• 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 2023: 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 Khoe-San (also spelled Khoi-san, Khoesan, 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 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 recognized 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.


Responding to draft South African policies on sustainable use of wildlife

The South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) released the Draft White Paper on Conservation and Sustainable Use of South Africa’s Diversity (hereinafter, White Paper) and the related Draft Game Meat Strategy for South Africa (hereinafter, Game Meat Strategy) for comment in mid-2022. The purpose of the White Paper was to create an overarching policy environment for the sustainable use of plants and animals in South Africa. The Game Meat Strategy was a more detailed proposal to promote the production of game meat for human consumption and to make the game ranching industry in South Africa more inclusive.

In response to the government’s call for comments on both documents, the Elsie Vaalbooi Development Organization (EVDO, representing San people from the Kalahari), the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Co-Op (KhoiKhoi and San people) and the National Khoi-San Council submitted letters in support of a technical submission from Resource Africa.[i] The Community Leaders Network of Southern Africa (CLN), which represents rural communities that include Indigenous Peoples’ groups, also provided support for this submission. The key points that were highlighted in the Resource Africa submission and endorsed through the support letters of the Indigenous communities were: 1) the need to develop community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) in South Africa; 2) the historic and current reliance of Indigenous Peoples’ groups on the sustainable use of plants and animals for their livelihoods; 3) the need for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to be adhered to by government in the process of making new policies; and 4) the need for current policies to reflect the South African Constitution insofar as it supports the legal principle of sustainable use.

These letters called for the government to learn from neighbouring countries that have implemented CBNRM as a policy that promotes sustainable development and nature conservation in rural areas. The Draft White Paper referred to communities largely as passive recipients of the benefits derived from the sustainable use of biodiversity. This approach fails to recognize rural communities as the primary custodians of wildlife and the traditional customs of Indigenous people that have regulated harvesting and hunting to ensure long-term sustainability.

The concept of CBNRM, by contrast, puts communities at the centre of conservation and allows them to draw on traditional practices of sustainable use in their wildlife management strategies. Since Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe all have long-running CBNRM programmes and policies to support this concept, the South African government can learn from these to develop CBNRM nationally.

The history of South Africa was marked by a lack of FPIC under the apartheid government when making decisions on where and how Indigenous people and local communities were allowed to live. People were thus dispossessed of their rights to use natural resources based on their traditional practices, as these were considered to be State property. Article 24(b) of the new South African Constitution is clear that all South Africans have the right to “secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development”. It is in this spirit that these institutions reminded the South African government of their rights to natural resources.

While the government took into account the recommendations of several experts, non-governmental organizations and industry stakeholders when drafting the White Paper and Game Meat Strategy, prior to this call for comments there was no opportunity for Indigenous people and local communities to contribute to this process.


Indigenous heritage - Two Rivers

The African headquarters of Amazon is being constructed[ii] at a site of historical and cultural significance for the KhoeSan 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 recognize the importance of this site to the KhoeSan, Indigenous groups are divided over whether or not this development should go ahead.

The Western Cape First Nations Collective (WCFNC) a registered Indigenous umbrella body of Khoikhoi organizations,[iii] which represents several KhoiKhoi and San people connected to the historical five groups (Gorinhaiqua, Gorachouqua, Cochoqua, Korana, Griqua Royal House, San Royal House of Nǀǀnǂe), is in favour of the development. They confirmed that it has been participatory and inclusive of their collective voices, and they stated that all affected stakeholders had had the 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,[iv] as chair of WCFNC, stated that they supported this development in the interests of their people, seeing this new heritage centre as a place of anchorage for the KhoeSan people where they can reclaim the story of their own history and traditions.

However, other First Nations organizations[v] have joined activist groups that oppose the development and which, in August 2021, filed a court case aimed at halting construction at the site. The Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Tribal Council (GKKITC) opposed the development on the grounds that the area is of intangible heritage and should not be destroyed. The River Club, where the development is currently being constructed, sits at the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek rivers – an area considered sacred by the First Nation people as a result of the Battle of the Gorinhaiqua, which saw the Khoi group kill the Portuguese Viceroy Francisco de Almeida, who had raided the First Nations’ cattle.

In November 2022, the Cape Town High Court dismissed an earlier decision to ban the development. The court concluded that the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council’s (which forms part of the First Nations Organizations opposing Amazon’s development) High Commissioner Tauriq Jenkins had “misrepresented” the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin’s constitution and therefore had no authority to bring an application in their name. Court papers and the ruling show that some members of the GKKITC said they had not given Jenkins the authority to pursue the case legally in their name, while another said he had been made to sign forms he did not quite comprehend. Others also claimed not to know or ever have met Jenkins.[vi] The court found it was clear the decision was based on misrepresentation.

The Western Cape First Nations Collective Chair, Zenzile Khoisan, stated

… our position to exercise the right of Indigenous cultural agency has been vindicated by the courts because what we have done is to engage with the developer to do what the South African government has failed to over more than three decades of democracy.[vii]

It remains to be seen if other parties will institute further proceedings to oppose the development.


