A world-class exhibition awaits visitors to the !Khwattu San heritage centre just an hour’s drive from Cape Town, reports Clifford Roberts.
The gravel road to the summit of the hill in the distance is relatively straight. On either side, the landscape is populated by scrubland rooted in the sandy soils typical of the Cape West Coast. Here and there, forms not noticed before, become discernible as eland and zebra.
It’s a simple entrance to a place with such a complex story; the relatively short, unwavering driveway, a metaphorical opposite of the journey that brought all its parts and players together.
This is !Khwattu, heritage centre for the San. Here, descendants of these earliest hunter-gatherers of southern Africa, who are also some of the last such populations on the planet, provide insight into an ancient way of life and human origins.
It’s a remarkable destination, though the entrance to that gravel road off the R27 near Yzerfontein provides few clues to what awaits the visitor.
Possibly its crown jewel, is the museum – a complex of three large buildings. The first covers San origins, stories and art; and, the latest archaeological and genetic findings about human origins. The second tells the story of colonisation that leads to today. The third takes the visitor into San life in the Kalahari using amongst others, a state-of-the-art digital wraparound screen.
It is truly a world-class exhibition that’s given life through five different, 45-minute tours by qualified San guides. This includes a visit to the “veld pharmacy” and a tasting of teas made from a blend of rooibos and traditional plants; visits to each of the museum buildings; and, an introduction to San tracking skills.
Tours with or without a guide can be interspersed with a break for lunch at the restaurant. “Our menu contains the stories of many different people who have dedicated themselves to creating and growing exceptional produce that we have the privilege of using in our kitchen,” proudly declares the menu at the bistro-style eatery headed by ICA-trained Werlise Rautenbach.
For example, lunch includes dishes such as spinach and spekboom soup, West Coast mussels, the ever-popular Eland burger, kelp gnocchi and “askoek”, a fire-baked bread. Prices for mains vary from R65 to R105.
The restaurant also serves breakfast, which is popular as a halfway-stop for cyclists, bikers and guests making use of the accommodation offerings.
As with the main museum building, the guest cottage overlooks the farm. Sunsets from here are spectacular, but so too are the mists that occasionally roll off the sea, engulfing this eyrie. Once daylight has drained away, it’s the stars in the unpolluted night sky that perform the next dazzling act.
Another overnight option is furnished tents with open air showers and a communal boma, shrouded dense bush.
Each of the two nights we spend on the hilltop are taken up by long hours by an open fire. The day’s stories get new meaning as we sit, looking up at the stars or watching the light dance across the bush. It feels as if something has changed in our view of the world, our view of ourselves.
This immersion continues during the day, on excursions into the wilderness. The farm has walking and mountain bike trails for all levels of skill, too; and, a small gift shop that sells handicrafts and jewellery and directly benefits San makers.
Getting here, to this point in the centre’s lifespan has been a monumental achievement. A poster in the entrance lounge displays the contributors. In addition to the San community across the region, there are specialist curators, esteemed consultants, institutions, service providers and more.
Over a drink of Darling Brew’s 0.0% alcohol Apple Bomb hopped cooler and alcohol-free Malt Cross, Michael Daiber recounts the journey – an epic if ever there was one.
!Khwattu opened its doors in 2006. Its name means water or water pan in the language of the |Xam bushmen who once lived here.
A significant milestone was celebrated in 2018 with the completion of its expanded museum, featuring an additional exhibition space partly excavated into the side of the hill, and wall to ceiling windows overlooking the farm and the sea beyond.
“!Khwattu’s journey begins with the establishment of WIMSA,” declares a panel in the visitor centre, highlighting the role of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities that was founded two years after the end of Apartheid in South Africa.
Its aim was to co-ordinate many of the initiatives occurring in isolation to address challenges the San faced, including access to land, education and employment. Affiliated to this was the establishment in 1998 of “a road-side coffee shop…near Cape Point, to introduce the San to craft sales and basic hospitality skills”. Michael Daiber was its manager back then.
A year later, Swiss anthropologist Irene M Staehelin became involved, eventually buying the 850ha former wheat farm of Grootwater where !Khwattu stands today. It certainly hasn’t been the first attempt at the restitution of San culture and communities, but many have faltered.
This acquisition,however, was made with the agreement of San elders such as Dawid Kruiper, Frederik Langman and Petrus Vaalbooi.
A land rehabilitation programme was instituted that saw alien plants removed and antelope frequently depicted in bushmen rock art including eland, bontebok, springbokintroduced. Buildings were added and boreholes sunk.
A large part of the work was undertaken by small groups of San from communities across southern Africa, recounts one display.
It was Irene who submitted the current name to a WIMSA general assembly. Its inspiration: as water is the source of life, so is a people’s heritage the source of their existence and survival.
Over the years, a management structure evolved to what it is today – a board with equal representation from San community. Among the many initiatives underway is a learning programme that supports “marginalised San youth with schooling, further education and training”.
When the main display of museum was completed and opened September three years ago, it was to be one of the last major !Khwattu engagements Irene attended. She died soon after having endured a long illness. Her own spirt however continues to echo an invitation through the buildings and is inscribed at the entrance: “Today’s San share their stories with you. Catch their voices and presence drifting over lands and skies.”
The !Khwattu heritage centre is open daily from 09:00 – 17:00.
To book a table in the restaurant, call 022 492 2998; or, overnight accommodation, at
The facilities are also available for small conferences and corporate team building.
For more information, visit
Committed to open access to all, !Khwattu’s museum entrance fees are optional on the first day of each month.