
Increasingly uneasy and later opposed to the prevailing political dispensation, I judged my white skin to be worth a million rand in indirect (or perhaps direct) benefits during my early years. I became a social activist while in a senior position in the education sphere. I researched racism with a D. Ed., and spoke against the policy and practice for many years. In the capacity of a college Vice Rector, such public speaking was controversial, but never threatening to me or otherwise heroic to do. Two of my public addresses were broken up by the advocates of apartheid; interesting experiences.
My wife and I of course rejected violence, and sought initially to make a contribution through NGO’S, but then decided to operate domestically outside politics. We became ‘father’ and ‘mother’ to four young Zulus (one was a week old) whose mother had died in my wife’s vehicle en route to hospital. The mother had lived with us for six months while ill. So, for thirty-five years we assisted a growing, extended Zulu family in building their houses, pursuing career paths and getting employment. We were all too busy to indulge ourselves with racist thoughts.
There was nothing particularly commendable about this. I’m sure many others in South Africa have done the same, or more. And, we were well rewarded. We paid our two-million rand virtual social debt, retained a measure of dignity, and were rewarded with several of our youngsters becoming teachers. Another qualified as a Catholic priest (he was ordained within the Catholic Church on 07 March 2015), and another as an electrician. There was also a financial administrator and several others are still training. We did it on state educationist/educator salaries and have been well rewarded, with very few disappointments. Old gogo (granny) was the mainstay of the family through their difficult years, as is quite usual these days; not us.
I am ‘white’ and, being born in Africa, I am an African. I am proud of it. And, I shall define myself as I wish. No-one else shall. I’m tired of being labelled indirectly as colonist, exploiter, or any other unpleasant implied epithet. I’m sure millions of other South Africans who have contributed to our economy and served in other ways greater than mine feel the same. Even the African immigrants who were born in other countries are now being praised for their economic contribution. Initially damned, many are now feeling affirmed.
As the xenophobic fracas settles and the country returns to normality, I hope the shock of the most recent xenophobic episode focuses our minds on a national scale. Above all, I hope that we as a nation can learn to look at such things as character as something worthwhile, rather than race or the banal trappings of wealth. The poor have been used as political fodder for long enough. And civil society is not blameless.
We in South Africa are a cultural kaleidoscope and a microcosm of the world. I hope that every citizen who has a bit more than average assets, no matter how little the reserve is, will occasionally use it well in the service of the needy. And the rich can always do more. In a world currently bent on suicide that will be a means to build a people worthy of the accolade ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Recent events in and around my home city Durban have sent shivers down the spines of South Africans. Xenophobic attacks have occurred against foreigners, initially amongst owners of small businesses in Isipingo, central Durban and Verulam. There have been deaths. The social disturbances have now spread to the Witwatersrand in Gauteng province, and no end to the disturbances is yet in sight. Similar unrest occurred in 2002, 2008 and 2014.
The trigger for these events seems to be a rising antipathy and even hatred on the part of impoverished local communities. It is largely directed against foreign nationals who have migrated to South Africa in huge numbers because of political or economic pressures in their own countries. The total of such people is estimated at four million. The broader setting has been conducive to social disruption, since during times of international economic, political, religious and social disruptions, migrants and refugees are obvious targets for the focus of anger amongst those already under pressure.
President Zuma has spoken on the subject, and has apparently invited answers to the problem, from whatever quarter. This present post is a response to that invitation.
Allegations of thoughtless statements by public figures and even underlying political intrigue are emerging, and need to be investigated thoroughly. If necessary, people must be held accountable. The response by government was tardy initially, but it is gathering momentum. Numerous statements have been made by government officials and members of civil society condemning the violence. We must all do so.
Many commentators have condemned the initial media reaction, which for a time focused on debates about whether the problem represents xenophobia or afrophobia. As the problem deepened, there was a realisation that the country needed vigorous action, not words. After some vacillation, the government responded with police action to ensure the safety of people whose lives were most in jeopardy. They have now correctly discerned the wellbeing of the civilian population as a first urgent step. In Durban and Gauteng, police have clamped down on crowd violence and associated criminality.
Several thousand people have been displaced. They are being housed temporarily in tent villages, police stations and other shelters. Angered and dismayed by the harsh events, some will no doubt return to their home countries. An exodus has begun. Several states have already taken action to repatriate citizens, and South Africa’s reputation as an exemplary country where a brilliant constitution holds sway has been besmirched and the underlying social fragilities revealed.
