Karretjiemense of the Karoo
When you travel the back roads of the vast Karoo, chances are you’ll come across a family on a donkey cart, slowly heading towards the horizon.
On the cart, as befits the gypsy life, all the family’s worldly goods are carefully stashed. By evening, they will be ensconced on a farm or, if the journey is long, by the side of the road. Some call the road the langplaas – the 'long farm'. Others call it the gang – the 'corridor'.
These are the karretjiemense – the cart people – of the Karoo. Nomadic by nature and necessity, their roots stem from the first people of this dry place: the /Xam-speaking San (Bushmen) and the Khoi.
Initially, the /Xam were nomads in these parts. Then they became farm labourers working for money or food. They stayed mobile, however, eventually adopting the classic donkey cart as their ‘caravan’.
If they’re lucky, the karretjiemense still work for livestock farmers. In the shearing season, their blades are of the busiest in the shed. The young men also learn the tricky trade of fence-spanning, and this service is still much in demand.
Times have changed, however, and the call for the gypsy shearers is diminishing. Many Karoo farmers are training up their permanent staff or hiring teams of specialist cutters from Lesotho or the former Transkei.
Although this tiny group of wanderers faces many social challenges, they – like the ever-turning windpump – have become icons of the Karoo, South Africa's outback. The visual irony is obvious: seen from a distance, a packed Karoo donkey cart is the romantic epitome of the open road.
However, that open road is getting more cramped for this underclass of people who spend most of their lives on the edge, due to poverty and alcohol abuse. Many have come to live – jobless – in the townships of Karoo villages.