Now you too can be the proud owner of a rare piece of San spirituality
- this offer will remain valid for a limited time only
Who are the people we call “San” or “Bushmen”? For decades we have used the rock art of their ancestors to decorate brochures, tourist trinkets and the walls of exclusive game lodges. Along with Ndebele borders and stereotyped African masks, the painted figures of hunter-gatherers chasing eland have become standardised African kitsch. Coffee table book photographs and documentary film footage often represent the hunter-gatherers of southern Africa as isolated, autonomous, and affluent in the riches of nature, but their communities have been oppressed, exploited and even hunted for hundreds of years. Tourists can buy factory produced versions of their decorated ostrich egg shells, traditionally used to carry water, while they themselves fight for basic services like water to be made available in the barren places they have been forcibly removed to. Their laughing wrinkled faces appear on television, selling consumer goods they themselves cannot afford. New Age eclecticism appropriates the icons of their spirituality with a consumer zeal that mirrors colonial plunder. Their artefacts, once the prestigious collection of museum monuments to Imperialism, can now be bought as trendy up-market interior decorating curiosities. Popular New Age psychology books offer overly-simplistic models of their lives as routes to personal transformation – bringing their profound perspectives on life into your home and office so you can heal yourself and deal with the stress of being faced with so many confusing consumer choices. We even sample their exotic rhythms and chants, and then mix them into ambient dance tracks calling it World Music – promoting globalisation and the blurring of boundaries where all voices are valid. But how do we hear their voices? How do we separate them out from the heady drone of that post-modern-all-is-valid ambient noise?
Contemporary southern African hunter-gatherer communities rarely benefit from the marketing of their images, artefacts, metaphors and sounds. For the most part, they have been left out of the democratic processes that are empowering other previously disadvantaged groups. The threat of their “extinction” has ironically added market value to their exotic “culture.” Contrary to TV ads, coffee table books and do-it-yourself New Age shamanism, the people we call “San” and “Bushmen” do not live in some idyllic past. They are contemporary people battling with extreme forms of social deterioration and economic devastation. We frame them as pristine hunter-gatherers, representatives of some previous human utopia, living close to nature, rejecting the concept of ownership, and needing nothing more than the land. In so doing we effectively remove them, and their issues, from the economics and the politics of the present. The names we use to refer to them are not even names they themselves have chosen, but are the derogatory terms Bantu herders and white colonialists used to describe the people they cruelly marginalized. To this day their communities fight to be treated with respect and dignity, and to participate in the economic and political processes that will determine their future.
Their place in southern Africa’s past is acknowledged in the motto on the South African coat of arms. It is written in language of the /Xam people and declares: !ke e: /xarra //ke, or “unity in diversity.” But, when will the speakers of this language and the other so-called Khoisan languages find their place in the unity of the present?
We need to challenge the images and myths we so readily consume and move beyond our own sentimentality. As we move to the stolen rhythms of our decadent urban trance dance culture, let us reflect on what we are really doing. In the process of trying to revive the humanity of our spiritually bankrupt consumer society, let us allow the trance to extend our awareness beyond the dance floor, beyond our designer drugs and fashion statements, beyond a weekend of escapism, beyond our privileged consumer choices … and let us become truly vulnerable to those voices and rhythms that cry out for the healing of our world.
14 August 2002
I was asked to create an article for a flyer that is advertising a New Age exhibition/trance party whose purpose is to promote an awareness of the plight of the San Bushmen - a kind of but-we-share-trance-in-common! party.
I thought you may find it interesting.