Community | Mar 2021


Pippa Skotnes

In the days of the early Cape colony, the southern Kalahari of the Northern Cape was thought of as a wild and dangerous place, remote and forbidding; mapped as ‘sandy sterile country’, uninhabited but for ‘wandering Bushmen’.[i] Yet the archaeology and the stories that have reached us from the past, carried on through the oral traditions of hunter-gatherers from the 19th century, suggest a far richer cultural history and a long human occupation. In fact, the southern Kalahari has been both home and refuge for many groups of people over an extended period of time: hunter-gatherers from at least the Middle Stone Age; Later Stone Age ancestors of N|uu speakers (or ≠Khomani, the term used to describe this San group, who still retain strong links to the land) as well as seasonal visitors, and pastoralists from about 500AD. Korana and Nama are recorded in the area since the 18th century, as are isiXhosa speakers. But these were often not discrete groups. Many had formed alliances having fled persecution of one kind or another. The Tlhaping, for example, were derived from a mixed Xhosa-Khoi chiefdom, added to by Dutch and other settlers who had drifted into the area.[ii] The Korana wars and the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s, and the 1879-80 war on the Orange River, brought Kora, Griqua, Xhosa, |xam and others into the area as refugees. In 1880, Abraham September, the son of a slave, received permission to cross the Orange River and settle in what was then called Koranaland along with 300 families.[iii] He transformed the land with an innovative irrigation system, and was posthumously awarded The Order of the Baobab for his contribution to Gordonia.[iv]

Pippa Skotnes Maps

Image 1. Map of southern Africa (1840), describing the area as sandy and sterile (Dower Map, J Denver, Pentonville London); Image 2. and another from 1879 describing the area as ‘deep sand covered with dense bush nearly waterless, inhabited by wandering Bushmen or poor Bechuanas’. Image 3. Map of the Gordonia Kuruman Game Reserve, originally over 9000 square miles, the yellow area being its reduced size before being disestablished.

At the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century the southern Kalahari was a place of conflict and dread, of hope and ambition, and a space of imagining. Small farming communities survived in proximity to water and some attracted local San as labourers. Other San retained a foothold on their traditional lands, but conflict between them, farmers and authorities (who were trying to preserve Royal Game, a category of officially protected species) was frequent and brutal. In 1910 the vast Gordonia Kuruman Game Reserve was proclaimed, flanked by the Molopo River in the north and west and the Korannaberg (now a part of Tswalu) in the east. A concerted effort was made to eliminate ‘vermin’ – those who predated on game and could ‘infest’ neighbouring territory. The reward for killing a leopard or wild dog, for instance, was 20 shillings each, jackal 10s, caracal 15s, baboons 2s and squirrels 3s.[v] But this had no effect on the encounters with wild animals experienced by the farmers who were observed to subsist on goat meat when their “half-breed greyhound lurchers”[vi] failed to bring down prey. They argued that the availability of water and luxuriant waist-high grass of the reserve was better suited for farming than game conservation. A report of 1913 concluded that the area was barely a reserve swarming as it was with “leopards, wild dogs, wild cats, hyenas, jackals and other ferae that breed and thrive unchecked, and by poachers from the remote farms along the southern and western border.”[vii]

History of Animal Collegium

Image 1. Chief of the Kalahari Camel Police Head Constable Gagiano in 1938. Camels were used by the Cape Police as early as 1897 and as far north as Botswana by 1900, and they served His Majesty’s Mail. Headquarters were in Upington and before the First World War police were responsible for the whole of Gordonia, a portion of Kenhardt and Namaqualand. The Sphere – Saturday 23 April 1938. Image 2. The Desert Camel Post. William Macdonald encountered the Camel Mail in his “Conquest of the Desert” in the early 1900s and reported that the man in charge of His Majesty’s Mail had had his arm crushed by a bite of a savage camel. “Nevertheless he loves these weird beasts”, he noted. MacDonald, William. 1913. The Conquest of the Desert. London: T W Laurie. https://archive.org/details/conquestofdesert00macduoft/page/n79/mode/2up?q=camel

