How did Khoisan become so forgotten?

Delegates at the Commission on Khoi-San matters Research Symposium in Cape Town.

Delegates at the Commission on Khoi-San matters Research Symposium in Cape Town.

Published Mar 19, 2024


“Thank your lucky stars you were not here yesterday,” says a delegate I will honour by not naming here.

I stand in the foyer, marvelling at people adorned in sheepskin cloaks with various traditional headgear and patterned sticks, before being ushered outside where a spiritual ceremony is to be conducted before Day 2 commences.

There are murmurs of this opening ceremony being done to bring about calm, following the previous day’s emotionally charged proceedings.

Impepho (sage) is burnt on top of bullhorns in front of a neatly laid-out cow hide right in front of the upmarket Walmer Estate hotel’s main entrance that overlooks the Cape Town CBD and a number of suburbs.

A few chants, dancing and prayers later we are back inside the venue where Nkosi Langa Mavuso, the deputy chairperson of the National House of Traditional Leaders, does a welcome address and pleads for calm while outlining the need for unity among Khoisan communities.

Soon thereafter what I refer to as imbishimbishi yeciko leNkosana yaseMaRharhabeni (no translation, but close to “cocksure prince of the Rharhabe nation”) who moonlights as Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Deputy Minister, Prince Zolile Burns-Ncamashe, ambles to the stage.

The prince, or let me rather respectfully say iNkosana, was standing in place of Cogta Minister Thembisile Simelane-Nkadimeng, who woke up in Cape Town for this very symposium but flew off to Durban to attend to messy matters that side. Mess, literally, in Durban.

INkosana began by calling the house to order and asking the audience not to embarrass their children by being rowdy, like the previous day, at a far-away-from-home suburban hotel.

“What will your children say? Will they recognise your behaviour as that of a parent?”

“Let us work together, listen to one another, be patient until we get to the solutions. We have everything we need to make the changes you are gathered here for, but change begins with the individuals!” added iNkosana yamaRharhabe.

As iNkosana spoke, my mind wandered off to what the people we refer to as the Khoisan actually call themselves? The term “Khoisan” is a relatively new neologism allegedly coined by Leonhard Schulze and later popularised by Isaac Schapera in the 1920s and 1950s. There is also the possibility that the word “Khoisan” could be a derivative of the Xhosa emXhoseni (place of the Xhosa) which was bastardised to emaKhoseni by Schulze and Schapera who could not pronounce the X and later reduced to emaKhoisan, ergo Khoisan.

What do the so-called Khoisan actually call themselves?

I was tempted to ask Chief !Garu Zenzile Khoisan who was seated in front of me. But then again, what do you ask a man who has named himself Self-Made (Zenzile)? The question eludes my mind as iNkosana, still on stage – 30 minutes later – lays it on thick on the non-governmental sector representatives who were present at the gathering.

“It is these very same NGOs that are holding back the development of the Khoisan communities; NGOs are hell-bent on retrogressing every single progressive move government tables around these discussions!” he says to loud applause.

On each delegate’s seat was a copy of the Recognition of Khoisan Community application form – which I gather was meant for each delegate to fill in and submit to the Commission.

Once these applications are received, recommendations will be made to Simelane-Nkadimeng.

This is the South African government’s way of taking a bold step to correct historical injustices meted out against the Khoisan communities.

The ultimate aim is the hard-clichéd “nation building, national healing and social cohesion”.

“The pressure to make recommendations for recognition may be more challenging than what was first anticipated.

“Non-compliance by applicants poses a challenge to the Commission. However, we remain committed to its cause and therefore intend to follow all necessary measures in its process for recommendations to the minister,” said Nokubonga Mazibuko-Ngidi, who is one of the commissioners for the Commission on Khoisan Matters at Cogta.

“Following the symposium held last week, the Commission will now have to debrief and develop strategies that can perhaps make it easier for the Khoisan communities to comply with the recognition criteria.”

In September 2021 the Commission on Khoisan Matters, which Mazibuko sits in, was established under the Traditional Khoisan and Leadership Act of 2019. It is under this Commission’s guidance that we are able to see strides towards the statutory recognition of Khoisan communities, branches and leaders being provided for by law. The Commission is set to end in August 2026.

The symposium was an attempt to bring forth more information that can empower the communities to comply with the criteria as stipulated in the act as much as possible.

Day 2 went relatively smoother than Day 1 with startling presentations by UWC’s Dr Lorato Mokwena, NMU’s Dr Sharon Gabie and UJ’s Professor Keyan Tomaselli who has gone as far as authoring a book on “Rethinking Khoe and San Indigeneity, Language and Culture in Southern Africa”.

Rhodes University’s Professor Julie Wells, who was the facilitator, had her hands full with frequent audience outbursts such as “Are you academics now going to come here and speak for us? And make us an audience to our own lived experiences!” and “Give us 30 minutes to speak and you, the academics, become the audience instead!”

I use this word “Khoisan” very reluctantly and regret not having asked the delegates what name they would prefer to be called by. I met quite a number of delegates from the Korana nation. There were also people from the ‡Khomani San and others from as far as Namibia where Khoiaan languages are being taught academically.

Everything about this symposium kept reminding me of a line I have held on to for quite some time in my life: “History will Break your Heart”, which was the title of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition some years back.

To see people from extremely marginalised communities coming out into the open like that was just emotionally taxing.

How have the Khoisan become so forgotten in South Africa?

How do places like Platfontein, close to Kimberley, still exist? How can there be people still said to be living primitively in 2024?

The anger in that symposium room was palpable. Men and women who are tired of being marginalised.

Men and women who have become strangers on their own land. I could go on.

Next time, perhaps, this symposium can be held in Mossel Bay where I am told that there is a Khoi Village and the very first Khoi restaurant has just opened. Or it can simply be taken to Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre in nearby Yzerfontein. But, let it be done in a traditional circular seating arrangement that diffuses classroom-like power-positioning-seating arrangements.

I am still trying to process what I witnessed last week and as such am deciding to restrict my views on this entire matter. Ndehlile, yanga iNkosi ingolula inzolo nokukhanya kolu hambo lwamaQhakankcu.

Cape Times