Condemnation of the violence and desultory initial response has come from Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and also Boko Haram and Al Shebaab. Political and economic retaliation have been threatened. The Department of Foreign Relations has been hard pressed to respond to and placate these criticisms. It is probable that South Africa will suffer in its international relations.
Some foreigners have not got relevant residence permits, and complain of experiencing corrupt practices in the registration process, muddled thinking and sometimes, enormous distances to be covered to get documents renewed.
In due course there will be the preparation of long-term plans to manage the crisis, to ensure a return to reasonably normal social interactions, and the development of a strategy to forestall recurrence. The process of introspection and planning has already begun. Unfortunately, as is so common with the managements of these sorts of events, initial reaction is to see and address only the surface manifestations, but not to drill or probe more deeply into the underlying aetiology. Clearly, the current events are symptoms of deeper things than those appearing at the surface. These have incubated and festered over decades, exacerbated by apartheid but also by mistakes made during the past few decades of ‘freedom’.
Many of the transgressors are Zulus, a nation that at one stage was the most powerful military and political body in South-east Africa. Read Shaka.The Story of a Zulu King for background. The fact is still embedded in the collective unconscious of large numbers of people, and fuels an underlying but tangible, simmering political resentment. Despite being the largest identifiable cultural entity in Southern Africa, historically they never consolidated into a nation-state such as that of the Sothos (Lesotho) or Swazis (Swaziland). There has apparently never been a satisfaction of historical ambitions.
A further provocation is that many live in a state of comparative poverty. The result is often a sense of hopelessness, loss of initiative and surrender to a sense of impotence and hopelessness. Yet amongst them are the most remarkable, kindly and precious people one can hope to meet. I have admired them for their ineffable strength of character, fortitude, courtesy and compassion despite their being in the grip of undeserved, grinding poverty. Some have become ‘family’.
In general however, South African society seems to harbour a deeply rooted propensity to resort to violence to get one’s way, and the concept of ubuntu sometimes appears more like a fragile, politically expedient construct to be trotted out when necessary, rather than a reality. It seems at times to extend no further than a narrow clan allegiance based on related names and interests. In our society there is also a measure of allegiance to larger ‘tribal’ entities whether black, brown or white, but little empathic regard for humanity in a wider context. We delude ourselves by accepting the designation ‘rainbow nation’. We have yet to earn that accolade.
The present outbursts of aggression are focused on xenophobia, which implies a fear and even hatred of foreigners or even strangers. It is a reaction that flies directly in the face of the ubuntu ethic. It has given vent to opportunistic criminality and the looting of shops and other property. Some of the anger is even alleged to originate in an attempt to clear debts by driving away the implicated business owners.
Poverty has over many years been exacerbated by the apartheid legacy which is not yet entirely expunged from current economic, political and social activities. White people are still pilloried en bloc, including those who fought apartheid. The persistence of poverty is recent years is due to a composite of syndromes such as corruption emanating from the elites within government and business, shocking labour relations underlying such events as the Marikana Massacre that have scared off overseas and domestic investment, a contested trade union battle for national hegemony, recent appalling behaviour within parliament that has set a new low bar for what can be tolerated within human interactions, and persistent and entrenched feelings of elitism, superiority and entitlement characteristic of many.
Then there is the dismal performance of many municipalities as well as parastatals such as ESCOM and SAA that have further damaged our economy. One can add the schooling system which consuming massive resources, yet produces little to reassure taxpayers and especially parents.
As usual, these current disturbances have loaded further stress onto the shoulders of the police services, still reeling from such exposes as the Marikana enquiry while trying bravely to maintain morale in the face of poor performances by some members.
South Africa has for long been describes as a ‘microcosm of the world’. With a world in turmoil, we have not needed these horrific events. Well, now a brave new world is needed. We must penetrate to current and historical fundamentals and address them responsibly to the advantage of both contesting blocs.
Some solutions might lie in the following suggestions.
We are engaged here with disruptions of a complex social system. To address the trauma adequately demands intelligent systemic thinking that penetrates to the roots of the problem and tracks the various underlying threads that cause the surface manifestations we now see.
We can accept that the present events will be brought under temporary control, as if a lid was put on a boiling pot. But, they will resurface in a month, a year or a decade, just as the pressure in a pot is likely to repeatedly dislodge the lid. Action and reaction will continue until lasting solutions are found. The solution lies in an impossible vision; the development of an unshakeable empathic national character that pursues a common good for all people resident in South Africa.
