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Interview: Paul Weinberg, Photographer of San Communities in Southern Africa

Ju/'hoan San elder on a hunt, Namibia, 1999, © Paul Weinberg

Ju/'hoan San elder on a hunt, Namibia, 1999, © Paul Weinberg

For nearly three decades, Paul Weinberg traveled to Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa to document the lives of hunter-gatherer communities, the San (Africa’s first people) and their struggles to hang on to their land, culture, and values, as they faced serious threats by outside settlers. Weinberg’s new book Traces and Tracks (Jacana Media 2017), is the culmination of his thirty-year journey, featuring essays and over 100 photographs that convey the modern-day San’s daily lives, their relationship to nature, game parks, and their ways of adjusting to a fast-changing world.  Weinberg recently presented his work at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, co-sponsored by DER. I spoke with him after the event for some additional insights into his most recent publication.


AA: You’ve been documenting these communities for 30 years. Why did you decide to publish this now?  

PW: Publishing “Traces and Tracks” was a culmination of many journeys in a journey. The first book was “Shaken Roots” in 1990 with Megan Biesele was focussed on the Namibian San, then “In Search of the San” in 1997. A number of key events happened post 1997 that demanded a new take. The San in South Africa, the #Khomani San got their land back in 1999. The San in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana were evicted in 2002. After a protracted court case a few hundred were allowed to return. This along with the dispossession of the San in Botswana sparked my curiosity. Then I also wanted to revisit other groups of San in Namibia to update myself on these developments. But in general I was keen to put together these journeys into a comprehensive book with text that helped me reflect on the modern day San. It was a kind of closing of the circle if you like.

AA: How did you meet John Marshall and what impact did he have on your work?

PW: I met John in 1984 when I first wanted to make contact with the San in Namibia. John was struggling to cope with all the issues facing the San at the time. There was a threat of further dispossessing the Ju/hoansi to create a game reserve. Many of the San had congregated in Tsumkwe at first by the invitation of the former commissioner McIntyre but also because many of the soldiers were receiving payment from the South African army. John and the Bushmen Foundation as it was called then were struggling to entice communities to return to their !nores and also bring in cattle as a potential form of sustainable farming as well developing boreholes at every village. It was a very  difficult time. I had seen some of John’s films in South Africa and his approach to documentary making was inspiring to me. I particularly liked the fly on the wall cinema verite, non-invasive approach to filmmaking. John and I also clicked politically. We were both aware of the misrepresentation of the San through films like The Gods Must be Crazy and the romanticisation of the San and the media’s commodification of their culture. We shared a lot in common. After my first visit, I started to work for John as a researcher/fixer for his continued documentation of Ju/hoansi that became the five part series – The Kalahari Family. It was mutually helpful to both of us as I was able to do my documentation as I researched for John.

AA: In comparing the Ju/hoan community in Namibia to the San in Botswana and South Africa, they seem to have maintained the closest ties to their land and culture.  Do you think the Marshall’s played a role in that, and if so, how and what?  

PW: I think that is a mute point. The San groups in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), the !Gwi, and Gana  had also lived until the late 1980’s, a somewhat isolated life. They enjoyed a mixed economy not unlike, the Ju/hoansi, hunting and gathering, herding, craft making and limited agriculture. They were possibly more fortunate in that they were not recruited into the military. Silverbauer the first warden of the CGKR had made a special plea that the San of the CGKR be left alone to live a hunter-gatherer life style. However the Batswana authorities slowly bit by bit until their final eviction in 2002 resettled the San in that region. Only a few hundred San now live in the CGKR having won their court case to return. It is a very precarious life. They do not benefit from tourism and their relationship with the Batswana authorities is palpably hostile. But today I would agree that the Ju/hoansi of Nyae Nyae are the last San who have maintained strong ties to their land. Unfortunately the vast majority of Ju/hoansi, like other San groups have been dispossessed. The Marshall’s definitely played a role in this situation, along with many San activists, human rights organizations, sympathetic and committed academics. The Marshall’s most significant contribution (Lorna Marshall, Elizabeth Marshall-Thomas and John with his films) was raising the profile of the Ju/hoansi in global terms and alerting the world to their story and struggles as they developed.

AA: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the book? 

PW: I hope most of all that the book will allow people to have a empathetic understanding and insight of the lives of Africa’s first people whose lives I have documented during the last quarter of the 20th Century and the first quarter of the 21st. I also hope provides another way of seeing the San other than the continued misrepresentation that persists through the media, portraying them as people living in a Stone Age time warp or in ‘primitive affluence’. A further hope is that I have enabled voices from the San communities to communicate with the world and speak to their real lives and struggles. The ultimate message is that by dispossessing and mistreating the San, the world has helped destroy our own heritage. We were all hunter-gatherers once and it a shared world heritage. Finally on a hopeful note, it is quite simple to allow people to enjoy their cultural rights and benefits as well develop in a changing world. They do not have to be mutually exclusive or destructive. Nyae Naye is a good example of this. People benefit from ecotourism, and mother tongue education. In other parts of southern Africa, this simply doesn’t happen. It is quite possible for these paradigms to co-exist. But the overwhelming scenario is one of domination by others and the overwhelming non-acceptance of people who once lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This is simply tragic.


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