Dreams and Dust
Deze Land de Kalahari Woestyn Mier-Rietfontein 1865 – 1902
DE TUIN was a large Baster (Bastaard) settlement in the Northern Cape, which existed between 1863 and 1868. The story is told in a little more detail in the introduction to the Rehoboth Baster State in the next chapter. Suffice to say here that in 1864, a group of Basters left De Tuin and trekked with their leader Dirk Vilander to settle in 1865 an area that now spans the borders of Namibia and South Africa and lies immediately south of the present Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – which itself spans another international border and combines the adjoining Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana.
It’s a very dry area and the Vilander Basters found a water source near Rietfontein. Here they established a self-governing state that had a land area of 12 000 square km, called Mier-Rietfountein.
There are three stories as to how Mier-Rietfontein got its name – take your pick of which sounds the most credible. One says that, in missionary accounts of the place, they made reference to ‘mere’ – lakes – that fed a group of springs. Another recounts that that ants – miere in Afrikaaans – bringing damp soil to the surface alerted the Basters to underground water here. The third involves Dirk Vilander himself, who came across an antbear hole that had water in it and noticed that there were many ants scattered on the surface of this water. At first, the Basters named the place ‘Hâs’, which, in the Griqua language, means womb – this, I suppose, for the desert’s life force, water, coming from within the earth. (Today the vlei has dried up and the fontein is just a hole of muddy water. But the underground aquifer remains not far beneath the surface here.)
Like all Baster migrations, this one imposed on already-claimed territory; in this case by groups of Nama and San (Bushman) people. A brief war with the Nama was won by the Vilander Basters. It’s interesting that today, possibly the only surviving intact San (Bushman) group in South Africa, the ‡Khomani, are still living in this area. Under the leadership of their patriarch Regopstan Kuiper, they won a land claim in 1999 and have since been afforded traditional hunting rights in part of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, which was proclaimed in 1931 – and some work there as trekkers and guides. At the handing-over ceremony in 2002, (then Deputy) President Thabo Mbeki said: “This land claim will, I am sure, stand out among all land claims. It stands out because this land claim is about the re-birth of a people. When we say: ‘Here is your land, have it,’ we say too that you must reclaim a proud history and rebuild a rich culture. This land is space to rebuild a community.”
The ‡Khomani land was named the !Ae!Hai Heritage Park. The settlement agreement also included money for building a tourism facility – the !Xaus Lodge (meaning ‘heart’), which is now managed on behalf of the ‡Khomani San and Mier communities by Transfrontier Parks Destinations. And, building on its remote location, the !Ae!Hai Heritage park has been named the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in Africa by the International Dark Sky Association.
Vilander’s descendants, known today as the Mier community, lodged a land claim too and this was settled at the same time as that of the ‡Khomani.
Back to Mier-Rietfontein in 1865. On settling there, Vilander’s people immediately drew up a constitution. They did not have an accompanying Christian missionary. They were joined by one from the Rhenish Mission Society, a Reverend Pabst, in 1885; but it was not until 1889 that their governing council passed a resolution to raise funds to build a church by selling land. Vilander’s council was different to that of the Rehoboth community, in that they later turned to be in favour of individual land-ownership, with the right to sell land to non-burghers, if they were Basters. The tiny republic’s citizenry consisted of only 45 Baster families listed in an 1885 census. Rietfontein was much smaller and the total population could not have been more than 500 in 1885.
Always aware of incursions into land they had claimed, the Basters’ rules emphasised the prohibition of selling of land to white people and guarding the new state against Nama reprisals and a possible Boer invasion. The constitution also made mention of a precious commodity of the state – salt – and how to capitalise on this. Written in Cape Dutch, the 28-page document made provision for a Volksraad to be ‘half-elected’ every three years. By way of explanation: the Volksraad was to be made up of 12 members, but only six as elected representatives. The remaining six, presumably, there by the grace of the kaptein – who was Dirk Vilander until 1887, then succeeded by his son David until 1902.
The straight-line boundary drawn in 1885 along the 20th degree of east longitude between South West Africa and British Bechuanaland, sliced neatly through Mier-Rietfontein. In her 2008 thesis Land, Water, Truth and Love – Visions of Identity and Land Access from Bain’s Bushmen to ‡Khomani San, Marcia Schenk writes: “Borders… possessed at first almost no significance. They began to assume meaning as a political instrument, through being crossed strategically for protection during local uprisings, as well as through redistribution of territory as the terrain of the Baster in the area was cut in half.”
The Rietfontein Basters came to an agreement with the ‡Khomani San. They hunted together, using the ‡Khomani’s trained dogs. They taught the San how to use guns. The San supplied the Basters with pelts, in return for pinches of tobacco and some of the meat. But, says Schenk, “The use of firearms did not serve to empower the San but to underscore their interdependence with the Baster.” The Basters made money from the deal; the San did not.
Dirk Vilander died in August 1888. “He might not have been recognised by the British colony,” Schenk writes, “but his legacy as a ‘Bushmen Chief ’ is alive in the memory of ‡Khomani elders.
This excerpt from Dreams and Dust by author Alex Stone is published with the permission of the publisher Footprint Press REF: ISBN: 978-1-998950-84-3
This excerpt from Dreams and Dust highlights a Baster Migration in 1865 and settlement an area that now spans the borders of Namibia and South Africa and lies immediately south of the present Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Author Alex Stone writes “Like all Baster migrations, this one imposed on already-claimed territory; in this case by groups of Nama and San (Bushman) people.”
In the previous article ‘Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World’ by Clive Horlock he shares with us that establishing ‘Get Real Africa’ walking safaris resulted in him ultimately connecting in a meaningful way with people whom he describes as “the closest descendants of the Earth’s ‘First People’, Africa’s Bushmen”
In Dreams and Dust author Alex Stone shares , “It’s interesting that today, possibly the only surviving intact San (Bushman) group in South Africa, the ‡Khomani, are still living in this area. Under the leadership of their patriarch Regopstan Kuiper, they won a land claim in 1999 and have since been afforded traditional hunting rights in part of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, which was proclaimed in 1931.” Ed.