Our Trekboer ancestors played a significant part in the ruin of ‘country’ – that of the San and Khoisan people[1], like the part colonists in the Australian colonies played in the ruin of the ‘country’ of the Aboriginal people.

Our Transvaal, Orange Free State, Griqualand West and Namaqualand families were all involved in ‘land’ clearing and the eradication of human ‘vermin’.

Our Cultural DNA contains this uncomfortable strand – our ruin of their ‘country’.

Step by step, ‘quantum by quantum’ all societies are finding themselves in better states. Previous quantum states can never be erased. Apologising for them and telling the stories about them can only be a symbolic gesture, sending the message that we’re all in the new ‘quantum’.

I will tell the story of how our ancestors caused the ‘ruin’ of the Khoisan. Is it not similar to the ‘ruin’ caused by the settlers in Australia to the Aboriginal people? We are facing a referendum on giving the Aboriginal people a ‘Voice’ to parliament.

Perhaps we all require a ‘Voice’!

The Breaking of ‘Country’

The Trekboers were prolific hunters, often hunting for amusement, ever depleting the San’s food supply. They pursued the Eland and Ostriches to the point of extinction. The Eland were tremendously important animals to the San.  What incensed the San most was that the Trekboers made biltong (a jerky (brined, salted, or smoked) out of the Eland, which became very popular everywhere. The Eland numbers declined rapidly, causing the loss of their food supplies and destroying one of the significant elements in their spiritual lives.

The Eland had great spiritual significance. A San belief was that if a ‘Shaman’ (healer or medicine man) painted a creature, such as an Eland, on a cave wall, it would be an opening into the spiritual world. Kaggen, the Praying Mantis, was a supreme genderless god and a trickster. The San in the Kalahari believe Kaggen can appear as a ‘trickster’ in other animal forms. Teachers taught us that the San were so ‘primitive’ that they worshipped a Praying Mantis, a ‘Mantodea’.  

The Jhirrinbala Tribe of Northern Australia also worships the Praying Mantis. In an Aboriginal Dreamtime story, a Praying Mantis brings news to people about people. The Mantis observes and influences the tribespeople’s lives and lifestyles throughout their lives. The Mantis watches over them and passes news about them to other members of the tribe. It also warns them when they are in danger.

Wurundjeri people in Australia also have a profound mystical connection to the land and believe that everything with a distinct shape has its own spirit, known as Murrup Biik (Spirit Country). A tree or rock has its spirit; features along a river; a billabong, bushland or grass clearing has its own Tikilara (spirit of place). This belief is not far from the San faith in Kaggen!

The Wurundjeri people travelled by foot from site to site ‘singing country’ following the marker tree routes. Their joyful voices tell the Tikilara spirits of their peaceful and respectful arrival at a place. The Wurundjeri people believe it is a human responsibility to ‘care for ‘country’ and respect its Tikilara.

The San believed there were many ways to be part of the spirit world. The trance dance, a circular dance with women clapping and singing and men dancing rhythmically, was such a means. The dance led to a state of altered consciousness through rhythmic dancing and hyperventilation. The belief was that the dance could heal the community and bring people together.

These dances go back thousands of years – recorded in rock art in the same areas where my ancestors, the Khoikhoi and the Bantu, hunted the Eland and those San to extinction.

Aboriginal art sites in Australia often form an interconnected grid of places, all part of an overall story – a story of ‘country’. A local rock art site might tell a particular creation story connected to another rock art site that might be a few hundred metres away. Some sites are a long distance apart but connected through the Dreaming stories they tell.

The Woodside Petroleum company in Australia caused outrage among the Aboriginal community by moving 170 ancient rock engravings to build an LNG plant on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia. This displacement of engravements meant the destruction of important markers along a spiritual route. It also destroyed the meaning of the markers. With the ‘marker’ map gone, ‘country’ was gone!

The San people, known earlier as ‘Bushmen’, wandered over a good part of Southern Africa before the arrival of our Huguenot, Slave, Dutch and German ancestors.