Into this perilous space entered an array of prospectors and adventurers, and those seeking knowledge of the ‘vanishing race of Bushmen’. In 1911 Dorothea Bleek, whose father and aunt had both been scholars of San languages, took an ox-wagon on a six-week trip through Gordonia following the course of the Molopo River, digging up graves and collecting narratives and word lists from the San she encountered. There are also stories of people lost in the desert, taking shelter in aardvark holes (and ultimately perishing there), of men on their deathbeds describing diamond mines, the walls of which were encrusted with the sparkling gems; of daring escapes by poachers in ‘balloon-tyred’ vehicles with camel-mounted police in pursuance. In a journey to trace a pan in which diamonds and bright green stones were reportedly found, Frederick Cornell wrote of encountering the tracks of “ferocious wild hunting dogs”, genets, caracal and the “treacherous sand-leopard more feared than the lion”, as well as those of the “hulking, cowardly” spotted hyenas following the leopards whose prey they were apparently meaning to scavenge. After heavy rains, Cornell reported scorpions seen trekking in all directions and, following a sandstorm, one of his men was heard shrieking as a snake took refuge in his trouser pants. After weeks of his wagons sinking “perilously into the sand, floundering in aardvark holes or the large burrows of meercats, jackals and porcupines”, dire thirst (and having to suck stones to promote salivation), attempts to draw water from “stink wells” (poisoned by rotting corpses), the diamonds and emeralds were never found.[viii]

Image 1. A yellow hornbill poses for a picture at the Tswalu research centre, once a police station, equipped with a windmill and water tank seen in the background. Image 2. The graves of Oscar Moing, died 17th October 1914, and William Frederick Botha, died 23rd October 1918, both of the 5th Regiment of the South African Mounted Rifles, are located on Tswalu.

Complaints by farmers and officials continued, and by 1931 the Gordonia Kuruman Game Reserve was disestablished and the Kalahari Gemsbok Park (part of what is now the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) was proclaimed on the far northwest border.

Today, a small piece of the original reserve and some of the traces of the people who lived in and around it, and who passed through the area, may be found at Tswalu. The reserve is now a sanctuary for those animals once considered vermin, although some are still not safe from human predation. The research centre is built on the site of the old police station and war graves[ix] testify to participation of local men in the conflict in German South West Africa during the First World War. Stone walling and tanning wells indicate early farming activities, and rock engravings and ubiquitous stone tools are evidence of the long occupation of the Kalahari by the San.

Image 1. Stone walls retained at Tswalu show evidence of an early home and, nearby alongside a stream, tanning wells suggest sustained occupation. Image 2. Cupules engraved into the rock surface around a waterhole and engraved figures, animals and geometric shapes are found in several sites at Tswalu and attest to creative activity, most likely by San people and their ancestors who lived in or moved through the area.


About the author: Pippa Skotnes is Michaelis Professor of Fine Art and Director of the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town where she studied for her Master of Fine Art and Doctor of Literature degrees. She is working on a project called the Animal Collegium which explores archives that reflect changing relationships between animals and people in the Northern Cape and southern Kalahari.



[i] Map of Southern Africa from 1840 describing the area as sandy and sterile. Dower Map, J Denver, Pentonville London

[ii] Legassick, The Journal of African History, Vol. 37, No. 3 (1996), pp. 371-418

[iii] Legassick, Martin. 2016. Hidden Histories of Gordonia: Land dispossession and resistance in the Northern Cape, 1800–1990. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

[iv] http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/abraham-september-posthumous

[v] Division Council of the Cape: Extermination of Vermin notice. Payment of rewards CA4CT 4/1/59 153/28

[vi] Cornell (1920:238)

[vii] Report on an Expedition into that portion of the Kalahari Desert known as the Game Reserve, in Search of certain Diamond Pipes, to Herbert Warington-Smyth, geologist and Secretary of Mines, by F Cornell. CA PAS 255

[viii] Cornell, Frederick C. The glamour of prospecting; wanderings of a South African prospector in search of copper, gold, emeralds, and diamonds, London, T.F. Unwin Ltd (pages 244 to 26).

[ix] William Frederick Botha, died 1918-10-23 and Oscar Moing, died 18-10-17 South African Mounted Rifles 5th Regiment