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Southern Africa Report Archive

Remnants of apartheid linger on for the Khoe-San as their cultural identity remains lost amidst progressive policies of democracy, dignity and equality in South Africa. Addressing the issues connected to their survival is a difficult task. The main concern, land ownership, involves interests divided among powerful mining companies, the Parks board and the farmers union. If the near elimination of their language is any indication, the survival of the Khoe-San remains a serious threat. (dkc)

vol 13 no 3

Still invisible: San and Khoe in the new South Africa
Nigel Crawhall

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 3, May 1998
Page 26



Nigel Crawhall is a sociolinguist working with the South African San Institute. He is a co-operant in CUSO's global program on cultural survival. This article is adapted from a chapter of The National Question: South Africa Between Unity and Diversity, a forthcoming IDASA book.

"Ah eh! We found the Kalahari clean. For years and years the Bushman have lived off the land ... thousands of years ... We did not buy the Kalahari. God gave it to us. He did not loan it to us. He gave it to us. Forever. I do not speak in anger, because I am not angry. But I want the freedom that we once had."

Last Voice of an Ancient Tongue, Ulwazi Educational Radio, 1997)

Elsie Vaalbooi speaks in a hoarse 96-year-old voice while a winter wind whips around the small Vaalbooi house in Rietfontein on the edge of the Kalahari. She is one of the last fluent speakers of the N/u language, South Africa's oldest surviving language, part of the nearly extinct Southern San language family. She is a survivor. Born into a hunter-gatherer culture, she has watched her community move from the autonomy granted by the boundless red desert, to being hemmed in and displaced by international borders, farms, and eventually the fences of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. She witnessed a violent ethnocide that scattered her people and crushed their identity.

When Elsie was "discovered" in February 1997, her presence was a profound shock to many in South Africa. Academics, Parks Board officials and the government of South Africa all claimed that there were no San people left in South Africa, and certainly none who could speak the ancient languages. In this new democracy, Elsie, her descendants, and many other Khoe and San people are committed to making themselves heard, and claiming back the land and natural resources that were forcibly removed from them under colonialism and apartheid.

This quiet but fervent uprising of San and Khoe people marks a challenge to the politicians and bureaucrats of the new South Africa. The presence of an indigenous population, which is consciously making links to a global movement for recognition of indigenous and aboriginal peoples rights, forces the new state to consider some fundamental issues: Who is indigenous? What is a "coloured" identity? And what is the responsibility of the state with regard to deconstructing apartheid identities? Though the African National Congress (ANC) has brought new ideas about democracy, dignity and equality to South Africa, much of the ideological framework for culture and identity has remained trapped in apartheid definitions. The challenge for the new regime will be whether it can allow a grassroots cultural revolution to take place, without trying to control and limit it. Is the new government prepared to open up the issues of race, ethnicity and identity?

Historical roots of San and Khoe

San culture emerged from homo sapien occupation of Southern Africa between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. In South Africa, the original population consisted of hunter-gatherers who spoke related Southern San languages. It is generally accepted that the pastoralist Khoekhoe came into South Africa from Botswana and Namibia much later, approximately 2,000 years ago. They spoke languages from the Central Khoesan family, grammatically very different from the San. Bantu-speaking pastoralists moved into the region approximately 800 years ago. European settlers arrived after 1652, followed by South East Asians and South Asians, many of whom came as slaves, prisoners or indentured labourers for the colonial regime.

Between 1652 and the start of the 19th century a type of holocaust drastically reduced the number of Khoe and San people. This holocaust, conducted by Europeans and their proxies, ranged from murders to full scale wars, and the introduction of virulent European diseases, particularly small pox. If we use language as a barometer of sustainable culture and economy, the San and Khoe populations were reduced from over 200,000 people in the 17th century, to slightly more than five thousand in the 1990s.

Khoe-San communities today

There are currently three Khoe-San languages spoken on a daily basis in South Africa. These are Nama (Khoekhoegowap, spoken by about six thousand people), !X (spoken by three thousand people) and Khwe (Kxoedam, spoken by one thousand people).[The non-alphabetic symbols represent clicks in the words]. The !X and Khwe people are recent immigrants from Angola and Namibia. They were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and recruited into the South African Defence Force during its war against SWAPO in Namibia. At the end of the war they were brought to South Africa. Though the communities live in extreme conditions of poverty, their cultures and identities remain strong. There are three other languages which are spoken by fewer than twenty people and are not used for daily communication: N/u (and its close relative !Kabee) spoken by =Khomani San elders including Elsie; Gri (Xiri) spoken around Kimberly, and Koranna (!Ora) spoken by at least one man at Riemvasmaak. These languages are considered to be extinct, as the languages are no longer passed from generation to generation.

