About Karretjie Mense of The Karoo

The small historical town of Colesberg, on the N1 midway between Cape Town and Johannesburg, is where a series of tin shacks line the edge of a few public roads. These rudimentary homes are not part of the usual shanty town that lies outside every little town across South Africa. Instead, they are the homes of what remains of a nomadic people known as the Karretjie Mense (cart people) of the Karoo (their label for themselves).

Did you know? It’s only recently that anthropologists have identified the Karretjie Mense as a distinct itinerant population group, closest in nature to groups like the Irish travellers, or gypsies of Europe.

The Karretjie Mense are direct descendants of the San and Khoe people of the Great Karoo. Theirs is an interesting story, originating roughly four generations ago, when a group of them, working on farms and living in small settlements in the Karoo hinterland, decided to return to the nomadic way of life, using donkey carts to get around.

They made ends meet by offering their seasonal sheep shearing and fence-fixing skills to farmers, who hired them as they needed them. Roughly 1 000 karretjie units operated during the early 1990s as people moved from farm to farm across the Great Karoo, their families growing up on the road.

Visits to towns were intermittent and brief, and then only to stock up on basic supplies. Firewood came from the veld, water from farm reservoirs, and meat from small carnivores like the caracal, or rooikat.

Recently farmers have begun using organised shearing teams, their electrified tools allowing them to shear sheep faster. As a result an already marginalised and poor group of people have become the poorest of the poor.

It’s only recently that anthropologists have identified the Karretjie Mense as a distinct itinerant population group, closest in nature to groups like the Irish travellers, or gypsies of Europe.

Anthropologist and professor at UNISA, Mike de Jongh, has been studying them for years. His book Roots and Routes: Karretjie People of the Great Karoo helped shape Timothy Gabb’s recent documentary film, MOVE: The Lost Carts of the Karoo.

Need to Know

WhereKarretjie Mense of The Karoo, Colesberg, Upper Karoo, Northern Cape, South Africa

WhenDaylight hours.

OvernightStay in Colesberg Accommodation, Northern Cape


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