• 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.
  • People

    1 per cent of South Africa’s population said to be indigenous. 2 new bills related to indigenous peoples knowledge and leadership.
    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.
  • Politics

    The Khoisan Revolution, a new political party, won one seat in the Nama Khoi Local Municipality in the Namakwa District, Northern Cape Province.
  • Rights

    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.

Update 2011 - South Africa

South Africa’s total population is around 50 million, with the indigenous groups comprising just over 1%. The various First Indigenous Peoples groups in South Africa are collectively known as Khoe-San, comprising the San people and the Khoekhoe. The San groups include the ‡Khomani San residing mainly in the Kalahari region, and the Khwe and !Xun residing mainly in Platfontein, Kimberley. The Khoekhoe include the Nama residing mainly in the Northern Cape Province, the Koranna mainly in Kimberley and Free State Province, the Griqua residing in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Free State and Kwa-Zulu-Natal provinces and the Cape Khoekhoe residing in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, with growing pockets in Gauteng and Free State Provinces. In contemporary South Africa, Khoe-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 the Coloureds. Many previously so-called Coloured people are now exercising their right to self-identification and embracing their African heritage and identity as San and Khoekhoe or Khoe-San. San, Khoekhoe and Khoe-San are used interchangeably depending on the context. First Nations indigenous San and Khoekhoe peoples are not recognized in the 1996 Constitution but they are being accommodated in the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003, as amended in 2009.

South Africa is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

2011 was a busy year for South Africa. Its ruling party, the ANC, witnessed countless internal battles, causing the political agenda to shift continuously and affecting negotiation processes with First Indigenous Khoe-San1 Peoples’ organisations. The question on most people’s lips, after 17 years of democracy, is, “Has the country delivered on its promise of democracy as laid out in its 1996 Constitution?”


Changes in legislation

In 2011, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) engaged in a national consultation process with Khoe-San groups regarding the National Traditional Leadership Bill of 2011. This bill replaces the Traditional Leadership Acts of 2003 and 2009, and now accommodates Khoe-San leadership structures and existing traditional leadership structures. It provides for the recognition of existing traditional and Khoe-San leadership positions, including governance and customary law in terms of the powers and functions of traditional leaders, councils and communities. It further provides for the formation of a Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims and an Advisory Committee on Khoe-San Matters. It does not support the Khoe-San peoples as First Nations and ignores their right to sovereignty.

During the consultation process, the bill created some ambivalence amongst the First Indigenous Khoe-San groups. Whilst some welcomed the Bill, others felt that another process should be put in place to constitutionally recognise the Khoe-San as First Nation Indigenous peoples with sovereign status, thereby addressing their right to self-determination, and not only as assimilated traditional leaders. They argue that they would continue to experience marginalisation in terms of numbers and agency if they joined the structures of existing traditional leadership, as the current traditional leaders far outnumber Khoe-San leaders and have strong political influence. They reiterate the fact that First Indigenous Khoe-San peoples remain indigenous in South Africa according to ILO 169 and the UNDRIP, which the Traditional Affairs Act does not recognise. A further challenge is that there exists no officially recognized criterion for identifying Khoe-San peoples and groups.2 Cogta will submit the bill, including the Khoe-San concerns raised, to Parliament in January 2012, after which it will go out for broader public consultation.

The above mentioned processes have inspired the establishment of the Khoe-San First Nations Company. This company has a mandate from the National Khoe-San Council and is representative of the five Khoe-San groupings. It aims to set a process in place for attaining First Nation Indigenous status and recognition of their sovereignty.


Population census

A population census took place in 2011. The census questionnaire offered Apartheid-style categories of Black, White, Coloured, Indian/Asian and Other, thus forcing Khoe-San peoples to identify as Coloured or “Other”. Many refused to fill in the census form and called for a re-census with appropriate categorisations that would truthfully reflect the country’s population. However, there has been no re-census and this has led to Khoe San disappointment with the current political parties. Khoe-San peoples are therefore rallying for their own political parties to stand at the next national elections in 2014. There are already four nationally-registered Khoe-San parties: the Khoisan Party, the First Nation Liberation Alliance, the Khoisan United Front and the Khoisan Kingdom and All People.3


Land reform

Land reform has been painfully slow. A few Khoe-San groups have received rural farmlands but are struggling due to a lack of start-up resources. Urban Khoe-San are continuing to fight for housing and, on 2 September 2010, they marched to Parliament to hand over a memorandum in this regard (see The Indigenous World 2011). On 20 September 2011, the Mayor of Cape Town and the Houtbay community signed a Peace and Mediation Accord, which includes a housing development scheme for the residents.

