Yet a sense of freedom could still be felt the moment we arrived in Andriesvale in Northern Cape, the home of the Khomani San.
The Khomani San were the first people of the Kalahari. Known as hunter-gatherers, they lived in the desert. But as a direct result of apartheid, the land they once called home was lost.
A fraction of this land was returned to them in 1999 after a lengthy court battle.
In the years after the land claim was settled, very little development occurred and, with growing social decay, a lack of support from the South African authorities, the divisions within the now desperate community grew.
“For five years after the land was returned to the bushmen they were praised and got a lot of attention but after that they were forgotten,” said land manager Charl Page.
“The fear is the heritage and language of the San will be lost and we are trying everything we can to preserve this and pass on the culture and traditions to the young Khomani San children,” he said.
To learn more about the Khomani San, we were directed to the leader and traditional healer known as Oom Jan van der Westhuizen. Although weak and frail, he immediately mustered the strength to sit up in bed and talk to us about the San people.
He told us about the four main aspects of the culture of his people: hunting; tracking or spoor sny; traditional medicines and healing and arts and crafts.
He also told us about his extensive travel experience in different parts of Africa and abroad, sharing his knowledge as a traditional healer.
“I would speak about what I do as a bushman and a traditional healer and how I would use various ingredients from the earth for medicinal purposes and they would listen and even ask questions,” he told us.
“I was happy to share what I knew, if it meant that our culture would live on long after I’m gone.”
Oom Jan died on April 22, exactly a month after the interview, due to illness, at the age of 62.
Johnovon van der Westhuizen, 26, who is in the process of taking over from his father Oom Jan as a traditional healer, told us: “He knew so much and I was trying to learn as much from him as I could.”
It was evident to us he relied a lot on Oom Jan when he took us into the land in search of medicinal ingredients.
“We are trying our best to teach the children the language of our people but it is very difficult with a the lack of resources,” said community member Dion Noubitsen.
“We are a very spiritual people, who want our legacy to be passed on to the younger generations; our heritage is what makes us who we are.”
One spiritual aspect of the San bushmen’s culture is the “trance” dance, which has social, religious, as well as ritual significance. It is also known as the healing dance.
Many of these dances are named after animals, such as lion !Xooke and elephant (!Xoo), and each has a different purpose.
“If you are not strong, it is easy to go so deep into a trance during this dance that you can lose yourself and do things that are not normal, such as pick up burning pieces of wood and not feel a thing.
“The women do not merely just sing and play instruments, they play a very big role in ensuring our safety while we are dancing,” Noubitsen said.
“The woman would watch her husband or family member to see if we do not go too far into the trance. It is them who would bring us back from it.”
Although there is a very real concern that the ancient ways of the San people will be lost to the generations to come, they remain confident.
“We are strong people. We will rise up like those who came before us,” said Noubitsen.