Foragers to First Peoples: The Kalahari San Today

As the original inhabitants of southern Africa, the San lived for millennia as independent hunters and gatherers. The rich heritage of rock art there is attributed to ancestral San. The San represent for many an unspoiled “natural humanity” living in harmony with nature, and the works of Laurens Van Der Post and films like The Gods Must Be Crazy reinforce this romantic image.

The reality for present-day San is different. They are second-class citizens in the lands of their birth, and suffer daily discrimination at the hands of other ethnic groups. Not so long ago, Tswana tribespeople referred to their San servants as “bulls” and “heifers.” One Motswana, seeing a group of San children playing, said, “If only they went to school they would be people.” (Quoted by Michael Taylor, 2000; see page 57)

The San’s history is not unique. Virtually all southern African peoples have experienced wrenching cultural change, war, dispossession, and ethnocide. But the San’s plight was compounded by their status as social outcasts, not only in the eyes of European settlers, but by their fellow Africans as well. As described in the important comprehensive five-volume study, Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa, edited by James Suzman (2001), surviving San were the subjects of special statutes in every country they lived in. Their nomadic ways, essential to their survival, were treated as vagrancy and suppressed. In certain areas repression and violence continue to the present.

It is a tribute to San resilience and cultural strength that they have overcome many obstacles to retain their language, culture, and religious beliefs, even if circumstances have forced them to give up foraging. Coming to political consciousness, some San have recreated themselves as First Peoples, and, with the assistance of sympathetic outsiders, have fought successfully for land and civil rights. While discrimination remains, governments in the region have begun to recognize the San’s uniqueness and to institute at least some policies in support of San development aspirations. This special issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly will pinpoint areas where serious injustices persist, but will also give examples of communities where small victories have been won in the fight for cultural survival.

The San in History Ancestral San peoples have lived in southern Africa since ancient times. The oldest unequivocal remains of Homo sapiens sapiens—dated to 125,000 B.C.E.—have been excavated at Klassies River Mouth east of Cape Town. For thousands of generations the San people lived, hunting and gathering, as the sole occupants of southern Africa. Archaeological evidence records that they lived in small mobile groups with a complex microlithic stone tool technology. Around the time of Christ some of the San hunters began to herd goats and sheep and later cattle, becoming in time the Khoi peoples, also known as Hottentots. Both San and Khoi retained the unique click languages for which they are famous. In the early years of the Common Era, proto-Bantu-speaking peoples crossed the Zambezi and began their famous southward migration that led to the formation of the powerful Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Sotho chiefdoms whose descendants form the large majority of South Africa’s population today.

In the East, San and incoming Bantu peoples mixed and intermarried and the latter adopted the click sounds of the Khoisan languages. In the western part of the subcontinent, however, San and Khoi retained their autonomy. They were at the Cape of Good Hope on that fateful day in 1652 when Jan Van Riebeck of the Dutch East India Company landed to establish the first European settlement in what is now South Africa.

The ensuing centuries constitute one of the most tragic chapters in the history of European colonialism. As the Dutch expanded north, they conquered the Khoi tribes, who eventually assimilated and reemerged as the so-called Cape Coloured people. But because they resisted Dutch advances so successfully, the San were branded as incorrigible bandits and hunted down relentlessly by the Dutch (now naturalized as Boers or Afrikaners) in annual extermination raids. By the end of the 19th century, San people were believed to be virtually extinct in South Africa.

But beyond the reach of Boer guns, in the German colony of South-West Africa and in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, San peoples survived and even thrived, and it is in contemporary Namibia and Botswana that most of today’s San live. Distance, and the isolation of the Kalahari Desert and its surrounding regions, proved to be the San’s salvation. Nearly 80,000 San are found there today, with smaller numbers in Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In the 20th century, a number of San groups continued to maintain the small-scale nomadic hunting and gathering way of life recorded by anthropologists and filmmakers. A larger percentage, however, were drawn into oppressive work conditions and deeper poverty under the domination of both African and White powerholders.

In a surprising development, the end of Apartheid brought to light in South Africa San peoples speaking languages long believed to be extinct. They had blended into the rural landscape on White farms or on the fringes of towns until the end of Apartheid allowed them to reveal their identities.

Defining San Peoples Today

Four criteria are usually applied to identify San peoples and distinguish them from other Africans:
—A history of hunting and gathering subsistence.
—The possession of click languages.
—Self-identification as San.
—(Least reliably) a distinct physical type.