While some roots of the present turmoil can be traced back to apartheid, events in South Africa in the past two decades have also exacerbated a steady descent to chaos. Amongst these, appalling widespread corruption coupled to political arrogance are probably the most disruptive factors that have driven people apart. More than anything else, these factors have shaken faith in positive change.
As a nation, we must consolidate nationally. We must accept that historical factors are tenacious. On the massive scale inherent in our South African society, poverty is abominably difficult to ameliorate. Each individual must accept responsibility for addressing the underlying economic realities across a breadth of social entities including races, classes and genders. Civil society must more actively address poverty in creative ways. The government cannot do it all, although when one notes the past profligate and wasteful expenditure, it is clear that it could do far more than it does at present.
Individuals might accept a personal project. Families that can cope economically might help someone to build a small two-roomed house, educate a child or find employment. My wife and I have been engaged with this for the past thirty-five years. It is reaffirming and immensely enriching. I’m sure many others have done the same. The trend needs to spread.
Government must accept and value positive inputs from any quarter, insofar as it is predicated on the national good. This implies listening to opposition parties as well as ‘ordinary’ citizens. But we need action, not ‘talking heads’.
Government must stand firmly behind the Constitution and the laws that emanate from it. In practical terms they must support the Police Service in undertaking a difficult and sensitive task, uphold the courts in their decisions, and maintain the morale of municipalities in the discharge of their related duties. Their present policy of placing the security of individuals as a top, practical priority is sensible and commendable. This avoids immersion in senseless obfuscations surrounding debates on terminology and ideological imperatives.
Without fear or favour, anyone found culpable of fomenting or propagating a resort to violence or who has resorted to violence, theft or the destruction of property must be censured and if necessary brought before the law.
Government should establish a firm yet compassionate immigration/border control. This will of course always prove a contradiction. With people from other countries flooding into South Africa, many impoverished citizens feel that they are being sacrificed while the more opulent make no sacrifice. This fuels feelings of xenophobia. Yet the entitlements of migrants must also be honoured and respected.South Africa is signatory to international conventions, and there are entitlements to recognise and accommodate. Many refugees feel humiliated and let down. Those who wish to reintegrate into their communities need police protection if they are to do so safely.Accordingly, on the one hand the country must meet the dictates of conscience and international law, and on the other one needs to protect an over-burdened social service while also protecting the citizenry within our borders. More vigorous programmes of adult education such as that mounted under the Masifundisane banner some years ago will help. Whatever is done, the present muddled thinking must end.
The education system must be overhauled and transformed. It is matter for individual teachers to put right, by adopting a professional and not self-centred ‘trade unionist’ approach. Many who are in poverty in this country are the victims of an inadequate education. Many emerging from grade 12 schooling are apparently proving unemployable. I suspect that much of the fiercest resentment arises through the perception of local communities that they cannot compete fairly against the better-educated people flooding into the country. Further, school curricula need the infusion of programmes promoting interpersonal tolerance and a multi-cultural approach.
We as a nation must learn to value character, empathy and service beyond wealth. We have yet to earn the self-accorded accolade of ‘Rainbow Nation’. At present there’s no rainbow. And the darkest storm-clouds are still gathering.
I fell on wet verandah tiles a few weeks ago and fractured my ulna at the elbow. It was apparently a spectacular, if complicated, flight. A bit of bone schrapnel was thrown in for good measure.
Such things take years of practice. Nureyev would have been proud. A hospital excursion, surgery and recovery have been interesting experiences; no doubt suited to the needs of a writer for varied experience.
I’ll not be able to post for another month, but look forward to getting back to it as soon as my elbow treats me kindly again.
This is a summary of a presentation done in Durban on 12 February 2015 for the Military Historians Society of South Africa.
During the early 1600’s, a small band of people under the patriarch Malandela settled for a time on the Highveld in the proximity of present Vryheid. After trouble with local tribesmen during which the stone walls of their cattle kraals were damaged, they migrated down the White Umfolozi Valley, sojourning for a time in the area later known as Emakhoseni. In due course they settled in the Valley of the Umhlatuze under Malandela, who established an umuzi on the long slope north of the present Mandawe Church.
