Platfontein, a place the !Xun and Khwe call home
The city of Kimberley, known around the world as the City of Diamonds, is not as sleepy as it was since the end of mining operations in what is now known as the Big Hole. It now hosts the provincial legislature and a brand new university named after Sol Plaatje, the first African to translate William Shakespeare’s plays into an African language and the first black South African to write an English novel. If you visit the city and you happen to be taken around by a tour guide, you will be taken to the historic townships of Greenpoint, Galeshewe, and Roodepan and to the homes of the city’s late well-known residents John Orr, Barney Barnato, Cecil John Rhodes and Ernest Oppenheimer. Residents hardly, if ever, mention the village of Platfontein.
I had read about the people of Platfontein and I needed to find out more about them, firstly as a curious writer and academic and secondly as someone who wanted to brag about knowing a place very few knew about. One afternoon I set out to visit the village. The board that indicates you turn left into Platfontein, on the road from Kimberley to Kuruman in the Northern Cape, is not the usual white-on-green board that you would expect in many parts of the country. It is a white board with faded letters, probably put there by a non-profit organisation that worked among the Platfontein Khoe and San communities and left the village when the donations dried up. Platfontein is itself dry; one has a sense that the Kalahari Desert is not too far from here There are more shrubs than trees. One can imagine how the red dust clouds the village in the windy month of August. But people here are resilient; they have food gardens, even though they are few and far between. There are a few goats and sheep too.
If you are expecting to see young and old men with bows and arrows, and women and girls in thatched huts, you will be disappointed. Platfontein is a village made up of RDP houses, these Reconstruction and Development Programme houses built by the government for the previously disadvantaged people in South Africa with no financial means to buy or build their own. Each house in the village has electricity. Here and there you will see an old army tent. Houses are fenced in and some have trees for shade. This is Platfontein, not a Khoe and San settlement as presented in old picture and story books or in the tourism promotional videos and billboards. On a couple of houses there are satellite television dishes attached to exterior walls. A car or two pass through the main road, which is now tarred from the Kimberley-Kuruman road and paved once you enter the village.
I first started coming here, because I was fascinated by what I had read about how the people of Platfontein found their way to South Africa and how they were made part of the apartheid-era South African Defence Force that was at war against liberation movements in Southern Africa. The Khoe and the San, being nomadic and living in dry areas, are known for their excellent tracking skills and that is apparently what the soldiers wanted help with, to track freedom fighters. I wanted to know how they were being integrated in the South African society in the post-apartheid era, and what it felt like to live in an area that was so different from their natural habitat. I wanted to know how the people who were actually hunter-gatherers were surviving in a world where men carried hand-made equipment to sift through mine dumps in search of elusive diamonds.
I tried to imagine myself in their shoes, with little success of course. But if it were me, being so far from the world I knew, trusting the government led by the liberation movement I was up against in the bush, would I be comfortable? Would I feel that I am part of the new South Africa, the Rainbow Nation the world was told about? Why is it that this village, sprawling as it is, is such an enigma in Kimberley? Was it the language barrier that distanced them from everybody else?
For an outsider who can only hear prolific clicks as the residents speak, the people of Platfontein are one community. But when you begin to talk to the locals, you realise that there are two communities in the village, the !Xun and Khwe. The main languages spoken in the village are !Xun and Khwedam, with some basic Afrikaans picked up while the men served in the old South African Defence Force in Angola and Namibia. The younger generation even speak a bit of Setswana, the main language in this part of the country.
The village is divided into two, with a sizeable no man’s land between the two sections. “The no-man’s land?” I ask. I never thotight of a no-man’s land except at the borders between countries. A large part of this open land does not look like it is used; it is overgrown with grass, except the public facilities that are occupying a small part of it.
