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A history of San Peoples of South Africa

Introduction to names of indigenous peoples

The word San comes from the Khoekhoe language. It is not clear what it means; probably it refers to people without cattle or people who forage for their food. It is generally applied to the hunting and gathering peoples of southern Africa who are descended from the original humans in this region of Africa.

The term San came into use along with the word Khoesan in the late 1920s and 1930s. The terms were coined by Leonhard Schulze and promoted in the English speaking world by Isaac Schapera.

Previously San people had been referred to by different names: Soaqua (also a Khoe word), Bosjesmanne, Bushmen, Basarwa, Batwa, Abathwa, Baroa and so forth. San people had names for themselves, such as |Xam-ka-!e (the Karoo San), N||n‡e (southern Kalahari San), ||Xegwi (North Drakensberg San), etc. In the N|u language, spoken by the N||n‡e people, the word for San hunter-gatherers is Sasi. This word may have had the same origin as the word San, but it also refers to the sacred eland antelope.

The Khoekhoe identifies various peoples who speak languages from the western branch of the Khoe language family. Typically Khoekhoen (plural form) were cattle and sheep herders, at least for the last 2 500 years. Some San peoples spoke the same language as the Khoekhoen, these include many ‡Khomani and other historical San groups and the Hai||om of the Etosha region. The term Khoe-San was coined by Schulze to capture the group of peoples in the region all of whom spoke aboriginal languages with clicks in them.

There are three major language families under the Khoe-San language stock: Ju languages, Khoe languages, and !Ui-Taa languages. Ju languages include: Ju|’hoansi, !Xun and !Kung. Khoe languages include: Khoekhoegowab, Khwedam, ||Anikhwedam, |Gui, ||Gana, Naro and others. The only surviving Taa language is !Xóõ. The !Ui languages of South Africa are almost extinct. There are ten fluent speakers of N|u left, the last of the !Ui languages.

Hunter-gatherers spoke languages from all three families, whereas herding only became an economic practice amongst Khoekhoe speakers.

Today there are about 100 000 San people, speaking 35 Khoe-San languages across southern Africa including the non-San Hadzabe hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Very few San people are able to live by hunting and gathering these days. Most work as farm labourers, live unemployed in marginal settlements, work in their own income generation projects, several groups run nature conservancies, some still hunt and gatherers, others have no income source other than small pensions from the state.

Some groups in South Africa have rediscovered their suppressed indigenous identity and choose to call themselves Khoesan. The Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), a council of San leadership has rejected this term as it continues to put them in a subordinate position. They have recommended to researchers and scientists that their gene type and language stock be referred to as Khoe-San, that their peoples be collectively known as San, and that people can learn more about the names of the different ethnic groups and languages within the San peoples.

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Ancient Pre-History

The San and the Khoekhoe peoples are aboriginal to southern Africa. This means the San and Khoekhoe are descendants of the first people who ever lived here, before black or white people migrated into the region.

Archaeologists tend to agree that the San are the descendants of the original Homo sapiens (modern day man) who occupied South Africa for at least 150 000 years. Geneticists say that the oldest gene pattern amongst modern humans is that of the Khoe-San. It dates back to about 80 000 years ago. All other peoples on the planet, Europeans, Black Africans, Asians, North and South Americans, Australians are all descendants from this original gene type. The only possible exception is that of the Hadzabe hunter-gatherers of Tanzania who split off very early from the Khoe-San.

From about 25 000 years ago, there is evidence of cultural practices that were still being followed until recently by southern African hunter-gatherers – such as the making of ostrich eggshell beads, shell ornaments, the bow and arrow and rock art. This jump in culture is possibly linked to rapid changes in the ability of the human brain and body structure to cope with complex language production.

The migration of homo sapiens out of Africa took place from about 40 000 years ago, coinciding with the possible acceleration of our language skills. Each group of people who left Africa took with them new language families. At that time all humans were hunters and gatherers.

There is a debate between palaeontologists and linguists about when humans developed to the point that our ancestors were able to pronounce more sounds and with rapid brain development we were able to move into more abstract thought, as represented in our tools and art forms. This is when we start to see the spread of rock art in Southern Africa.

Khoe-San peoples and their descendants were hunter-gatherers until the ancestors of the Khoekhoe acquired domesticated animal stock some where prior to 2 500 years ago. The Khoekhoe seem to have migrated into South Africa about 2000 years ago either from Namibia or Botswana, bringing with them sheep herding culture, and different social organisation than that common amongst hunter-gatherers. Typically, hunter-gatherer groups were small, without complex political leadership or any military capacity.

There have been three major waves of genetic, cultural and technological immigration into South Africa: Khoekhoe herders, Bantu speaking agro-pastoralists, and European colonial agro-pastoralists. Each group brought major changes to the lives of the San peoples.