In South Africa, Nama culture and language are in a serious state of collapse. Though they were forced to edges of the country, Nama pastoralists clung to their traditional pastoralism in the remote mountains and arid areas of the Richtersveld and along the Orange River into Gordonia. However, the impact of the Church and school system under apartheid has caused a profound generation gap with few young people learning the ancestral language and traditions.

Language death

All of South Africa's surviving Khoe and San languages are at risk of imminent extinction. The advent of language death in these communities is an indicator of the general collapse of their economic and social systems. Khubus, the largest Nama settlement in South Africa, is the heart of a revival in Nama identity and pride. However, traditional midwife Anna Moos recounts the trend amongst new mothers in Khubus not to speak any Nama to their infants. "They are afraid it will make them backwards," says Moos smiling sadly.

In 1996 - 97, the South African San Institute conducted consultations with rural Khoe and San communities to find out how they felt about the status of their languages and to inform them of their new rights in the constitution. Almost all participants expressed a profound anxiety about the death of their languages. Speaker after speaker told of the humiliation and violence that discouraged them from using their ancestral tongue in public. Most speakers cited the exclusion of their languages from schools as a central factor in stigmatising language learning.

Nama and San people know that the suppression of their identities and languages was required to assert the ideology of apartheid and justify the seizure of lands. According to one Nama speaker, Sacharias Christiaan, the apartheid government forced Nama people to register as coloured so as to invalidate their status as aboriginal people. If the Khoe and San people ceased to exist, no claims could be made to original occupation of land. This was in sharp contrast to the Bantustan policy which had brought to the fore the legal concept of separate territoriality for different linguistic groups. By declaring Nama people to be of mixed race and Afrikaans-speaking, the government was able to suppress any argument for a Nama state, or Nama cultural and linguistic rights.

Recognising that the previous regime played an active role in suppressing their identities, San and Khoe groups are keen to see what the new government is going to do. There is a cautious optimism, primarily as a result of the inclusion of a single clause in the constitution that acknowledges the presence of San and Khoe people.

Language in the constitution

Under the new Constitution the following language rights are guaranteed:

* Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages [emphasis added]

* A Pan South African Language Board established by national legislation must promote and create conditions for the development and use of the Khoi, Nama and San languages

This clause marks the first time that aboriginal South Africans have been acknowledged constitutionally. It is this clause, and the possibilities held out by democracy, that have triggered the mobilisation of San and Khoe people.

Though this clause is extraordinary, it is not the only ground breaking element of the Constitution. South Africa now has eleven official languages. These languages together represent over ninety percent of the total population of the country. This is a radical departure from the old regime that had only English and Afrikaans as official languages. It is even a radical departure from international precedent. Only a few countries have more than two official languages. Prior to 1994, Switzerland had the most with four. For many South Africans, the recognition of eleven official languages symbolises the move to an inclusive state, and away from exclusionary policies of the past. The language clauses are a statement about the Africanisation and democratisation of South Africa. Article 6 of the constitution embodies the political culture in South Africa that embraces tolerance and diversity.

However, the details of how the clause came into being are instructive and tell a slightly different story. The ANC did not enter the Kempton Park constitutional negotiations with a plan for eleven official languages. The original plan was to push for no official languages, thus attempting to skirt an emotive issue. The move did not work. The National Party and its allies were adamant that Afrikaans was not to be demoted. The ANC response was to call for all "South African" languages to be made official.

The languages given this august status were the very same eleven languages that were already in administrative use by the Republic and the homeland states prior to negotiations. Apartheid was built on these languages (and state-sponsored identities). A number of South African languages were not given recognition or consideration in the final Constitution, including Northern Ndebele, Phuthi, Lobedu, Makhuwa and Thonga. They were excluded from the constitution because none of these languages was used by Bantustan administrations. Though the Verwoerdian regime had tried to argue that there were autonomous nations with distinct linguistic identities in South Africa, the truth was never so neat. One of the official languages, Northern Sotho, was such a fabrication of apartheid that its speakers could not agree on whether it was one or many languages and what it should be called. The final Constitution recognised the language as SePedi, the dominant dialect of the old apartheid creation.

When it came to identifying non-official languages, the constitution writers again resorted to established constituencies under apartheid. The European and Asian languages that were identified were already recognised by the apartheid school system and were to some degree part of the fringe ethnic political constituencies under apartheid. None of the languages spoken by the one million aliens of African origin (migrants, immigrants and refugees) was mentioned, despite the superior numbers of speakers.

Language is not the only apartheid rubric that has survived the transition to democracy. The Central Statistics Service (CSS) continues to use the terms African, white, coloured and Asian to describe the racial-ethnic variation in the country. There are two problems with this. Firstly, the majority of three million so-called coloured South Africans are of direct Khoe and San descent, with over one hundred thousand still referring to themselves as Griqua, Nama, Bushman or Koranna. Though some South Africans may comfortably identify themselves as "coloured," the term has been rejected by others. For it is a myth that still holds some force that "coloured" people are of "mixed race," with settler origins. In fact, the majority of so-called "coloured" South Africans are at least as indigenous as so called "Africans."

