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A life in harmony: The world should listen to the ancient wisdom of the indigenous people rather than attend expensive conferences


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

As I reflect on the ‘greenwashing PR exercise’ of #COP26Glasgow, I wonder if the bureaucrats, politicians, celebrities and billionaires of the 1% would deign to sit in a circle with these ancient ones and learn to shut their mouths and listen.

‘The white man with a paper God is a bit disturbed in the mind,” the Bushman told me when we were far from the missionary. “He gets confused when we ask him if he would like to meet God and dance with him. Even worse, he gets upset when we ask him to meet God’s wife and dance with her. Something is not quite right about these people who come here and ask a lot of questions. They think words will make them understand. They miss on having the experiences that are beyond understanding.” — Bradford Keeney: Bushman Shaman

It is a long journey to reach the ‡Khomani San in the Kalahari Desert — both in distance and in time. The San people — the original indigenous populations of southern Africa — have a wisdom we need to decode if our humanity is to survive its reckless greed that has led to a planetary ecological emergency. And time is running out as scientists find out what the San people knew aeons ago: that we have to find a symbiotic way to live in harmony with Mother Earth.

Africa has lived under the shadow of the violence of slavery, colonialism and apartheid for more than  500 years. The European nations at the height of their Renaissance engineered a warped strategy of white supremacy and sought to subjugate, enslave and seize the lands of indigenous populations across what they called the “New World”.

With missionary zeal they unleashed a genocide that sought to ridicule, demonise and destroy the foundation of deep knowledge and wisdom of indigenous people. And where there was resistance, their guns spoke a language of violence. Their goal was to take the “savage” out of indigenous people and make them pray at the altar of “white supremacy”. European conquest, formalised in the Berlin Conference of 1836, divided the “New World” between themselves with an unbridled plundering spree that decimated indigenous cultures.

Buried in the rise of European expansionism was the original seed of our multiple crises today. Slavery, colonialism, racism, a climate crisis, an arms race, rampant inequality, the hunger and poverty of much of the developing world.

But more poignantly, it robbed us of our deep relationship with Mother Earth itself. It broke a balance that saw humanity as part of the natural kingdom. The unnatural fallacy of man’s dominion of the planet was born, with its arrogance that has waged a war against Mother Nature since.

I saw this arrogance in action on the day I arrived in Andriesville, in the Kalahari Desert, to visit the ‡Khomani San community. I wondered why a pack of white Land Cruisers were parked in a line, members of the San community patiently seated under a  tree. And a bunch of white people singing and dancing. 

“They are here to convert us to Christianity,” laments Kummt’sa, the amazing, grounded healer, sangoma and diminutive but active community leader who travels with us. They are here to convert a San community that invented the sacred trance dance in deeply spiritual ceremonies developed to commune with their ancestors and God long before religion emerged.

I shudder. These are the First People of our humanity. They knew God many thousands of years before we evolved into the multitudes of different races, cultures, religions, languages and countries of today. 

“It’s condescending that evangelising white missionaries still think they are here to save our souls and sit in judgment of us,” he grieves.

What do our oldest living ancestors have to teach us today?

“We are now and have for a long time been the People of the Desert. Before we were pushed out of our traditional areas, by white settlers and migrating African tribes, we roamed across the southern African region. There were no fences. No borders. No passports. We were slaughtered and even hunted for sport. And even when we win a small reprieve and settle in our community, we are still invaded by the foreigners’ culture and religion. Our way of life is dying out,” Kummt’sa says, echoing what I am feeling.

Someone has opened a tavern in the community and I see a stream of young people shuffling across the red sandy path towards its doors. Five hundred years on, religion and alcohol are still the weapons of choice to beat the “savage” out of indigenous people and keep them intoxicated enough to abandon the integrated ancestral knowledge which courses through their veins.

Can we ever escape the dominant Western culture? Is it so deeply encoded into our education, health, economic, political and social systems? And in its core it harbours a deep seed of prejudice and an accompanying violence towards any idea, thinking or action that may challenge its prescription. 

In a historic step of land claim redress in March 1999, a remarkable settlement was reached to transfer an area of 65,000 hectares to the San, in addition to extensive land-use rights in the recently renamed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP). It is the only current example of a successful aboriginal land claim in southern Africa. However, the “Southern Kalahari San” who were evicted when the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park was formed in 1931 and dispersed across the region are no longer functioning as a coherent and defined community.

They are too battered by the ravages of marginalisation and disenfranchisement. As a people, they are nearing extinction. They are furthermore not able to practice their age-old indigenous ways of interacting with the land due to demands for environmental impact assessments, which the communities cannot afford to fund. In many ways, the reclaimed land leaves them even further away from the restitution and empowerment it was intended for.

And I figure that even when we get it right, we get it wrong.