Trekboer Beliefs

San were believed to be living in a feral state not far apart from animals. They were nomads, naked, apparently irreligious and lived in societies that the Trekboers could not identify with. They had no concept of land ownership, law, government and God. They did not even have an ‘intelligible’ language – so they were still animals. They were called ‘schepselen’ creatures of creation – but creatures created to exterminated – vermin. Johannes Kicherer, who gave them some creation ‘credit’, said that they were so barbaric and repugnant that they were ‘on a level with brute creation’.

Figure 49: San

Conflict and Hunting Parties

Then came the Trekboers moving into a region that for thousands of years had been occupied by hunter-gatherers. By 1725, Trekboers from the south-western Cape had made their way to the Hantam (Figure 41, Page 82), and in 1746 the VOC handed out the first farms in Roggeveld(Figure 41, Page 82) , a region suited to the rearing of sheep.

Because of the scarcity of water and good grazing lands, the Trekboers moved far and wide into the pastoral territories of the San and Khoikhoi. There was bound to be a terrible conflict!

This is what the leader of the Renish missionary society, Dr. Baron Theodore von Wurmb said about the ‘Ubiqua’ – a San tribe, in the Cedarberg in 1830: ‘The Bojesmannen (San) have attacked a farm in our neighbourhood. Everything on the farm was murdered, some of the stock driven off, and the rest shot with their poisoned arrows.

At the moment the Bushmen are carrying out the most terrible atrocities in the surroundings, as, because of the great drought in their country, they have nothing to eat. Alas, the local Europeans (farmers) are themselves the cause of these atrocities, because they essentially treat these Bushmen as wild animals, and every local farmer boasts about who has shot dead many of these people.

The farmers organise common hunting parties against the Bushmen; and if Bushmen come to a farm and request food, they are given nothing, but rather all their goods are taken away and they are driven off with sticks or forced to perform the farmer’s work. You should not be apprehensive that the Bushmen should do anything against us – towards us they behave with great friendliness, and when they come to us, we give then the food that we have; they show great love towards us and several of them desire to hear something about God….

Many of them have been captured by the farmers and brought to Clanwilliam gaol, where I visit them and preach the Christ whenever I come to Clanwilliam. Bushmen (or men who stay behind the bush), this gibe of the name is conferred on them because of their way of life.

They call themselves ‘Naevii Ukaas’ …. that they are so savage is manifestly on the conscience of the Europeans who live here and who treat them as dogs and shoot them dead whenever they can get hold of a single one. I have been an eyewitness at scenes which have totally outraged me; and since then, I have daily implored God that these poor creatures be admitted to his mercy. The Bushmen are very cruel towards the old and sick from their own tribe; they abandon their own parents to starve when they can no longer follow under their own strength.

I therefore interviewed a young Bushman who had been guilty of this course of action towards his father and asked him if he remembered the kindnesses which his father had shown him from his childhood. He said, that was his duty, as it is mine towards my own children, and they will treat me no better when I become old. I have no sign whatever of ‘belief’ among, this nation; in this they are like unto the animals. Their only concern is eating, and, as long as they have something, they do this so immoderately, that when they are crammed full, they cannot move for three or four days.

I have myself seen that a Bushman with his wife and a seven-year-old boy completely consume a fat African sheep in a single night, which I would not have countenanced if I had been told it. Against this, they can fast for a remarkable length of time. When they attack the herds of a colonist, they kill the herdsmen, eat the stock to their heart’s content and shoot the rest; then they take flight. They do not work at all, but they do manufacture their bows and arrows, and also large clay buckets in which to keep water. As bottles, to carry water on their journeys, they use empty ostrich eggs; tortoise shells are their bowls and ladles…

Whoever makes the best bows, shoots the most game, collects the most wild honey, he is the most respected among them. The poison on their arrow is strong and causes immediate death. Despite all my efforts, I have not yet been able to discover what they make this poison from. If they shoot game or stock with these arrows, then they fall upon it straight away and cut out the poisoned part, with the arrowhead, with small, pointed pieces of iron or sharp stones’.

As our ancestors moved farther into the hinterland, the conflict became a way of life – uncompromising and brutal. The Bushmen resisted every step of the way. In the 1770s the front stretched along the entire length of the escarpment, from the Roggeveld Mountains to the Sneeuberge (Figure 53).

Figure 53: VOC Map


The main driver for violence towards the San, was most likely competition for scarce resources, but dehumanisation made it much easier to hunt them as animals – to enslave and kill them.

