Bushman's Secret

Bushman's Secret


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Wherever there are indigenous tribes, who live off the land, it seems there is disenfranchisement and exploitation. Like Australian documentary, Kanyini (2006), which outlined the plight of the aboriginals, South African filmmaker Rehad Desai’s film charts another troubled tribe – the Khomani San bushmen.

Like their Australian counterparts, these are people who have lived off the land for centuries but who now find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Removed from their ancestral area thanks to the encroachment of tourism, their traditional life of hunting and gathering is virtually impossible, leading to crushing poverty. It seems, however, that the world hasn’t quite done with bleeding the community dry, since corporate giants are now plundering the one thing that they haven’t yet taken – the bushmen’s knowledge of herbal medicine.

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For centuries, the tribes have used the hoodia plant as an appetite suppressant. Since it has no known side-effects, it has now become the equivalent of pharmaceutical gold thanks to the obesity epidemic spreading through the West. This, of course, should all be great news for the Khomani San since they have signed a monumental deal with the South African government to receive royalties but, Desai’s documentary asks, how long will it take them to get the cash, how much will they get and, perhaps most importantly, how will they use it to preserve their way of life?

There are no easy answers, knowledge of the hoodia may be traditional to the Khomani San but dealing with lawyers and large pharmaceutical corporations (Unilever now own the rights to produce diet pills based on the plant) is not. Their “faith in nature” extends to having faith in their fellow man to honour their part of the bargain, and it seems they are set to get short-changed again. In addition, the world’s gaze has now fallen on the hoodia – which takes years to reach maturity in the wild – and now it is being over-exploited and driven out just like the bushmen.

While focussing on the specific issue of the hoodia, Desai broadens his scope to include a history lesson about the bushmen and give you a taste of the exploitation they now suffer. By telling the story from the viewpoint of traditional healer Jan van der Westhuizen, he is able to show the contrast between the bushmen’s stewardship of the land and the corporate approach which sweeps everything before it.

The film does suffer, however, from being on the gentle side when it comes to soliciting answers from the powers that be. Desai, it seems, was partially hamstrung by being unable to get anyone from Unilever to go on the record but this is confined to a very brief sequence showing him trying to get an answer on the phone and could have benefited from expansion. Although not quite as incisive as it might have been, Desai’s argument still has teeth and offers a worthwhile and troubling insight into a culture forced into decline.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2008
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Documentary charting the exploitation of the Khomani San.

Director: Rehad Desai

Year: 2007

Runtime: 65 minutes

Country: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana


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