When all four criteria are present, status as San is virtually certain. But few San today hunt and gather for a living, while some, fearing discrimination, prefer to conceal their San identity. To further complicate matters, many San people identify as such and speak a click language, but in appearance are tall and dark, indistinguishable from their non-San neighbors. A history of hunting and gathering and self-identification as San are probably the best guides to who the San people are.

In the 21st century, San vary widely in their proximity to their hunting and gathering past. Some, like the Nyae Nyae and Dobe Area Ju|’hoansi, were foraging well into the 1960s and 70s (see articles by Biesele and Hitchcock, and by Lee), while others, like the Ts’exa (see Taylor) and the Hai||om (see Widlok) have practiced a mix of hunting, farming, and herding for decades. The majority of present-day San, like the Omaheke Ju|’hoansi of the Gobabis district of Namibia (see Sylvain), live on White farms or in proximity to cattle posts of African neighbors, like the northern !Kung in Ovamboland (see Takada).

Thus, San are today found in at least four different kinds of settings:
—In independent villages practicing a mixed economy (some Ju|’hoansi, Hai||om, Ts’exa).
—Attached to Bantu villages and cattle posts (northern !Kung).
—Working on commercial farms and ranches (Omaheke).
—As part of government resettlement schemes (New Xade, some Ju|’hoansi).

Situation Reports

This issue begins with case studies representing the range of situations in which contemporary San are found.

The first four are representatives of the !Kung language cluster. Megan Biesele, Robert Hitchcock, and Richard Lee report on the Nyae Nyae and Dobe Ju|’hoansi. Immortalized through anthropological writing and films about them as successful hunters and gatherers, they are probably the best known of all San peoples. Renée Sylvain reports on the Ju|’hoansi of the Omaheke, a commercial farming district in Namibia where San people exist in a super-exploited, underpaid work environment strongly reminiscent of the Apartheid era. Far to the northwest of Namibia live the northern !Kung, reported on by Akira Takada. These !Kung, distantly related to the Ju|’hoansi, divide their time foraging on their own and working for Ovambo neighbors on farms and cattle-posts.

The last three case studies describe the all-too-common experience of San people who have been displaced by the demands of wildlife conservation. Thomas Widlok reports on the Hai||om, who occupied a game-rich area in northern Namibia until they were forcibly removed from what is now the Etosha National Park, the largest wildlife preserve in Africa. While the Hai||om now eke out a mixed subsistence in less favorable areas, they are currently mobilizing politically along with other San through their membership in the Workgroup for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA). Michael Taylor reports on the Ts’exa Basarwa of northern Botswana, who are part of a cluster of San peoples known as the River Bushmen of the Okavango Delta, which is a key wildlife area and prime tourist destination. The Ts’exa Basarwa speak eloquently of their history of dispossession. Susan Kent’s work among the Kutse San of central Botswana chronicles another group’s displacement by wildlife interests.

Peoples in Crisis

Of the serious crises facing San peoples today, this issue will highlight four: forced removals in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, insurgency in the Caprivi Strip, resettlement of refugees on San lands, and the threat of AIDS.

Since 1997, more than 1,000 San have been removed from a game park in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and resettled in dysfunctional townsites far from their traditional lands. The adjustment period has been a difficult one, compounded by allegations of arbitrary arrests and torture by overzealous wildlife officers. Robert Hitchcock, who has been tracking the CKGR story for over 20 years, reviews the history of the area and the political, legal, and human rights issues at stake. Junko Maruyama has researched New Xade, the government townsite to which the San people were brought after removal. She documents the ingenious strategies the |Gui and ||Gana have improvised for making a living in a new land. Kazuyoshi Sugawara vividly records the silenced voices of the dispossessed |Gui and ||Gana peoples.

The CKGR situation has dominated news of the San in world media, but less well-known flash points pose even greater threats. The Caprivi is a narrow strip of Namibian territory stretching 300 kilometers eastward into central Africa. The Khoe San, the oldest inhabitants of the Strip, have been caught in the crossfire between the opposing forces on the tense border between Namibia and Angola. Robert Hitchcock and Megan Biesele describe how roughly 1,000 Khoe have fled into Botswana to escape harassment, torture, and extra-judicical killings by one side or the other.

