The Indigenous Khoisan community of southern Africa is still in shock after the recent death of the Khomani San leader Oom Dawid Kruiper, known as The Lion of the Kalahari.
Kruiper, 76, was laid to rest at the beginning of this month in an official state ceremony by the South African government. On the day of his burial, flags flew at half-mast across the country to honor the Khomani San leader.
Tributes poured in from around the world, as Kruiper’s legacy as the foremost campaigner for the dignity of the Khomani San, was acknowledged and celebrated.
Thousands attended the funeral including state and indigenous leaders who came together to bid farewell.
The presence of both state officialdom and indigenous leaders signaled the importance of Kruiper and the respect that he commanded, but the presence of the two worlds at his burial also represented the tension between the two; a reality Kruiper negotiated his entire life.
The spokesperson of the Khoi and Boesman National Assembly Zenzile Khoisan explains how this tension manifested itself at Kruiper’s funeral.
“There was no real layout of the biography of what this man was about. He made an immense impact on the world. There was no indigenous cultural ceremony. The indigenous activists at the funeral had to do that and interject into the official (state) program. The second thing is that when you are dealing with someone like Dawid Kruiper; there should have been a statement from the president of this country. He (Kruiper) was considered our King. We have to address what happened at the funeral. In life this government refused to dignify him, only in death.”
Indigenous activists and commentators alike have used the passing of Oom Dawid Kruiper to highlight the largely invisible space that indigenous people still occupy in Southern Africa.
Filmmaker Richard Wicksteed, who is making a film about Kruiper called “A Bushman Odyssey,” said that following Kruiper’s death, the San community is at a loss.
“They are anxious and bereft at the loss of someone, despite his flaws, who was universally the leader of the San. There is sadness and uncertainty.”
Wicksteed said that there is a “deep unhappiness” in the indigenous community following Kruiper’s state burial since “in life he was persecuted and in death he was feted.”
Journalist Patricia Glyn, who is writing a book about Kruiper and spent some considerable time with him, added that Kruiper’s state funeral “was the most shameless occasion of our government’s shamelessnes; when this government has done nothing for this man. The Kruiper family were completely sidelined at the funeral.”
Last year, while recording Kruiper’s life story for the as yet untitled book, Glyn said that Kruiper indicated his time on earth was near.
“He was tired. He couldn’t hang on. I’m very sad that he won’t see my book,” said Glyn.
Kruiper had in his lifetime generated some news headlines doing his life’s work of communicating the plight of the Khomani San to government and to those who would listen.
Most notably, he is known for an address he made in 1994 to the UN regarding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that paved the way for the only successful aboriginal land claim in southern Africa, when he brokered a land deal for his people. Six farms, totaling almost 38,000 hectares (93,900 acres), were returned to the Khomani San in 1999.
However, it did little to actually improve the lives of the community, including that of Kruiper himself.
Indigenous People’s Rights Programme Manager at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Delme Cupido had this to say about the successful land claim Kruiper spearheaded:
“Their success has not resolved their unrelenting poverty and marginalization. A once flourishing community is now, as a direct result of the genocide and continuing racism and neglect they face, reduced to a broken, impoverished and extremely marginalized population of less than 2,000 people. Alcoholism, endemic hunger and extreme poverty continue to plague the San in southern Africa.”
It was reported that even during the funeral of Oom Dawid Kruiper there were some drunken indigenous youth in brief attendance.
Kruiper’s passing has left the indigenous community of the Khomani grief stricken.
A relative of Kruiper’s, Anna Festus said after Kruiper’s funeral: “We are still trying to get back on our feet.”
Kruiper was described by those who knew him as a determined and enigmatic leader who never gave up the fight for the rights of the Khomani San.
Cupido, like many who encountered Kruiper described the Khomani San leader thus: “Oupa Dawid, as a prominent and involved member of this community, did not escape the chaos, poverty, dysfunction and division which, sadly, still characterizes their abject circumstances but, ultimately, his example of resistance, dignity and steadfastness will be his legacy to his descendants, to the San, or Bushmen as he would have preferred, and to all Indigenous Peoples the world over. This ancient son, this bearer of a memory, wisdom and culture older than most of us can conceive, this embodiment of the nobility, resilience, wisdom and tragedy of the entire human race, this Great Spirit, has passed.”
Kruiper lived through tumultuous changes that followed the settler occupation of the San’s traditional desert territories and the expansion of farming and the rise of the racist Apartheid regime after the Second World War.
According to an obituary compiled by the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, Kruiper worked as a laborer for the South African National Parks Board that included dancing for tourists during the 1960s. By the 1970s the relationship between the Khomani people and the Park become more difficult and racial policies in South Africa reached the peak of intolerance and segregation. Eventually the family was forced out of the Park and sought employment as sheepherders on neighboring farms. Dawid then spent time in Namibia that was occupied by South Africa, seeking employment.
Dawid’s father, Regopstaan Kruiper secured work on a guest farm outside of Ceres in the Western Cape Province where members of the clan settled for several years performing as ‘traditional San’ for visiting tourists. The arrangement allowed them to maintain their language, Khoekhoegowab and some of their traditional knowledge of tracking, plants and medicine.
Kruiper was also a film star and was well known for his acting role as a tracker in the 1989 movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy II.?Kruiper was keenly involved in the development and restoring of the San languages of which very few are still spoken in southern Africa.
While the well-known Kruiper’s passing once again highlighted the plight of the Khomani San in attaining human rights and dignity, the concern now, is how the torch of Kruiper’s life work will be carried through to future generations.