Very little is known about the languages of South Africa's San people, as most of these beautiful, ancient languages were never recorded. Fortunately, the /Xam language was recorded almost in its entirety, thanks to the work of a German linguist, Dr WHI Bleek.
/Xam speakers originally occupied a large part of western South Africa. By 1850, only a few hundred /Xam speakers lived in remote parts of the Northern Cape.
Today, the language is gone. But it survives in 12 000 pages of hand-written testimony taken down word-for-word from some of the last /Xam speakers in the 1860s and 1870s. These pages record not just the /Xam language, but also their myths, beliefs and rituals. A comprehensive /Xam dictionary was produced by Dr Bleek at that time, but was only published years later. (DF Bleek, 1956. A Bushman Dictionary. New Haven, American Oriental Society).
A /Xam rendering of 'Unity in Diversity'
Like most San groups, the /Xam people did not use abstract nouns. They had no words to equate exactly with the English concepts of 'unity' or 'diversity'. 'Unity in Diversity', therefore, has no exact /Xam equivalent. The closest equivalent /Xam phrase is:-
!ke e: /xarra //ke
which, if translated literally, means: diverse people unite. The phrase can be written in lower case or capitals.
The symbols used for the click sounds follow the Lepsius-Rhenish Mission Society-Bleek system developed in the 19th century. This remains the standard system used by most authors when representing clicks in Khoisan languages.
The three clicks in the phrase:- !ke e: /xarra //ke are:
! Place the tip of the tongue against the gum root in the middle of the mouth and click hard. This is similar to the q sound in Zulu, for example in iqanda (egg).
k Not pronounced and followed by a short ê sound, as in nest.
e: A very long ê which is pronounced with a dip in the voice, like a sheep bleating; similar to ê-hê-hê-hê.
/ Place the tongue softly against the root of the teeth in the middle front of the mouth. Then click with the middle of the tongue. The sound is similar to the c sound in Zulu, for example in ucingo (telephone).
x Similar to a prolonged gggg sound in Afrikaans, leading to gggarra.
// Another click, this time with the side of the tongue against the palate, similar to the x sound in the word Xhosa. The k is not pronounced.
The Context of the Human Figure in the Shield
The figure comes from the Linton panel, a famous panel of rock art now housed and displayed in the South African Museum in Cape Town. In 1917, this panel was removed from the farm of Linton in the Maclear district in the Eastern Cape.
Eighty-three years in museum care, protected from the elements, has made the Linton panel one of the best preserved of all pieces of South African rock art. In 1995, the panel featured as one of the premiere attractions in the international exhibition, Africa the Art of a Continent.
The figure embodies the spirit of the African Renaissance. When European nations began their Renaissance, they turned to the classical age of Greece and Rome when art and architecture achieved great heights. San rock art is one of the great archaeological wonders of the world - it is a mirror in which reflects the glories of the African past.
Our knowledge of South African San texts (especially the 12 000 pages of testimony collected by Dr Bleek), combined with the study of the rituals and beliefs of San people still living in the Kalahari, allows us to understand many of the paintings in the Linton panel. The panel shows people capturing a power the /Xam called !Gi. The San sought and used this power for the benefit of their community. It allowed for the healing of the sick and for the healing of divisions within society. San rock art was believed to be rich in this special power.
This delicately painted figure has power that we can all share in. It was intended to have special power as it was painted straddling a line of !Gi. Within the new Coat of Arms the figure will continue, as its painter intended, to channel its power for the benefit of all.