The Richtersveldt Nama community, recipients of the largest land claim in South Africa in 2007, is in a dilemma over the use of its reclaimed lands. A part of the community prefers to build up their mining capacity whilst others prefer livestock farming as a means of sustainable development. In October 2010, the Richtersveldt Communal Property Association (CPA) asked the Minister of Rural Development to appoint an independent mediator. Instead, in March 2011, the Northern Cape High Court appointed an attorney to temporarily take over the duties of the CPA. The community remains divided and in conflict.

COP 17

Through the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC), an appeal was made to the South African government to provide resources for First Nation Indigenous peoples to travel to and attend COP 17, which could have provided a platform for the Khoe-San peoples to share their knowledge and experience regarding the environmental preservation and management of this specific geographical region. South Africa’s host department for COP 17, the Department of International Relations, failed to assist, however, resulting in the First Nations Indigenous Khoi-San peoples of South Africa being largely absent from COP17.


The National Legacy Project

The Constitution of South Africa and the DAC White Paper set out the framework and policies in place for the preservation of the culture and heritage of all South Africans. The Government of South Africa has initiated national legacy projects to create commemorative symbols of South Africa’s history and celebrate its heritage. Its line functionary departments/institutions such as the National Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), embarked on a Khoe-San legacy project in 2000. In 2011, the DAC continued its engagement with the National Khoe-San Conference Facilitating Agency (Khoe-San Agency) (see The Indigenous World 2009) regarding assistance to Khoe-San projects, and sought to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Khoe-San agency. By September, the Khoe-San agency had submitted all necessary documentation for the finalisation of the MOU. As of December 2011, however, it was unable to obtain any information regarding the status of this MOU.

The issue of non-recognition of Khoe-San peoples’ socio-political heritage seems a blatant one on the national agenda for reconciliation. In 2011, the National Heritage Council of South Africa (NHC) engaged in a series of public consultations concerning the National Liberation/Struggle Heritage Route.4 The NHC did not, however, include Khoe-San groups and claimed that the Khoe-San were not relevant to this project as they never took part in the struggle against oppression and domination. Khoe-San activists, on the other hand, argue that their Khoe-San forebears laid the foundations for the struggle at the onset of European settlement, as evidenced during wars dating back to the 14th and through to the 19th century.


On a positive note

The first specific Khoe-San museum, run by Khoe-San, was launched in Cape Town on 16 December 2011, namely the South African First Nations Indigenous Museum. The museum will address Khoe-San history, knowledge and heritage in school curricula and public discourse. It is situated at the foot of Table Mountain at a water source long used by the early inhabitants, the Khoe-San.

Advocacy on First Nations Indigenous Khoe-San-related cultural awareness has also increased. The South African Broadcasting Association (SABC) now shows more programmes regarding Khoe-San cultural heritage, and filmmaker Weaam Williams released the first of three documentaries: A Khoe Story Part One: Reclaiming the Mother Tongue in 2011.

Social networks, including electronic networks, have seen a growing number of individuals, especially those still identifying as Coloured, discussing issues related to being Khoe-San. This is giving rise to increased political mobilisation.



1    Khoe-San activists argue that the terms Khoekhoe and San are imposed names and they therefore prefer the collective term “First Indigenous Peoples or First peoples”. Out of respect, the author therefore chooses to use both collective terms in this article.

2    Country report of the Research Project by the ILO and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the constitutional and legislative protection of the rights of indigenous peoples in South Africa.

3    See www.iec.org.za

4    The National Liberation/Struggle route is one of the National Legacy Projects led by the National Heritage Council, a government institution dealing specifically with the country’s heritage.


Priscilla De Wet is a First Nations Indigenous scholar in South Africa. She holds a Master’s in Indigenous Studies from the University of Tromsø and is currently engaged in a PhD at Rhodes University in SA. Her research concerns a study into indigeneity and its interrelated fields of cultural politics and identity construction. Of broader interest to her is “bridging the gap” between academia and Indigenous Peoples, especially regarding research methodologies used in and with First Indigenous peoples/Khoe-San communities and individuals.


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