Karretjiemense of the Great Karoo

The outspan - temporary resting place of the ever-moving karretjie mense.
The outspan – temporary resting place of the ever-moving karretjiemense. Photograph: Michael de Jongh.

Text by Michael de Jongh, University of South Africa

It was bitterly cold, a typical Karoo winter’s late afternoon, early evening. We were huddled around a small fire made only of what Oom Plaatjie Januarie always called krummels, small twigs and bits of mimosa branches – the Karoo is not  renowned for having a plentiful supply of firewood.

I was squatting down and warming my hands with the ‘great philosophers’ of the small community of Karretjie People at the Seekoei River outspan – Chrisjan Steenbok, Izak and Koot Arnoster, Danster Slingerse, Hendrik Sors and Jan ‘Soos hy lê’ Abrahams.

This gathering took place because, just that morning, while sitting and writing in my temporary ‘home-from-home’, an 1861 restored cottage in Colesberg, I had received via donkey cart messenger, the news that MeitjiesVerrooi had died.

There in her overnight shelter made of sheets of scrap corrugated iron, hessian and old fertilizer bags lay the small wrinkled and now lifeless body of Meitjies Verrooi – Sy het gegaan van oudgeit (she went because of agedness).

Meitjies Verrooi and Danster Louw.
Meitjies Verrooi and Danster Louw. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.

I had known Meitjies for some eighteen of her approximately 75 years (births of Karretjie People were until relatively recently never registered) and she had, as had the rest of her small Karretjie community, become part of my being.

Much like the Karoo scrublands where their /Xam (San/Bushmen) ancestors first roamed, the Karretjie People at first incidentally but incrementally draw your attention and your interest, then demand your respect, and eventually capture your heart – and never let go.

So here we sat staring into the flames of the fire and pondering the going of Meitjies and our loss – but also her life and indomitable spirit – Darem opgestaan, kyk hoe blink my oge (At least I got up this morning, see my shining eyes) – and my years of involvement with her and with them.

Over the years other such Karretjie characters had also gone; babies were born and became young adults; the first and subsequent democratic elections came; the environment and context – the agricultural economy of the Karoo had constantly been changing; there was the onset of ill-defined sociopolitical awareness and limited literacy – and a new millennium.

That evening therefore, we agreed that the story of the Karretjie People should be told, and that it deserves a comprehensive telling (see Roots and RoutesKarretjie People of the Great Karoo. The Marginalisation of a South African First People. De Jongh, M 2013. Pretoria, Unisa Press).

Daily life at the outspan, with the men out shearing.
Daily life at the outspan, with the men out shearing. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.
When, in the early 1700s, the first colonial explorers, travellers, hunters and eventually, pioneer farmers started moving into the Great Karoo, fierce competition for resources was brought about.

The regional /Xam (San/Bushmen) perceived those inkommers (newcomers) to be encroaching on their land and to be hunting their game. The /Xam retaliated and the farmers’ domesticated animals and other possessions increasingly fell prey to their raids.

By the 1770s the conflict had reached crisis proportions to the extent that Sampson (1992) describes this phase of early Karoo history as ‘the Bushman War’.

A commando system was instituted and the /Xam literally became the hunted. They were either shot or fled into the hills and the captured women and children – the spoils of war – were apportioned to the participating farmers.

The farm /Xam became so-called ‘tame Bushmen’ and the females worked in and around the homestead. The young boys learned the tasks and skills of a sheep farm, and as soon as they were strong enough, particularly shearing.

These ‘tame Bushmen’ however, retained or regained their mobility, first on foot, later with the help of pack animals and eventually with donkey carts.

Peppie and Plaatjie Januarie.
Peppie and Plaatjie Januarie. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.

The pattern of male-female /Xam presence on farms, as well as the Karretjie Peoples’ /Xam and Khoekhoe heritage were confirmed in the results of a collaborative genetic/DNA project where we included the Karretjie People.

Not only was the sample of a particular Karretjie individual indicative of the earliest human genome, but the wider Khoekhoen / San (Bushmen) sample enhanced the understanding of the complexity of human evolutionary history in Africa. These two populations furthermore diverged from other populations some 100,000 years ago! (Schlebush et al. 2012. Science, Vol 338).

As the flocks of sheep became larger and wool farming became more specialised (particularly with the introduction of Merino breeding stock from France and Australia, and also wire fencing and hence grazing camps), these donkey cart people responded to the need for a more intensive period of shearing larger numbers of sheep over a set period of time – they became ‘floating’ teams of shearers ‘on tap’ at specified times in the annual cycle and different localities – the Karretjie People.

