• Indigenous peoples in South Africa

    Indigenous peoples in South Africa

    South Africa has voted in favour of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but has yet to ratify ILO Convention No. 169.
    The indigenous San and Khoekhoe peoples of South Africa were previously known as “coloured”. Now they are exercising their right to self-identification and identify themselves as San and Khoekhoe or Khoe-San.

The Indigenous World 2022: South Africa

South Africa’s total population is around 59 million, of which Indigenous groups are estimated to comprise approximately 1%. Collectively, the various African Indigenous communities in South Africa are known as Khoisan, comprising the San and the Khoikhoi. The main San groups include the ‡Khomani San, who reside mainly in the Kalahari region, and the Khwe and!Xun, who reside mainly in Platfontein, Kimberley.

The Khoikhoi include the Nama, who reside mainly in the Northern Cape Province; the Koranna mainly in Kimberley and the Free State province; the Griqua in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal provinces; and the Cape Khoekhoe in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, with growing pockets in the Gauteng and Free State provinces. In contemporary South Africa, Khoikhoi and San communities exhibit a range of socio-economic and cultural lifestyles and practices.

The socio-political changes brought about by the current South African regime have created the space for a deconstruction of the racially-determined apartheid social categories such as “Coloureds”. Many previously “Coloured” people are now exercising their right to self-identification and are identifying as San and Khoikhoi. African Indigenous San and Khoikhoi peoples are not formally recognised in terms of national legislation; however, this is shifting with the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Act enacted in 2021. South Africa voted in favour of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but has yet to ratify ILO Convention No. 169.

One woman’s mission to save an Indigenous language

The Khoikhoi and San (together the Khoisan) people were dispossessed of their land and prevented from continuing their traditional ways of life during the early colonisation of South Africa and, later, under apartheid laws. To survive, they worked on white-owned farms as labourers or domestic servants. Besides the physical hardships suffered during this time, the traditions, culture and language of these Indigenous groups were threatened. While working on the farms, Khoisan people were forbidden from speaking their mother tongue.

The N|uu language of the San people was therefore thought to be extinct by the end of apartheid rule in the mid-1990s. Yet a few older people remained who could still speak N|uu, and they were identified after an appeal via radio from Elsie Vaalbooi, a N|uu speaker. Since then, most of these N|uu speakers have passed away, leaving only one woman as the last known fluent N|uu speaker – Katrina Esau (known as Ouma (grandmother) Katrina).[1]

Now in her late eighties, Ouma Katrina has played a leading role in rescuing her language from extinction by teaching the language to young people aged 3-19 using songs, play and images. Alongside two professional linguists, she created the first written educational materials in the N|uu language, including a trilingual reader and a children’s storybook. She has achieved this without having had the opportunity to learn to read or write herself. Ouma Katrina’s granddaughter has assisted her in developing these materials and her teachings have been recorded for posterity. In July 2021, the Premier of the Northern Cape honoured her commitment, recognising her as a living human treasure as well as a recipient of the Order of Baobab, by handing over a vehicle to the Royal house of N//n!e under which her school of language, ǂAqe ǁX’oqe – meaning “Gaze at the Stars” operates.

Conflict over development of an Indigenous heritage site

The African headquarters of Amazon is being constructed[2] on a site of historical and cultural significance for the Khoisan people in Cape Town; this site is also of environmental significance as a river floodplain. Although the project includes a cultural, heritage and media centre that will recognise the importance of this site to the Khoisan, Indigenous groups are divided as to whether or not this development should go ahead.

The Western Cape First Nations Collective (WCFNC),[3] which represents several Khoikhoi and San peoples connected to the historical five groups (Gorinhaiqua, Gorachouqua, Cochoqua, Korana, Griqua Royal House, San Royal House of Nǀǀnǂe), are in favour of the development. They confirmed this development to have been participatory and inclusive of their collective voices, and they stated that all affected stakeholders had had an opportunity to participate. The WCFNC will run the heritage centre at the site, which they hail as a major milestone in their decades-long struggle for recognition of their culture and heritage. In a media interview, Chief Garu Zenzile Khoisan[4] stated that the First Nations Collective supports this development in the interests of their people, and views this new heritage centre as a place of anchorage for the Khoisan people where they can reclaim the story of their own history and traditions.

