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The Vilanders of The Mier Country

Publishing Date : 04 September, 2017


In addition to the Ovaherero, Ovambandero and Nama there are additional tran-Kgalagadi groups that historically straddle our western frontier with Namibia. These include predominately Afrikaans speaking communities such as Bokspits, Gakhibane and Struizendam in Botswana.

While outsiders have in the past often labelled the inhabitants of these settlements as "Basters", "Coloureds", and "Hottentots", locally they were from the mid-nineteenth century more precisely identified as the "Vilanders", while their lands were known as "The Mier" country.  The Mier communities trace their common history back to the 1860s when, under a leader named Dirk Vilander (c.1810-1888), they broke away from Jan Jonker's "Orlams" Nama of Namibia to first settle along the confluence of the Aoub, Molopo, Nosop and Kudumane rivers.

There, sometime later, they were there also joined by the followers of another leader named Regopstaan Kruiper Mier is the Afrikaans/Dutch word for 'ant'. It is said that when Dirk Vilander's advance party first entered the region they noticed that, at a certain spot, some ants were bringing wet mud up to the surface of what was otherwise arid ground. This led them to dig for water, which was soon found in quantities that could sustain Vilander's first settlement in the area. Alternatively it is said that Dirk Vilander himself discovered an aardvark burrow filled with water that it was also full of ants.

Vilander and Kruiper's followers ultimately settled on both sides of the Nasop River and can thus still be found in adjacent areas of South Africa and Namibia as well as south-west Botswana. Their largest settlement has been Rietfontein in South Africa, which derives its name from what was a fountain surrounded by reed bush, which was previously used by the !Xo, a local Khoisan or Basarwa community who were already in the area. For a generation thereafter the Vilanders shared the Mier country in relative harmony with the !Xo and minimal interference from others.

But, in the 1890s the area was partitioned between the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Cape Colony and German South West Africa, resulting in subsequent German and Boer settler encroachments. In the 1920s the first National Party regime began to seize the Vilander farms inside South Africa, claiming that they were too poor and overused the land. The Land Inspector who condemned the farms was a certain David DeVilliers who, in the name of the newly formed South African Parks Board, manipulated the farm removals for his personal profit. The Parks Board in the process acquired boreholes, dams and other infrastructure built by the Vilanders, who, being non-whites, were at the time denied adequate compensation.

In 1933 DeVilliers began to press the Bechuanaland Protectorate's Resident Commissioner, Charles Rey, for the removal of Botswana's Vilanders. This was proposed as an anti-poaching measure. Although police on both sides of the border described the Vilanders as a "most law abiding people", Rey was swayed. In 1938 the entire population living north of Twee Rivieren within 25 miles of the Nosop were forced to abandon their farms and resettle around Bokspits. Their only compensation was ten pounds sterling per family for building materials.

Speaking earlier this year to BOPA reporter Esther Mmoloi one senior Bokspits resident, Mr Moses Vanneel, thus recalled that: "It was on 11 March 1938. I was only 11 years old at the time. We were told to make way for the trans-frontier park and given 10 days to have packed our bags and left the place." Nearly 10,000 square kilometres of Botswana was ultimately depopulated of both its Vilander and !Xo inhabitants. On the eve of the 1938 removal Jan Bok and T. Mattys, the then recognised Headmen of Boksprits and Kyky, had tried one last appeal to the authorities in Mafikeng:

"In 1867 our forefathers came into the Mier country under Headman Dirk Vilander and the Auob and Nosob rivers were their hunting grounds, later in 1894 the present Bechuanaland Border was fixed as it is now and our people were still living peacefully in these parts under Headman David Vilander and some of the people still alive today were sent by David Vilander down to Upington to assist as drivers etc. in the Boer War against the Boers, at that time also the country south of the Kuruman river was proclaimed a Game reserve and the country east of the Nosob was given to us by Mr. Gordon.

"From this it is evident that we are occupying the country for a long time and after generations are staying so long in a country it is human to love the country and very hard and heart-breaking to leave such a country." All such appeals, however, fell on deaf ears. From 1940 South African Game Wardens, who were given special jurisdiction in the Kgalagadi District, prohibited Vilander and !Xo hunting so as to force them to "work". But, as Tsabong's District Commissioner noted in 1954: "work there is for all; unfortunately it is all across the border."

While the Mier country remains relatively impoverished, to a great extent its current economic prospects are focused on the emergence of more people centred development of the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park, whose colonial era genesis once threatened the very survival of the region's distinct local culture.



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