Not only had geographical mobility thus been an ingenious adaptation to a set of circumstances and opportunities, it had also required fluidity of their domestic/karretjie units and elasticity of their social and kinship relations and networks.

Delia Swarts. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.
Delia Swarts. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.
The Karretjie People have, for generations, rendered an important service to the agricultural economy of the sheep-farming Karoo, but they have at best been largely socio-economically ‘invisible’ to their fellow local and regional inhabitants, or at worst, strangers in their own land.

They can accurately be described as a rural underclass. They are not only amongst the poorest of the poor but have also for long been virtually unknown to other South Africans. Other residents of the area, and perhaps some motorists passing through, knew of such peoples’ existence of course, since the sight of their carts being pulled across the Karoo expanses by their donkeys is as common as the karoobossie (Bergankerkaroo) or mimosa through which they trek.

But outsiders and even only a few settled residents of the Great Karoo know much about them as people. Subsequent to this Karretjie project starting to produce papers and publications – a ‘window onto their lives’ – since the 1990s, journalists and other media people, sometimes opportunistically, ‘discovered’ them, often for personal gain, and they became more widely known.

Some of the articles produced by such people waxed forth about ‘Karretjie People’ – with whom they had a brief encounter along a road – but they were writing about people travelling in donkey carts (as a conveyance), not a way of life.

Christine Sors, with Robert Arnoster in the background. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.
Christine Sors, with Robert Arnoster in the background. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.

Today’s Karretjie People are, arguably, the real losers in the long-term processes of economic growth and transformation in the Great Karoo. They have no place on the land, and none of the resources necessary to make a successful transition from itinerant to sedentary or town living.

Poverty in South Africa can be said to be layered in the sense that the extent of poverty stands in inverse relation to its visibility.

Despite a trend toward sedentarism, the Karretjie People remain marginalised and some are still confined to their temporary shelters on the verges of the country roads. They not only have no land, or even entitled access to any space of place. They remain particularly vulnerable to, and ironically, ignorant of, potentially devastating ‘outside’ forces.

A case in point is the looming specter of shale gas exploration/exploitation in the Great Karoo, particularly also in the areas frequented by the Karretjie People. The lifting by the government of the moratorium on prospecting for shale gas by fracturing comprises a dual irony for the Karretjie People.

Even if the lobby striving to prevent the potentially harmful effects of such activities on the Karoo environment, not least of which underground water, be successful by virtue of the process being terminated, it would simply imply a continuation of the status quo – their present circumstances – for the Karretjie People.

The late Jas Verrooi. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.
The late Jas Verrooi. Photograph by Michael de Jongh.

Should the project proceed and its proponents’ promises of much–vaunted benefits ensue – like a wealth of ‘clean’ energy sources and particularly also abundant new employment opportunities – the Karretjie People would still be left in the cold.

The production phase of such an undertaking would require skilled personnel, but even the ‘construction’ phase with its requirement of unskilled labour would not affect the Karretjie People.

Not only are they completely oblivious of the fracking polemic – even if there had been or will be local or regional consultation, the ‘unseen’ Karretjie People would be disregarded. Recent N1 road construction, for example, which took place in the midst of their domain, never drew on their potential labour pool.

Although we have managed over the years to facilitate several educational projects with the Karretjie People – with the objectives of empowerment, an alternative occupational niche and better living conditions – these endeavours are but scratching the surface.

The author with Karretjie children at the Station outspan, Colesberg.
The author with Karretjie children at the Station outspan, Colesberg.
Stark and inhospitable as the Karoo may seem, every day the setting sun transforms the harshness of the region into softer hues of early evening.

This seems to further accentuate the ostensible empty quietness of the vast plains and rugged hills of a region symbolised by its gentle and genteel pulse of pastoral life. Often however, this is but a veneer which disguises the reality of hardship of large numbers of the ‘invisible’ people who eke out an existence in the Karoo.

  • Roots and RoutesKarretjie People of the Great Karoo. The Marginalisation of a South African First People by Michael de Jongh (2012, Unisa Press) is available through leading South African bookstores.

3 thoughts on “Karretjiemense of the Great Karoo

  1. sherie shackleton says:

    Beautifully written…..love the Karoo……special place with special people…..this should be sent to all our schools so that future generations remember.

  2. Pingback: Michael de Jong Explains What Led Him to Write the Story of the Karretjie People | UNISA Press

  3. Pingback: The First People wind up stone last - Eparkeni

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