Upington, South Africa
One of Southern Africa's best known indigenous leaders, Dawid !Gam!gaub Kruiper has died from complications related to a stroke at the age of 76. Kruiper was the ‡Khomani leader best known for having negotiated a successful land claim in 1999 to return over 50 000 ha of land to his community, seized during colonial conquest of the southern Kalahari Desert, and restored under President Mandela.
Dawid was born in what became the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Gordonia District, now Siyanda District in 1936. He lived through tumultuous changes which 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.
Dawid worked as a labourer for the National Parks Board which 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 sheep herders on neighbouring farms. Dawid spent time in Namibia which was occupied illegally 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. With support from Kate Andrews and lawyer Roger Chennells they were able to initiate a land claim in 1995.
With Chennell's assistance on the legal aspects, the formation of a regional San advocacy body, the Working Group of Indigenous Peoples of Southern Africa (WIMSA) and the support NGO, the South African San Institute (SASI), the Kruipers and other ‡Khomani families began an earnest move to reclaim their lost lands.
Kruiper engaged linguist Nigel Crawhall to assist him in providing evidence that the ‡Khomani were indeed the indigenous peoples of Gordonia District, including the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. This evidence became available with the discovery of Ouma Elsie Vaalbooi, a speaker of the N|uu language, as well as a key interview with Dawid's aunt, |Galides Kruiper Org weeks before her death. The testimonies of Vaalbooi and Kruiper Org, in combination with archival material was ample evidence of original occupation and racially motivated dispossession, opening the way for a robust legal claim to restitution.
On 21 March 1999 the ‡Khomani were rewarded with a high-profile land restitution agreement signed by the then Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki. The ‡Khomani San were awarded 25 000 hectares of land inside the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, and a further 40 000 land allocation around Witdraai Police station near Askham.
The land claim deal was bitter sweet, with problems of poverty, inadequate support from government, mismanagement and deep social problems plaguing the community. This was compounded with the arrival of the HIV / AIDS pandemic and the poor health services in the Kalahari.
Dawid Kruiper and his family managed to make ends meet through work in the film industry and advertising, small scale craft production, and a programme run by his cousin Karel Kleinman to train young men and women in traditional tracking, a valuable skill in both tourism and conservation.
Dawid's support was sought by political parties in the Province but he was not interested in that form of power, living primarily in a grass house and wearing his trademark leather loin cloth and dreadlocks, usually smoking a loose tobacco cigarette made from rolled up newspaper. His family saw themselves as 'traditional Bushmen' and rejected pressures from outside the community to conform to other peoples' norms. Dawid did not belong to an organised church like many in the Kalahari, and maintained traditional practices of healing dances and bush medicine.
In 2011, Dawid predicted that his life was coming to a close. He engaged journalist Patricia Glynn and film maker Richard Wicksteed to work with him to document his testimony of a lifetime of struggle for his dignity and his rights, against a backdrop of racism, violence and dehumanisation.
A charismatic and controversial character in life, it is likely his death will also bring together a greatly divergent group of interests, from family and friends, to those who want to be associated with his stature, legacy and his struggle for indigenous peoples to live according to their own values and culture.
Kruiper died in Upington, Northern Cape Province due to complications associated with a stroke. He will be buried in his traditional territory in the red dunes of the Kalahari Desert.