Other First Nations organisations,[5] however, have joined activist groups in opposing the development and, in August 2021, they filed a court case aimed at halting construction at the site. They argue that developing the site will destroy its intangible cultural significance to KhoeSan people. Some activists argue[6] that this site is being considered for declaration as a national and world heritage site, and that this would be compromised by the development. The court case is ongoing.

Khoisan communities reclaiming land in the Western Cape

The process of land reform in South Africa is meant to bring justice, restore dignity and foster equity after the systemic land dispossessions that took place under apartheid. However, this process has been delayed and has largely excluded the Khoisan people, who were dispossessed of their land prior to the apartheid era.[7] This has resulted in some Khoisan communities taking action themselves by reclaiming ancestral lands throughout the Western Cape, thus forming settlements that are considered illegal by the government.

The Cochoqua Tribal Council, with the Chainouqua, Hessequa and Outeniqua!Xam groups, has attempted to occupy land at 67 different sites across the Western Cape province.[8] The government has blocked the settlement of many of these areas by obtaining court orders and arresting settlers. Communities are hoping that their settlements will finally result in the government acting on its promises of returning land to historically displaced Indigenous groups.

One of these disputed areas is near the town of Grabouw in the Western Cape, where a community of Khoikhoi people is settling on land that is currently owned by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure.[9] Their community leader states that there is evidence that their ancestors occupied this land prior to colonisation. Despite not having access to basic amenities such s water and electricity due to their lack of formal tenure over the land, the community is determined to reclaim this land from the government.

Leslé Jansen is CEO at Resource Africa Southern Africa based in Cape Town. She is also an Indigenous lawyer serving on the African Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and Minorities in Africa.

Gail Potgieter is a conservation communication consultant who works closely with rural communities and conservation organisations in southern Africa. She has worked in Botswana and Namibia for 10 years in wildlife management areas. At Resource Africa Southern Africa she works as a communications consultant to amplify the voices of rural communities.


This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Flanagan, Padraic. “How one woman saved South Africa’s oldest language.” inews.co.uk,  June 12, 2021. https://inews.co.uk/news/world/how-one-woman-saved-south-africa-oldest-language-san-bushmen-1044641

[2] Charles, Marvin. “Court battle looms over R4 billion redevelopment of The River Club in Cape Town.” News24, August 4, 2021. https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/court-battle-looms-over-r4-billion-redevelopment-of-the-river-club-in-cape-town-20210804

[3] Landsberg, Ian. “Western Cape First Nations Collective on the River Club development.” YouTube, January 13, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpsznVmEXvw

[4] eNCA. “Khoi and San divided over River Club Development in Cape Town.”September 27, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmkIzUuwfFQ

[5] Liesbeek Action Campaign. “Organisations Leading on Legal Action.” https://www.liesbeek.org/organisations-opposing-the-development

[6] eNCA. “Indigenous groups protest against Amazon’s proposed headquarters in Cape Town”.  YouTube, November 26, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nV5QkB1NSIE

[7] Jansen, Leslé. “South Africa.” In The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 132-138. Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2021. https://www.iwgia.org/en/resources/indigenous-world

[8] Thebus, Shakirah. “Khoisan continue with land reclaiming in the Western Cape despite some pushback”. IOL , January 11, 2022. https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/news/khoisan-continue-with-land-reclaiming-in-the-western-cape-despite-some-pushback-433f0e91-e13c-4685-aa11-137b7878dea9

[9] Newzroom Afrika. “The people of Knoflokskraal will not leave 'the land that belongs to their ancestors'.” YouTube, October 24, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJyxxdKezR8



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