After a quarrel between his sons Zulu and Quabe, Zulu returned with his mother Nozinja to the beloved Emakhosini Valley they had traversed earlier. He is recorded as living from 1627 to 1709. From these origins sprang a long line of Zulu chiefs (kings). The otherwise nondescript valley holds the grave-sites of Zulu, Phunga, Mageba, Ndaba, Jama, Senzangakhona and Dinuzulu.
Shaka’s entire life was influenced by the heritage of the emerging Zulu nation, centred on the Emakhoseni valley, the ‘Valley of the kings’. Much of his military career can be attributed to his mother Nandi’s insistence that he take a rightful place in that dynasty.
In 1787, after a tryst between the Zulu heir Senzangahkona and Nandi, princess of the Elangeni tribe to the south, Shaka was born as an illegitimate. The Zulu dismissed the pregnancy as the work of ‘an intestinal beetle’. Shaka’s strong-willed mother became the unloved third wife of Senzangakhona. The fact resulted in humiliation for Shaka and his mother, leading to many hatreds and grudges and an urge to fight his way to supremacy.
Nandi kept the kingly vision in front of Shaka from his birth until her death and constantly brought to his attention that he was the son of a Zulu paramount chief (king). She urged him to resurrect the Zulu nation to dominance in opposition to his many less robust half-brothers.
This ensured the honing of Shaka’s character and skills during a tough and even brutal childhood. He endured torment and hardships as a young herder, and oppression from the Elangeni tribe of his mother. These cruelties are supported by many anecdotes. He learned stick-fighting and perfected it until left severely alone by the other boys, apart from grudging respect.
After an indiscretion involving disagreements with the Elangeni heir apparent Makedama and the stabbing of an unmanageable cow during the famine of 1802-04, he was obliged to flee with his mother Nandi to Mthethwa territory closer to the coast. They lived with that tribe for a decade.
Quick to learn military techniques and tactics, Shaka became a rising military star of the Mthethwa and a favourite of the renowned Dingiswayo. Shaka stamped his authority and presence on the younger warriors, and recorded notable achievements such as killing a cattle-raider known as Lembe.
In due course Shaka’s patron Dingiswayo engineered the young warrior’s supremacy amongst the Zulus in order to secure his western flank militarily against the feared Ndwandwe living to the north along the Phongolo River. Shaka arranged the assassination of his brother Sigujana and assumed the kingship while backed by a Mthethwa regiment. On Dingiswayo death at the hands of Zwide, he was free to extend his powers further.
He innovated the short, powerful iklwa stabbing spear and huge war shield, buffalo attack formation and hardening of his troops for battle. A strict regimen of discipline was instituted. Selected campaign strategies were refined and practiced on smaller local tribes. The Elangeni were overrun and a brutal vengeance exacted on those who had done him or his mother any hurt. The Buthelezi were defeated. Their leaders were incorporated as councillors, if compliant enough. Shaka steadily incorporated tribes near and far, and embarked on campaigns worthy of more historically lauded military leaders elsewhere, even Napoleon.
In his prime, Shaka as king was a magnificent physical specimen, resplendent in ceremonial dress. He showed an acute intelligence, capable of weighing evidence dispassionately, hypothesising, applying critical analysis and engaging with creative strategising. He showed acute awareness of how complex social and natural systems tend to operate. Many of these thinking processes are evident in his complex and usually successful military strategies.
Major battles includes Kwa Gqokli, involving an intricate deception to divide the Ndwandwe army between assaulting the Zulu regiments ensconced on Kwa Goqlkli hill, and pursuing a small herd of Zulu decoy cattle. Shaka used many elements such as thirst, breaking up the invading forces by various stratagems, superior fighting weapons, disciplined troop formations, and the constant availability of food and water provisions, to his advantage. The outcome was a far greater loss of manpower on the Ndwandwe side than with the Zulus.
The result was more than satisfactory, because the Ndwandwe reward was a limited number of cattle as the spoils of war, while the Zulus bought time during which to build up their forces. A major defensive campaign a year later was also concluded successfully, with the Ndwandwe suffering tremendous losses. The Ndwandwe were finally reduced to impotence in a savage campaign of retribution that took the Zulu army as far as the upper Phongolo River.
After the death of Shaka’s mother Nandi in 1827, the king introduced severe constraints to ensure a satisfactory period of national mourning for her. Sexual intercourse was banned. Living women were recorded as having been opened to check the presence of the unborn. Many cattle were also killed as result of the mourning period, while solid food might not be eaten. Resentment grew. Shaka seemed to be suffering from schizophrenia, with wild mood swings consuming him in his last year. He was wounded by Quabe or Ndwandwe attackers, with a blade driven under his left biceps and into his ribs. The wounds were attended to by the trader Farewell, to the king’s gratitude.