My guide, who is generous with his time and stories, tells me this is because there are two communities in the village, each with its own culture and language even though they share recent history “We initially did not mix, but young ones fall in love across the two communities. Love is blind, isn’t it? I think it’s they who are integrating this community,” he says. Many among the older members of the community don’t even understand each other’s language.
But it is on this no-man’s land where the post-apartheid government has put public facilities; the !XununKhwesa Combined School, the clinic, social security agency, a community radio station, an entrepreneurship centre and a creche. The school and the clinic look like usual township facilities, with light brown facebrick structures, paved yards and few plants. There are workers outside, watering the gardens and blowing the dust off the pavements and the stoeps.
Nurses, teachers, social workers and other government officials who are working in Platfontein are mainly from the neighbouring Kimberley and Barkly West, but have some grasp of the two local languages. There are also some tuck shops and taverns. A blue building is teeming with people, mainly middle-aged and elderly men. My guide says it is a tavern. “Everybody is happy at the tavern,” he says with a chuckle.
On a weekday when many people are supposed to be at work and the youths at school, streets are teeming with all sorts. Clearly unemployment is high in this area. The tavern is a hive of activity. Women with babies on their backs are having conversations across the fences, some are queuing outside the clinic and the offices of the South African Social Security Agency. My guide, who prefers not to be named or have his photograph taken, tells me that most people in this village live on social grants. “Some old men are on pension after serving in the army,” he says in English that is punctuated by a few Afrikaans words.
I am visiting Platfontein for the umpteenth time in this cold month of June 2021. Even with their RDP houses having electricity, there are fires in every third or fourth house and so a blanket of smoke hovers over the tiny village. As I had entered the village I saw a man, probably in his early sixties, pulling firewood on a trolley and creating a little cloud of dust behind him. Looking emaciated and walking quite slowly, with grey hair that looked like it has not been combed in a long time, I wondered where he got the strength to pull his load. Having electricity in every home does not mean every resident is able to afford to top up on electricity coupons all the time, unfortunately even in the biting winter.
I ask my guide about windows that are broken in almost every house. Some windows are covered with cardboard and plastic while others are left as they are. “Mense drink en baklei. It happens everywhere,” he says. People drink and fight. But it is not only windows that are broken, most taps seem to be faulty and dripping, a waste of water.
The radio station in Platfontein, X-Kfm, is the only community radio that is owned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. It keeps the youths entertained and their parents informed, my guide tells me. “It is the glue that holds the community together. People love the radio here, they sing and dance …” In the car we arc listening to a news bulletin in one of the two Platfontein languages, !Xun and Khwedam. As I pay attention to the newsreader’s words, I realise just how much Afrikaans is strewn throughout the bulletin. Immediately after the bulletin the presenter plays My Love by Westlife followed by Kwesta’s Spirit.
Save for the music, all adverts and community notices are in !Xun and Khwedam. My guide tells me that everybody in Platfontein listens to X-Kfm. “Except for a few who want to improve the Afrikaans by listening to Radio Sonder Mense,” he says, mocking Radio Sonder Grense, an Afrikaans station.
He takes me past one towering church building in the village, the Dutch Reformed Church started by the late Reverend Mario Mahongo, a respected community leader. On a Sunday, there are other church services that take place out in the open. This particular church of facebrick, with a huge wooden cross in front of it, and surrounded by a palisade fence, looks out of place in a spot where it is surrounded by RDP houses with facebrick painted orange. It could be in the city of Kimberley or even Potchefstroom.
The people of Platfontein are not native South Africans. One could say nomads are hardly natives of anywhere as they keep moving from one place to another. But as my guide says: “This whole fucken Southern Africa has been ours until everybody came from God knows where! Excuse my language maar ek is naar! Ja, it makes my stomach turn.”
His face changes. “This bloody idea of putting up fences and telling people where they can go and where they cannot go was brought here by the white man! We hunted animals. We have been doing it for years. Now all of a sudden they are shooting us for hunting animals!”