We imposed a structure of leadership on a community that does not embrace hierarchy or chieftainships. There is no “us” and “them”. No political class. There is only “we”. And in small communities that are traditionally nomadic, there are no police or jails. Instead, the entire community sits in ceremony and allows the community of spirit and the ancestors to assist in working out the differences.

At the centre of the mediation is the medicine man — the shaman, the healer who carries the traditions and wisdom of the community. With the Elders providing sage advice and the guard rails guiding generations through rites of passage that allow the San to live in harmony with Nature.

“The core principle of the San community was reciprocity. When we take from the Earth, we always give back. We are one with the desert. It is the manifestation of our ancestors. We commune with all aspects of Nature. We are indivisible from everything we share our Mother Earth with,” Kumm’sta elaborates.

As I reflect on the “greenwashing PR exercise” of #COP26Glasgow, I wonder if the bureaucrats, politicians, celebrities and billionaires of the 1% would deign to sit in a circle with these ancient ones and learn to shut their mouths and listen. The indigenous people of our world are not environmentalists with PhDs. They are the environment. And the facts speak for themselves — 80%  of the most pristine, biodiverse ecosystems of the world are in lands controlled by indigenous people. Pristine because they are protected by them. And because there is an intelligent cooperation with Nature.

“When we look at the desert, we see the Spirit of the desert. Not to be mined and exploited. But to be worshipped as sacred lands we have been given to be good custodians of,” says Kummt’sa.

We don’t need “white saviours” from rich countries to save us again. We need to listen to Mother Earth. And to listen to the wisdom of indigenous people. And no more conferences on catastrophic global warming where leaders arrive in luxury aeroplanes, drink champagne and try to figure ways to avoid action through fancy financial derivatives and obfuscating promises.

We cannot wait till 2050 to be net zero. We need urgent action to build a regenerative Net Positive economy now.

The San have an urgent message for humanity: CHANGE BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. DM

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/8821″]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    Sorry Jay, but these people are from an elemental culture stream, which with all respect is the lowest such streams. Would you sit and try and learn wisdom from people from a religious fundamentalist culture stream (think Iranian Mulahs), or those from a ‘might is right’ stream (gangsters)?
    Are we to start believing in communication with ancestors, or that the ancient ones are real, and not just the descendants of the ancients, and Shamanism? It is magical thinking. It is not worth trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. These people could not co-exist in a complex world of 9 billion inhabitants.
    So they respect nature much more than we do, because they are much closer to it. But it is not to say that we don’t also have a concern for nature, or that we have not learnt our own lessons.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    So Jay, as you sit in front of your western PC and keyboard and tap out your anti-western words that you read through your western spectacles, dressed in your western clothes and sitting in your western chair in western air-conditioned comfort, do you contemplate giving that all up? Are you about to stop drinking western whisky and western cola? Will you forsake western medicines for the bush remedies of the San peoples? Give up your western Mercedes Benz? If not, you’re just a whingeing fraud.

  • ian hurst says:

    Jay, your article is the hackneyed, lefty, diatribe about how awful Europeans were to indigenous peoples. Your article may make you feel better, but it is not helpful in finding a way forward for the world.
    9 billion, mainly urbanized people need to eat. Our ancestors will not guide us. Modern, Western science can.
    “And the facts speak for themselves — 80% of the most pristine, biodiverse ecosystems of the world are in lands controlled by indigenous people.” The most important fact, which you suppress, is that these areas are sparsely populated, and lend themselves to the system you find so wonderful.
    Leaving ostrich eggs filled with water in strategic locations may be a sound plan in the Kalahari, are you suggesting that it is practical solution for the rest of the world?

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thanks very much for this article, it is indeed important that in order for us to find appropriate solutions as humanity to address the climate crisis, that we really take into consideration all of the knowledge of all of humanity, including the indigenous peoples who have an in depth understanding of ecosystems, and most importantly, the interrelationship of people with their environment and the necessity of maintaining balance in ecosystems, which has not been given sufficient attention to, and which is why we are now facing this climate crisis.

  • Cameron S says:

    Louis and Ian – I find Wade Davis to be very insightful and a great read on this topic (eg The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World). My very short and poorly articulated summary of it is that the Victorian view that western scientific achievement represents the apex of human development is discredited. He points out that science is now unequivocal that race is artificial and human genius is equally distributed. The West pursued technological wizardry extremely effectively. Many other cultures instead directed their share of genius into complex myths and societal structures that enable them to live in harmony and equilibrium with the planet. They are far more advanced than the west in these areas. And the fallacy that western technological development is the pinnacle is made bare by the devastation that has accompanied it in both societal (divorce, caring for the old, etc) and environmental (climate crisis) terms. It’s not that scientific achievement isn’t impressive in itself. Just that if we view human development as a linear path ending in technological wizardry, we miss a huge amount of richness and knowledge.

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