By the eighteenth century, commando-style raids involved as many as 250 Trekboers at a time – and any others who liked to join the ‘sport’! It had become a ‘sport’; akin to fox hunts by English and European gentlemen! All headed out to kill the San and as many Eland and other animals as possible. And they kept the score – borne out in historical records of these hunts. VOC commanders left tallies of the San killed. Together with the Bantu and disease attacks, these hunts were the start of a genocide. These attacks were kept secret and swept aside as rumours. We know that servants overheard conversations about these hunts. Game hunting parties would divide in the veld, with some members going to presumably hunt animals.

These were war crimes! Many Trekboers killed the San with impunity and did so indiscriminately.

Attacks usually came at dawn, as the raiding parties found the campfires of the San. The parties killed the men and took the women and children as semi-slaves. The women would become servants and do menial tasks around the homesteads. Sometimes they were ‘given’ to the Khoikhoi men as wives. The San children were indentured to the Trekboer families in what amounted to slavery, except they could not sell them.

These raids and attacks are chillingly like attacks in Australian colonies – raids on Aboriginal communities throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century – it was the done thing in the colonies!

This is what was said about the San at the time: Anders Sparrman in 1775 said ‘Does a colonist at any time get sight of a Bushman, he takes fire immediately, and spirits up his horse and dogs, in order to hunt him with more ardour and fury than he would a wolf or any other wild beast.’

In 1774, the VOC went headlong into the genocide of the San, to be exterminated as vermin – to be eradicated so that the Trekboers could get on with their lives. Efforts intensified – hundreds were killed in single attacks. In September 1792, 250 Bushmen were killed near the Sak River (Figure 53).

By 1800, thousands of Bushmen had died. Later, raids by our Trekboer ancestors, who joined commandos, wiped the San out in Bushmanland, Griqualand West, Gordonia and other areas north of the Orange River.

Louis de Grandpre, a French army officer who visited the Cape in 1786 –87, said that the Trekboers were crueller than the conquistadors (Figure 48) because ‘they have hunted the Boschis as one would hunt hares; their dogs are trained for it’.

Figure 48: Keeping Dogs Taste for Human Flesh Alive

The Spanish conquistadors kept their dogs’ appetites for human flesh alive. They had Indians brought to them in chains, then they would unleash the dogs. The Indians would come meekly down the roads and be then killed. They had butcher shops where the corpses of Indians were hung up, and on display and someone will come in and say, more or less: ‘Give me a quarter of that rascal hanging there, to feed my dogs until I can kill another one for them’.

The genocide continued through the 1830s into the 1850s – there is little written about that. Then the Trekboers expanded into Bushmanland and beyond, such as the Beukes family, who trekked through Bushmanland towards Bowesdorp. Brutal clashes took place between Trekboers and the San near Kenhardt, with the San hunted down and killed by Trekboer commandos.

But the Trekboers and the Griquas were committing genocide in the complete sense of the word, according to the 1948, United Nations Genocide Convention – which defined genocide as any of five ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. These five acts were: killing members of the group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children out of the group. Victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership of a group, not randomly’.

Guerrilla Warfare

But the San people were stubborn and ferocious. Like the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, they resorted to guerrilla warfare. They attacked the Trekboers and their settlements, slaughtered animals, set houses on fire, and often killed the settlers.

Modern Times

We did not know that the last permit to stalk, prey and hunt the Bushmen (San) was issued from Pretoria in 1936. The permit was to hunt the San like vermin and applied to all genders ‘female and male Bushman’. The issuing of permits to hunt the Bushman (San) like vermin was not an accident of history. Not that long ago Australian Aboriginal people were classified under ‘fauna and flora’. What did the Trekboers and, indeed, the VOC Council of Policy think about the San people?


Can we atone for the loss of their ‘country’ – that which is forever gone?

We are sorrowful for that which is forever gone, just as we are sorrowful for the loss of flora and fauna, and indeed, the landscape itself. The remaining Indigenous peoples of South Africa, Australia and everywhere, should be allowed to tell their truthful stories and we ours. Together we should be allowed to collectively seek to restore what we can and adopt ecologically sound management practices that we can learn from Indigenous peoples.

[1] Bushmen, Hottentots, and other Indigenous groups