A few years after first meeting the white settlers who became ensconced in Port Natal in 1824 as traders, in 1828 Shaka engaged them with his army in an attempt to carve a way through Southern Natal and Xhosa territory to establish trading relations with the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown.
The traders had a broad strategy of setting up a trading empire that would eventually link in with the Cape authorities. This involved a major campaign to Xhosa territory to the south. The policy brought mutterings from the Zulus, who felt that Shaka’s relationships with the traders were too warm, and too disparaging of the Zulus themselves. There were rising intrigues against the king.
The king was murdered in September 1828, in a side-kraal Nyakamubi of the great ikhanda (military village) at Stanger in Natal. The role of Shaka’s aged aunt and previously regent, Mkabayi, is clear in approving the actions to be taken by Dingane, Mhlangana and Mbopa to ‘save the nation’.
The book Shaka.The story of a Zulu king is available for a few dollars on Amazon Kindle and in hard copy from Createspace, under Alex Coutts. The web site www.alexeducational.co.za and blog site www.alexstoriesandart.blogspot.com will get you there. Alternatively you might just enjoy looking at the 50 paintings on the website or reading of the blogsite stories set in KZN.
Look at the ‘painting of a painting’ at the head of this piece of writing. Look especially at the main focus, an elephant-shaman figure. It was painted by a man or woman one might describe with superiority as a ‘late stone-age’ being. One thinks of a primitive ‘cave-man’. But clearly, the artist was no shambling idiot. They were perceptive, intelligent and creative. How did they think?
Exploring the mind of a stone-age artist is not the easiest excursion one might make. For a start, one has to shed the stereotype of the person as an uncouth, grunting creature with a brain ruled only by instinct. These were people as fully human as we modern, ‘sapient’ humans are. They might have differed in physical size, but barely at all in cognition. Perhaps they were a tinge more imaginative. Their incredible mythology bears witness to that.
Now study the main figure of an elephant-shaman in conjunction with the swarm of bees. Of the picture you’re looking at, these two images are all that the San (Bushmen) painted. The rest of the images, including the small, high-set cave with beehive and vulture droppings as well as the two human figures on a floating sandstone platform, were painted by the writer as a surrealist work to more completely explore and define the mythical world of the artist.
The original rock painting was done perhaps two hundred years ago on an overhang (cave) wall at Ebusingata, a few kilometres south of Royal Natal National Park in the northern sector of the Natal Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. And that original is a masterpiece of technical skill and imagination. It also provides a brilliant historical record.
The original composition includes the large figure of a shaman bedecked with white paint and equipped with hunting equipment. He is probably in a state of trance, bent on extracting honey from a small cave in a rock-face crack high up to his right. The bees and their honey were associated with a high degree of potency (religious empowerment).
The modern artist has shown the yellow of the honeycombs of the wild African bees, to indicate the origin of the swarm and provide further context to the lively movements of the figure as focal point. A smear of vulture droppings also shows up white on the ledge of the cave to explain the action further.
Elephant man and the bees
The shaman, naked but replete with bow and arrows, has transformed mentally into an elephant, in the belief that the tough hide of that great beast will protect him from the bee stings. One can see the angry swarm diving and dashing in frenzy around him, but the man-beast (therianthrope) is focused and unperturbed as he strides towards the cave.
Since bees were thought by the San to have great potency, each bee can be seen as a symbol of the power that could be brought to the San shaman by encountering them in their agitated state. Filled with potency by Cagn, the great creator-god, the bees will enter the shaman’s body to travel through his gut and up the spine, to exit at the back of the neck or top of the head. The comprehensive empowerment then enjoyed by the shaman will enable him commune with Cagn during the trance dance, heal the sick, make rain, paint with sensitivity and perhaps be successful in the next hunt.
The shaman figure as art
The therianthropic figure is full of action, powerful and determination, set on a successful encounter with Cagn’s great potency. He is striding forward unflinchingly to the encounter, his limbs and body transformed to that of a great elephantine beast The penis is infibulated to show his purpose untroubled by any sexual distractions. The San artist has in effect described a shaman in a state of trance, his imagination perfervid and roaming free of critical cortical control.