The flip side of this mythology is that Bantu-language speaking South Africans may claim a special authenticity and indigenous status and assert that they are not of "mixed race." These assumptions are rooted firmly in colonial and apartheid policies. In the building of colonial and then apartheid hegemony, the settler regime promoted distinctions between South Africans whose languages, cultures and genetic material were in fact interwoven. The racial terminology, "Native", "Bantu" and later the nine ethno-linguistic African groups, carried forth the fiction that most South Africans are not of mixed race, whereas historical research clearly shows much intermarriage between Khoe, San, Nguni and Sotho speaking peoples. Arguably, in the new era this racial mythology has been recycled and conveniently creates a mythological original and authentic status for the dominant "Black" "African" "Nguni-Sotho" elite which is contrasted with other less authentic identities: white, coloured and Asian.

Herein lies a thorny issue raised by the Khoe and San revival and the global movement to acknowledge indigenous/aboriginal rights. What would it mean for the ANC government to acknowledge Khoe and San South Africans as original occupants of the land, not byproducts of colonialism as suggested by the term "coloured"? The ANC has built its identity around the concept that its followers are indigenous South Africans, resisting colonisation of a special variety perpetrated by descendants of European settlers. This discourse eclipses the historical reality that the Khoe and San people lived in Southern Africa for at least twenty-three thousand years before black, Bantu-speaking pastoralists migrated across the Limpopo river. It also risks obscuring the inter-relatedness of cultures and identities in South Africa.

However much South Africans may wish to put apartheid behind them, the reality is that apartheid ideology runs deep in the prejudices and assumptions which inform daily life, both in government and in civil society. Apartheid's myths of history starting with Jan van Riebeeck provide an ahistorical snapshot that promotes the idea of separate, autonomous, static cultures. These beliefs resonate deeply, even when re-framed in Africanist terms. Nor is the issue of identity merely theoretical. It directly affects political voting patterns and even access to critical resources such as land.

Land and identity

The 1994 Restitution of Land Rights Act (as amended 1996) limits government responsibility for land restitution to that which was expropriated after the Native Land Act of 1913, and where displacement can be shown to be linked to racially biased laws. This means that land restitution primarily affects land expropriated from people classified as "Native" or later as "Bantu" or "African." This leaves most Khoe and San people without legal recourse for their losses despite the similarities of experience. Most of the land displacement, with the exception of the Nama people at Riemvasmaak and the =Khomani in Gordonia, took place during the 19th century with the creation of coloured reserves and the annexation of Khoe and San lands by the British crown for redistribution to white farmers. In the few cases affecting Khoe and San groups after 1913, these communities may have to prove in court that their invisibility under apartheid legislation was a form of legal racial bias.

It is precisely the loss of access to land that has caused a sharp rupture with the traditional economy, and broken the link between millennia-old hunting and gathering practices, and the cultural and social institutions built around that economy. For most Southern African Khoe and San communities, this rupture strikes at the heart of the society and has triggered the process of language death, acculturation and social disintegration. Failure to deal with the apartheid legacy in cultural policy traps the democratically elected government in a catch-22. The Constitution binds the government to protecting and promoting the survival of Khoe and San languages. Without access to land, the Khoe and San cultures and people cannot survive. Land can only be accessed if the aboriginal title of the peoples is recognised. This is impossible in the current framework, where only those dispossessed by apartheid can expect restitution.

To reverse the trend toward language death requires making decisions about the allocation and control of resources. This means dealing with the political and economic power of the mining companies, the Parks Board and the farmers' unions. It also means challenging the apartheid political beliefs that see the Northern Cape as being divided into three racial constituencies: African, coloured and white. Ironically, unpacking the issue of identities and acknowledging an aboriginal past and present provides the new state with something that has been lacking up until now: a foundation. Apartheid tore South Africa to pieces. The recognition of San and Khoe origins helps tie all the other cultural and identity threads together. Afrikaans, the hated language of the oppressor since Soweto '76, was spoken by Khoe pastoralists long before white settlers expropriated it. Khoe languages and identity provide a vital bridge between Xhosa and coloured identities which apartheid attempted to break. Even Sotho and Tswana identities are intimately tied to the original cultures and languages of the subcontinent. Restoration of Khoe and San identity potentially provides a convenient glue to repair inter-ethnic conflict promoted under apartheid, especially between so-called coloured and African constituencies, and even among Afrikaans-speakers. This exploration of the past may help further define the meaning of nationalism and nation-building in post-apartheid South Africa.

As for Elsie Vaalbooi, she has committed herself to live long enough to have her story told and ensure that her descendants get what is rightfully theirs. In her more energetic moments she leans forward and points to her wrinkled brown face, exclaiming in Afrikaans: "Look at my face. Look at Mandela. He looks just like me." She smiles, knowing she is right, and being right seems to count for something these days.

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