As noted above, the Khoekhoe migrated into the country about 2 500 – 2000 years ago, occupying coastal areas, the southern Cape, and the major rivers, such as the Orange River (called !Garib). They may have made friends with the San hunters in some cases, but the San also appear to have withdrawn to the mountains and deserts of South Africa.

In the !Garib River area archaeologists believe that the San were friends with Einikhoe (possibly from the N|u word Kx’ain, river, drink. Kx’ainikhoen). Later, after European occupation of the Cape, there was conflict with neighbouring peoples. This included violence between San groups and others such as the Namakhoe, !Orakhoe, Oorlams and Griquas. The San at this time were driven further out of the river areas into remoter areas with less water.

The first Bantu-speaking agriculturalists moved into South Africa about 1 800 years ago, with the major migration of agro-pastoralists happening about 800 years ago. The term Bantu developed negative connotations during apartheid. The term is used here to identify a sub branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Over the following centuries, there was extensive interaction between the San and the various Khoe and Bantu-speaking immigrants. South Africa’s dominant cultures and languages are all shaped by this contact. Genetically many South Africans have DNA that demonstrates intermarriage with aboriginal peoples. Culturally, some Coloured, Griqua, Zulu, Swati and Xhosa South Africans still identify with their aboriginal Khoe-San roots.

Europeans arrived at the Cape of Good Hope from 1652 onwards. Their impact was devastating: bringing colonisation, armed conflict, land seizures and new diseases. Khoe and San peoples did not have antibodies to the European diseases such as small pox, and many thousands died during epidemics in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 17th and 18th centuries European settlers were permitted to hunt San as if they were animals. Europeans Christians did not believe that Black people had souls until the 19th century. Most South African San either perished during the protracted genocide or were forcibly assimilated into other cultures.

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The San of the Southern Kalahari

At the time of contact with Europe, South Africa was populated by San people who spoke languages from the Southern Khoesan language family, almost all of these from a single sub-branch known as !Ui or !Kwi. It was these !Ui speaking groups who appear to have been the original occupants of the southern Kalahari and Karoo deserts. The !Ui languages do not appear anywhere else in southern Africa, so we assume that they developed only in South Africa. At this stage it is impossible to give an accurate date for their development, but it would be reasonable to say there is at least a 10 000 year gap between !Ui languages and the other families, Ju and Khoe. However, it may emerge that this split was even earlier, perhaps 40 000 or 50 000 years ago.

There is a notably gap in development between the !Ui languages and the Taa languages which suggests there were waves of population dispersal from south to north prior to the arrival of the Khoekhoe. There is still a close relationship between the N|u language of the Kalahari and other !Ui languages such as |Xam south of the river, and ||Xegwi from the Drakensburg. This suggests that the !Ui family spread out slowly and later than the Taa family migration.

!Ui languages are all extinct now, but according to the records of Europeans they included: |Xam (Karoo San, by far the largest), N|u (also called ‡Khomani and ||Ng) of Gordonia / Postmasburg), ||Xegwi (Northern Drakensberg), !Khuai-Seroa (Western Drakensberg), !Gã!ne (Southern Drakensberg), ‡Unkue, ||Kx’au and ||U||e, all of the Western Free State, eastern Northern Cape area. There were languages north of N|u, in the Kalahari desert. These included |’Auo, K’u|haasi, “Sesarwa”, which are normally considered to be !Ui but may be closer to Taa languages further north.

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Twentieth century history:

The San in Gordonia (Siyanda) District

The southern Kalahari, a desert region with no surface water stretching some 300 km north of the Orange River, remained relatively out of reach of settlers until the 19th century. From the 1860s onwards Baster (mixed race) and Coloured settlers moved into the San territory. There were also !Gorakhoe (Koranas) along the Orange River with whom the San probably had some interaction during the preceding century or two. The Einiqua (Kx’ainikhoen) had also probably had some contact with these San groups for several centuries but were dispersed by the mid 19th century.

Many San groups were displaced during this period of internal colonisation. Demographics changed even more rapidly in 1904 when there was an invasion of Nama rebels fleeing the Nama-German war in Namibia.

Between 1904 and 1908 the German imperial army waged wars and committed genocide against a number of Namibian peoples including the Herero, the Nama and various San groups. The Nama-German conflict was intense and spilled over into South Africa where there were pitched battles in the southern Kalahari. It had two significant impacts. It displaced all surviving San peoples in the area and tossed different ethnic groups together. It also triggered a reaction by South African colonial authorities to occupy and ‘tame’ this frontier. Land was given to European settlers who dispossessed the hunter-gatherers, as well as displacing many of the Nama, Baster and Coloured agro-pastoralists.

According to San oral history and archival research there were a number of San groups living in the southern Kalahari. The largest population referred to themselves as N||n‡e (Home People) or Sasi (a general term for Bushmen / San) and were speakers of N|u, a !Ui language variety. In 1911 and 1936 European researchers identified the dominant San group in the southern Kalahari as the ‡Khomani. Neighbouring San groups included the |’Auni and Khatea who spoke related !Ui varieties. They were joined by the N|amani and ‡Hanaseb, San who were probably driven south from Namibia and speaking Khoekhoegowab.

