San art adorns the new South African bank notes. Their smiling, wrinkled faces appear on adverts and postcards across the country – everyone knows the stereotypical image of the slightly built hunter covered in an antelope skin loincloth and carrying a bow and arrow. But the San have a history of being used, abused and stripped of their rights. This photo essay documents the decline of two San communities – The Khwe and the !Xun. They formed the nucleus of the Apartheid war machine's fierce and secretive 31 Battalion. On the north-western outskirts of Kimberley, just beyond the Prison and the rubbish dump, lies the barren farm of Platfontein. The farm is home to approximately 8,000 San people from the !Xun and Khwe tribes. The men made up the bulk of the erstwhile South African Defence Force's (SADF) 31 Battalion.
Here in Platfontein is where the San's reality is as shocking as it is depressing. Southern Africa's oldest tribe is sliding into a sad decline, steeped in poverty, desperation and alcoholism. The hunter-gatherers have been reduced to scavenging from the local rubbish dump. Children are malnourished and hardly anyone has a job.
Originally from Angola and Namibia, the San men were both coerced and duped into joining the SADF in the 1970's. Their expert tracking skills and knowledge of the bush made them a powerful asset to any army fighting in the harsh, thorny terrain.
There are many stories of the San soldier's combat skills - from being able to hear the enemy approaching long before any "normal" soldier could, to reading the enemy's tracks with the highest accuracy. The SADF were not the first to "use" the San as a weapon of war either. Many, known as "Flechas" (Arrows in Portuguese), had been used by the Portuguese against the guerilla armies fighting for independence in Angola.
Nicknamed 'The Crows', 31 Battalion took part in many covert operations against the likes of SWAPO (South West African People's Organisation) and FAPLA (the armed wing of Angola's now ruling MPLA party).
When Namibia gained independence in 1990, the San soldiers and their families were in a difficult position – they had been fighting for the wrong side.
Fearing retribution and seen as traitors back home, many did not want to return so the SADF agreed to get the soldiers South Africa passports and accommodation on a remote farm in Schmidtsdrift. With the end of Apartheid, the Crows were all but forgotten. Conditions were tough and the San lived in army tents for several years.
A land claim meant the San had to leave Schmidtsdrift and move to Platfontein. Though they now had brick homes with electricity and water and had a clinic and a school built, the community sunk into steep decline. Increases in food prices mean that some are going hungry and with most people surviving on benefits, alcoholism, domestic abuse, suicide and HIV have all come to haunt Platfontein.
Like many in the new South Africa, the former fighters of '31 Battalion' have fallen by the wayside, left to their own devices in the dry flatlands of the interior.