Knoflokskraal, Grabouw-KhoeSan communities reclaiming ancestral land in the Western Cape

The process of land reform in South Africa is meant to bring justice, restore dignity and foster equity after systemic land dispossession under apartheid and colonialism. This process has, however, been delayed and has largely excluded the KhoeSan people, who were dispossessed of their land prior to the apartheid era during early colonial periods.[viii]

The continued land reform exclusions resulted in some KhoeSan communities taking action by reclaiming ancestral lands in some parts of the Western Cape, thus forming settlements on State land that are considered illegal by the government.

In recent years, the Cochoqua Tribal Council, with the Chainouqua, Hessequa and Outeniqua!Xam groups, has attempted to occupy lands in 67 different sites across the Western Cape province.[ix] The government has blocked the settlement of many of these areas by obtaining court bans and arresting settlers. Communities are hoping that their settlements will finally result in the government acting on its promises for land restitution to historically displaced Indigenous Peoples’ 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 Government Department of Public Works.[x] Their community leader states that there is evidence that their ancestors occupied this land prior to colonization.

Despite not having access to basic amenities such as water and electricity, the community continues to be determined to reclaim its ancestral land from the government. During 2022, the South African Parliamentary Portfolio Committee was briefed by the South African Police and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment on the land invasions into the Grabouw forest area. The parliamentary committee questioned the police about the number of cases opened and how they were dealing with these “invaders”. The Indigenous community, for their part, is continuing its struggle for secure tenure to their ancestral lands found within the Grabouw forestry area.[xi]


Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Act

In March, the Commission on Khoi-San Matters under the Department of Traditional Affairs launched an awareness campaign about the application process for Khoi -San communities and leaders who wish to be recognized as such under the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Act of 2019.[xii] The campaign focused on engaging communities in the application process, criteria for qualification, application forms, and other provisions of the act concerning applications, including the timeframes within which applications for recognition can be submitted and processed. The campaign was linked to the opening of the application process. Prospective applicants will have two years to submit their applications to the commission. Applications will close on 29 March 2024.

Chaired by Prof. Nico Adam Botha, the commission was established in 2021 with the purpose of assisting the government in the recognition process of Khoi-San communities and leaders. The commission investigates applications for recognition and makes recommendations to the minister responsible for traditional and Khoi-San leadership.[xiii]

As the government is in the process of operationalizing the act through the opening of the application process, some civil society organizations and Khoi-San leaders are criticizing and even opposing the act. Some argue that the act is flawed when it comes to protecting the customary and informal land rights of communities living in communal land areas and lacks tools that would permit rural citizens to hold traditional authorities accountable.[xiv] Others challenge the very requirement for Khoi-San communities to go through a process of application for recognition.[xv]



Lesle Jansen is Head of Indigenous Peoples & Local Communities Resource Rights at Jamma International. She is from South Africa and based in Cape Town. She is also an Indigenous lawyer serving on the African Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations and Minorities in Africa.

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


This article is part of the 37th 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 2023 in full here.



Notes and References

[i] Ms Jansen, an author of this paper, is the CEO of Resource Africa.

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

[iii] YouTube. “Western Cape First Nations Collective on the River Club development.” Ian Landsberg, 31 January 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpsznVmEXvw

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

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

[vi] Ngcuka.O. Daily Maverick: “First Nations Group opposed to Amazon Headquarters Project Appeals Recent Court Judgement.” 7 December 2022, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-12-07-first-nations-group-opposed-to-amazon-headquarters-project-appeals-recent-court-judgment/

[vii] Williams, Rafieka. “Victory for Amazon HQ developers after River Club judgment rescinded based on fraud.” IOL, 9 November 2022, https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/news/victory-for-amazon-hq-developers-after-river-club-judgment-rescinded-based-on-fraud-92e70d2c-0881-44cd-8f0d-6ab7e704a1c3

[viii] Jansen, Lesle. “South Africa.” In The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo, pp. 132-138. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2021, The Indigenous World 2021: South Africa - IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs

[ix] Thebus, Shakirah. “Khoisan continue with land reclaiming in the Western Cape despite some pushback.” IOL News, 11 January 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/news/khoisan-continue-with-land-reclaiming-in-the-western-cape-despite-some-pushback-433f0e91-e13c-4685-aa11-137b7878dea9

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

[xi] Parliamentary Monitoring Group. “Land invasions at ‘Knoflokskraal’ site in the Grabouw plantation: follow-up engagement with Ministers.” 25 October 2022, https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/35827/

[xii] Jansen, Lesle.

[xiii] Government Gazetter. Department of Traditional Affairs. Notice 1207 of 2022. Invitation to nominate persons to be considered as members of commission on Khoi-San matters.” 5 August 2022, https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/gcis_document/202208/47197gen1207.pdf

[xiv] “STOP THE BANTUSTANS CAMPAIGN: Taking the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Act 3 of 2019 to court.” https://lrc.org.za/wp-content/uploads/LRC-TKLA-englishWEB.pdf

[xv] Pongco, Siyamthanda. “Khoi-San Leadership Act ‘writes SA’s first indigenous people out of history’.” Grocotts Mail, 20 April 2022, https://grocotts.ru.ac.za/2022/04/20/khoi-san-leadership-act-writes-sas-first-indigenous-people-out-of-history/

Tags: Global governance



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