Kerrick Thusi – Descendant of the San people.
For thousands of years, until the late 1800s, the Drakensberg was the summer refuge of South Africa’s ‘original’ inhabitants. Around springtime, when the humidity in the eastern foothills intensified, groups of small people with honey-coloured skin would pack up their essential belongings and seek out the fresh, cool air of the mountain ranges in KwaZulu-Natal. There the nomads would climb up into rock shelters that offered far-reaching views and shade.
During the temperate nights, San shamans would dance rhythmically, working themselves into natural highs and breathing heavily until the rarefied air and physical exertion made their inner beings vibrate ecstatically. Their vision would blur and they’d start to see stars and flashes, weird geometric shapes and strange half-human, half-animal creatures.
Some of the shamans would cure ailments while in a trance; one might perceive the crack between this world and the supernatural; another might envision the anticipated hunt of antelope. Eventually they’d tire, their frenzied bodies collapsing to the earth. The next morning, they’d paint on the rock what they’d seen during their out-of-body experience. The Bushmen were so intimately attuned to their environment that they made no distinction between their existence and their spirituality, much of which can be understood by visiting the rock art in the Berg.
San paintings brought back to life
So who was the last Bushman of the area In the early 1900s, a young boy was born in a shelter near the source of the Senqu River in northeastern Lesotho, near the highest point in Southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana (3 482 m). Rock art researchers found out about Kerrick Thusi in 2000, when he was living as a pensioner on a farm near Underberg. He spoke of his San grandfather, Sibinyane, who taught him the meaning of the rock art. As a child he had visited some shelters, including Elands Cave near Cathedral Peak, and he still remembers the names of various San people who had lived in the area.
Kerrick Thusi, a descendant of the south-east San people, puts his mark on a reconstruction of a cave painting.
He dips his tiny hand into the animal’s blood and, with faltering steps, moves to the rockface and makes his print next to the painting of the eland.
“I have put my hand on the eland painting because the spirits were cold. But now they are here and peace will come,” he says.
Then he sits on a tree trunk and sings a haunting melody. The chorus is hummed by the small group beside him: three Kalahari San people, two of the Duma community at Kamberg who have San ancestry, and his Sotho interpreter Abigail Setloboko. For us few whites it is equally emotional.
In March 2003, Kerrik Thusi was interviewed, an elderly man they had found living in abject poverty on an Underberg farm. He is a direct descendant of the south-eastern San, believed, by the early 20th century, to be extinct.
He was born in his grandfather’s cave in Lesotho.As a boy he and his friends were attacked by Africans who killed the other boys and their dogs. Thusi’s wrist was broken and has remained crooked.
His life of wandering included work on a Ladysmith farm, and laying dynamite charges in a mine. Though he went home to marry and father children, he was rejected by his wife when he was retrenched. He found work on an Underberg farm where he remained for the next 50 years.
He now lives in a privately-owned forested valley where a wooden chalet was built for him.
“Kerrik wanted to go back to his grandfather’s cave so we took him there. All that remained of the paintings was a blotch. He called it a ‘broken cave’.”
Where he now lives there is a giant quartzitic sandstone cave. There are no paintings and no physical surface evidence that San people lived there, though fairly nearby there is the Umhlatuzana rock site, and a cave of paintings in the Shongweni Nature Reserve.
“We asked him if he wanted his grandfather’s paintings here and he said ‘yes’. He also wanted to bring his ancestors’ spirits here.
For more than a decade, Cape Town-born Stephen Townley Bassett has researched the pigments, paints and implements used by San artists. As he writes in his book, Rock Paintings of South Africa: “It was not long before I was making my own paints in a manner I believe similar to that practised by cave artists for thousands of years.”
He also uses their implements: sticks, porcupine quills, a giraffe’s kneecap as a paint pot, and the colours of nature: white from raptor droppings, black from charcoal, and yellow ochre obtained by scoring raw ochre with a stone flake. These are emulsified with blood, water, egg and gall.
Thusi has been guiding Stephen with his memory. An elephant came first as this was the most powerful, followed by Thusi’s totem animal, the eland, then the lion and leopard, mountain reedbuck and stick-like figures. A jackal follows a herd of sheep, but his mouth is closed which means he will never catch them.
“Two nights before I began Kerrik told us his ancestors were sleeping in the room next to him,” says Stephen. “Kerrik asked me to wear this reedbuck skin: this is his totem animal and has special meaning.”
When the paintings were complete on Tuesday, the moving ceremony was performed. Thusi says this was done every year in mid-winter at full moon. It is called peace in the land and expresses gratitude to the ancestors for having supplied them with food.
“I have never heard of this ceremony in which an elder used to put his hand in blood. Nothing has ever been recorded; it may be Sotho. But 85 years ago Kerrik watched his grandfather perform it.
“It’s certainly something no outsiders have ever seen before.”