These two groups of the Khoe and San people originally came from parts of Angola and the Caprivi Strip, a 450-kilometre stretch starting in the north-eastern corner of Namibia, bordered by Angola and Botswana, with Okavango Delta cutting across it with the Zambezi River separating it from Zambia, and the Chobe River separating it from Botswana. These peaceful hunter-gatherers were forced to join the Portuguese Special Forces where they were made to fight against liberation movements such as the MPLA, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. In 1975 the people of Angola, through MPLA, gained independence from the Portuguese, and the !Xun and Khwe, who had involuntarily joined the army, found themselves facing the possibility of living with a hostile nation against whose freedom they had fought.
They joined the apartheid-era South African Defence Force and fought against SWAPO, the South West African People’s Organisation, the liberation movement in Namibia, as members of the notorious Battalion 31.
In 1989, in anticipation of Namibian democracy in 1990 and in fear of reprisals, members of Battalion 31 left with the South African Defence Force for South Africa where they were resettled in Schmidtsdrift, a cluster of about six villages in the Northern Cape, on the N8 highway between Kimberley and Upington. The army put the men in the dull green military tents, which became their homes until Batlhaping, the rightful owners of the land who had been forcibly removed to Kuruman, about three hundred kilometres away, made a successful claim to their land and sent the !Xun and Khwe packing.
My guide tells me that for every family in Platfontein, there are relatives for at least half of each family in Namibia. “We didn’t know whether it was going to be worse for us here in South Africa or Namibia. We said, if it is bad on that side, you can come here, if it is bad here, we can come to that side.”
It has been years now, and apart from people making occasional visits between the two countries, it doesn’t look like there is a great migration coming anytime in the future. Naturally hunter-gathers moved from place to place in search of food or pursuing antelope. They never settled in one place for a long time. As for the two communities in Platfontein, they have been moving from one place to another as part of the old apartheid-era army.
My guide who does not stop talking and commenting on anything and everything in his village, tells me: “We are always on the move, on our own, or forced by circumstances. But now we are fenced in. Maybe this is the last stop.” He hopes that they have finished moving from one place to another. “We have RDP houses and our children can now go to school. There are no animals here to hunt. Water comes from the taps now, I mean when they actually work! Bit by bit we are beginning to be like normal South Africans. Even a bit of Setswana, I can speak. Why must we still be moving from one place to another?” he says.
I look at my guide. His face seems to have seen the worst; the movement of his people from Angola to Namibia to South Africa, not entirely voluntarily. Either in search of game to kill and feed their families or running away from the Germans who could shoot them on first sight without any consequences. I don’t know what to make of his voice. One minute there is pride when he talks about how they’re still standing after all that has happened. The next minute there is anger, perhaps because his people could not fight back against the Germans or the Afrikaners. And then there is a sense of relief because at last they have Platfontein.
I returned to Platfontein on a Sunday afternoon and I was greeted by two men who were erecting a shack. One who looked like he could play football and chase antelope. Another quite elderly, balancing on a stick as he was busy talking and pointing at the iron sheets and the poles they were using. There were newly built shacks on both the !Xun and the Khwe sections of the village.
Vegetables in the premises of Sasdo, the South African San Development Organisation, showed signs of life, with green spinach and cabbage growing. Sasdo says on its website that the “living standards of most of the San people in Southern Africa are very bad, which classifies them as the being poorest of the poor”.
On a Sunday afternoon, no one was around to say how the organisation was uplifting the poor !Xun and Khwe people of Platfontein, but the garden showed that at least there were plausible attempts to solve the problem of food insecurity. There were football matches in both sections of the village, each on its own soccer field. A sign that integration between the two San communities living side by side, is still a mirage. But maybe, as my hopeful guide said, Platfontein is the last stop for these once nomadic people, a place they can eventually call home.
This article was first published in Hauntings, published by Jacana. Re-publication in herri with kind permission of the editor, Niq Mhlongo, and the author.