The mind that painted it
The minds of the San appear to have been modern in every sense, although during their history they suffered denigration and ridicule even from other indigenous groups because of their simple lifestyle. The fact that they were hunter-gatherers and not agriculturists or pastoralists with a sense of property ownership set them apart.
They were outlawed everywhere, and driven to extinction in the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) by genocide. On the other hand they possessed incredibly creative imaginations that developed a library of myths to explain their experience and experiences, and the capacity to transform their thoughts into commendably enduring works of art. Their creative thinking is very clear from the painting.
Their development of effective poisons, oil-based paints of various colours, hunting instruments, clothing suitable for bitterly cold winter conditions and artwork of imagination reveals a capacity for rational, critical analysis and the use of hypotheses. This implies putting forward tentative solutions to problems, and then testing them to find successful patterns. Their record of thriving in montane and desert environments supports the contention.
Their language sounds peculiar to our ears; based on four or so sucking clicks and explosive pops! Peculiar, yes indeed; yet their sparse speech was adequate to their needs. Their sense of sight was marvellous, no doubt honed by their vocation as hunters, and their hearing was also acute.
They excelled us ‘modern people’, with our disposable society, in preserving their environment and not fouling the nest. That is something we who discard things so easily have not yet learnt. They held living things in high esteem, and celebrated and atoned to the creator-being each time they killed a large creature to satisfy their needs. They accorded to nature incredible powers, and tended to credit natural phenomena with human capacities and propensities.
Their womenfolk knew the characteristics and uses of a very wide range of plants, and could predict the seasons when each plant’s roots, fruit, berries or shoots would be available and most crucial to survival. That implies systematic as well as systemic thinking. The women were most astute in rain-making, since they brought the soft, soaking she-rain and not the thunderstorms that would rend the earth and destroy vegetation with its masculine aggression.
Their great library of mythical stories show the extent of their creative talents. They have stories dealing with creation, great hunts, encounters with cannibals, the characteristics of wild creatures and much more. They had great skill in imitating a wide variety of wild creatures by use of gestures and posturing, and often inserted humour into their displays. These were learning experiences for the young, who would acquire gathering skills from their mothers; and if they were male, hunting skills from the men. A rudimentary education system was in place.
The two human figures
The two San (Bushmen) at lower right are not a part of the original painting, but are human images painted by the artist to give greater commentary, definition and explanation to this surrealist artwork. They are the two compatriots of the shaman whose minds also engage with the elephant image to gain protection in their quest for honey. The hive is no doubt their possession, having been in their family for years. The thong and stick ladder was perhaps fixed to the rock face a century before, and would be maintained from time to time. It is probable that the hunters would make a fire on their imaginary platform of rock to smoke the bees away from the site.
Many great thinkers of the Western and eastern scientific traditions used images, diagrams and other forms of visualisation as a cognitive strategy to clarify their scientific ideas. The San did the same. Their oil paintings show complex hunts, healing scenarios, battles, trance dances, attacks by wild beasts, securing a rain-making creature, cattle raids, and home life.
They are a startling testimony to the depth of intelligence of these diminutive people who suffered genocide and death from farmers and pastoralists who had lost stock from San cattle and horse raids. The San had no concept of property ownership such as that prevalent in most cultures in the world. They suffered heavily for that deficit within their conceptual libraries.
They also suffered genetic dilution through intermarriage with African tribes until a little more than a hundred years ago, when genetically ’pure’ San disappeared from the history of Natal.
More on the contemporary contribution
The circular shape of the central rock wall in the picture is a device to keep the viewer’s eyes from wandering out of the picture. Reds and yellows serve to accentuate the focal points, and edges are a little sharper near focal points to give them further emphasis.
The painting was blocked in initially with a quite thin mix of oil paint and turps to provide a warm tonal under-painting. Darks were subjected to some glazing, and the paint was scumbled in to accentuate the lights. Sandstone is subject to weathering, and one had to be careful not to sharpen edges too much because that would give an unnatural flint-like sharpness that sandstone doesn’t have when well weathered.
Child of the Dragon Mountains
The book Child of the Dragon Mountains tells the story of the San rock artists, hunters, shamans, healers, rainmakers, in the form of a novel. It is based on forty years of research in the Drakensberg Mountains and is an authentic view of the fascinating lives of these diminutive people. The suffered genocide over more than a century, and had disappeared from their range in the montane regions of Natal by about 1900.