In the 1920s, the southern Kalahari San were in crisis due to the alienation of land, severe restrictions to their mobility in a fragile desert ecosystem and the famine caused by settler over-hunting. After some debate in Parliament about whether and how to protect the San, in 1931 the Government declared a National Park on their traditional territory between the ‡Nosob and Au !ab rivers in the northern end of Gordonia District. National Parks Board and the lobby of settler farmers were able to divert the intentions of the Minister of Home Affairs, and eventually the Parliament declared the Park without any special guarantees for the San people. The situation of the San remained vulnerable for the following decades until the final expulsion of the last families.

In 1936, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, Donald Bain, took seventy San individuals out of the Park to participate in the British Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg. His aim was to draw attention to their predicament in the face of the declaration of the National park. Those San who left the Park to go to Johannesburg were never allowed to return and their possessions were burned. In 1937 the new warden brought San and other ethnic labourers to work in the Park. The majority of the San labourers were ‡Hanaseb and N|amani who had been casual users of the area prior to proclamation.

During the 1940s, the San still living in the Park as labourers were allowed to hunt and gather there as well as assist with conservation and tracking. All other San were driven out to work as cheap labour on local farms. During apartheid the San who remained in the Park experienced increasing degradation and humiliation. When they resisted, the warden expelled them in 1972.

Owing to dispossession and diaspora, almost all of the San ceased to use their ancestral languages and switched to Afrikaans and Nama (Khoekhoegowab), the common language of the southern Kalahari. In 1973, the world’s leading linguist working on Southern San languages, Professor Anthony Traill, interviewed |Okosi Koper who was living at Nossob Camp in the Park. She claimed to be the last speaker of N|uhci [i.e. N|u]. This was evidently not the case as there were dozens of other N|u speakers in the area.

In 1991, the core surviving ‡Hanaseb San group, led by the patriarch !Gam!gaub Regopstaan Kruiper, came to settle at the tourist resort of Kagga Kamma near Ceres in the Western Cape. In 1995, they came into contact with a human rights lawyer, Roger Chennells, who explained the new land laws that gave them the right to restitution for the losses they had experienced since 1913.

A land claim was launched with the help of the South African San Institute (SASI) that was successful in 1999. 40 000 hectares of land outside the National Park has been given to the San. A further 25 000 hectares inside the Park was returned to the ‡Khomani San in 2002. The amalgam of different people of San ancestry adopted the name ‡Khomani to represent the identity of their newly re-united community.

Regopstaan Kruiper’s son Dawid, the current ‡Khomani traditional leader, asked that SASI help locate his dispossessed people and any who might still know the ancestral language. By this time Dawid and his community had completely associated themselves with the ‡Khomani ethnic identity, though archival research makes it clear that both his father and grandfather identified themselves as ‡Hanaseb (Kruiper).

The first surviving N|u speaker to resurface was Elsie Vaalbooi, located in February 1997, the second was Anna Kassie in August 1997. There are now 21 living N|u speakers identified though nine have died since the SASI Cultural Resources Auditing project began.

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The ‡Khomani San today

The southern Kalahari San community was originally thought to constitute some 50 adults and to be of one ethnic origin, namely ‡Khomani. Through years of community research and outreach over 600 people have been registered on the land claim. It is likely that another one thousand direct descendants are still to be located.

To be San today in Siyanda District means different things to different people in the community. Some people still live in their traditional leather clothing, most dress in western dress like the majority of South Africans. A lot of the young people have very little idea about their heritage. Until the land claim many youth had no idea that they were San. The very old people in the community know pieces of their history and have a lot of traditional knowledge and skills. SASI works together with the ‡Khomani leadership to help young people and old people come together to talk about the past, their history, and learn skills, which can be used to create new types of livelihoods.

Current projects include a tracker-training programme in the Kalahari for young people. Other youth are working on heritage tours, developing cultural products for visiting tourists and their own community. One of the big successes has been the development of the ‡Khomani Sîsen project, a craft project where San youth and adults use natural materials to create beads and artwork. Here again there is a mix of the old and the new.

With the coming of a new and democratic political regime in South Africa since 1994, the scattered members of the ‡Khomani San community of the southern Kalahari find themselves at a cross-roads where they have to try to impress their will on the type of future available to them. One path may involve agricultural economic development but at the cost of their intellectual and cultural heritage. The other, the more difficult path, involves collecting the pieces of a shattered society, empowering those with a knowledge of the hunting and gathering system, and using these resources to rebuild a sense of community and an economic future that rests on an ancient heritage. This latter model of development sees a recycling of traditional knowledge into new opportunities whilst actively engaging in heritage management.

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