Refugees also lie at the heart of a third crisis facing the San. The largest refugee camp in Namibia is at Osire in the center of the country, where refugees from Angola and other African countries are being housed in overcrowded and inadequate conditions. A recent proposal by the Namibian government would settle more than 20,000 refugees at a new location, 200 kilometers northeast of Osire, at M’Kata, in the center of Tsumkwe District West. But this destination is the present home of some 3,000 San people. The residents of the Tsumkwe district argue that the introduction of so many settlers, a seven-fold increase over current population numbers, would overwhelm the local populace and permanently foreclose their own development opportunities. Robert Hitchcock and Joram |Useb investigate the issues.

Soon after the triumph of non-racial democracy in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s South Africa faced a new and ominous threat. Today southern Africa has the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, ranging from 19.54 percent in Namibia to a staggering 35.8 percent in Botswana. Geographically, the San people are at the epicenter of the world region hardest hit by AIDS. Based on five years of HIV research in Namibia and Botswana, Richard Lee and Ida Susser explore how the AIDS epidemic has affected the San.

Promising Directions

After years of facing overwhelming problems, the San are at last seeing some small victories, particularly in the areas of cultural production (music and art) and natural resource management.

In the early 1990s a group of San in the village of D’Kar, Botswana embarked on a project to produce works of art in a unique San style. In media such as acrylics and printmaking, the Kuru Artists Group’s output has been exhibited in galleries in South Africa and Europe. Mathias Guenther provides a sense of the social context of San art, and discusses another San artist group at Schmidsdrift, South Africa. San music has also found an international audience. Emmanuelle Olivier, a Paris-based ethnomusicologist, has brought troups of Ju|’hoan singers and dancers to Europe, where they have been well received. Their music recordings are finding a niche in contemporary world music.

Robert Hitchcock describes one of the most promising developments for the San—the emergence of Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) schemes, where local groups can manage their own resources in programs that combine subsistence with tourism and conservation. In the last five years, 28 of these schemes have been launched in Botswana alone with another 14 in Namibia. Hitchcock also reveals that recent policy shifts in Botswana could seriously affect these programs and even reverse their successes. Because tourism remains a controversial topic on the agendas of indigenous peoples, Kxao ‡Oma, a prominent Ju|’hoan political activist, and Axel Thoma, a long-time development worker with the San, discuss its pros and cons and conclude that tourism can actually benefit the San—as long as they can exercise control over it. And John Arnold, elected head of the San Traditional Authority in Tsumkwe District West, describes the successes and failures of the Omatako Rest Camp, a pioneering tourism program in his district. TOCADI (the Trust for Okavango Cultural and Development Initiatives), based in Shakawe, Botswana, is currently drilling boreholes in the Dobe area to facilitate tourism ventures and make a bid for San land rights. Kabo Mosweu, a San trust development worker, describes the trials and tribulations of finding water and securing land rights for the Dobe Ju|’hoansi.

San Political Mobilization The past 30 years have witnessed a marked change in world public opinion on the question of indigenous rights—a change highlighted by the UN’s declaration of 1995-2004 as the Decade of the Rights of Indigenous People. Crucial to this development has been the growth of political consciousness among indigenous peoples themselves. Delayed by isolation, lack of schooling, and ongoing discrimination, the wave of consciousness raising that swept the indigenous world in the post-WWII years did not reach the San peoples until the 1980s. The decade since 1990 has seen a burst of political organizing for change on the part of the San people. This issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly carries a series of reports on non-governmental organizations in which San and sympathetic outsiders have combined to address past wrongs and support San aspirations for a better life. The section opens with in-depth reports on WIMSA, an umbrella organization based in Windhoek, Namibia, and on the Kuru Development Trust and TOCADI, both based in Botswana. Sidsel Saugestad reports on the University of Botswana/University of Tromsø San Initiative. Three reports cover the work of the South African San Institute (SASI): Nigel Crawhall explains the Northern Cape Language Recovery Project, SASI lawyer Roger Chennells reports on the ‡Khomani land claim, and Irene Staehelin covers the !Khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre. A report on the Kalahari Peoples Fund, a Texas-based nonprofit foundation supporting San development initiatives since 1973, concludes the section.

How You Can Help

The final section includes a directory of the non-governmental organizations supporting San people, along with contact addresses, phone and fax numbers, and email and Web addresses. Lists of films and recent writings on the San will help readers looking for more information.

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