Khoisan refers to the Khoikhoin and San peoples who live in southern Africa. The term Khoisan was coined in 1928 by Leonhard Schultze and is more acceptable to both peoples than the older terms Hot-tentots (from the Dutch word meaning stutters from hearing the click sounds in their language) for Khoikhoin and Bush-men for San.
In Botswana, the Setswana name Basarawa (Mosarwa in singular) is frequently used. The numbers of Khoisan speakers today is rather small—around 50,000 in Botswana, 33,000 in Namibia, 8,000 in Angola, 4,500 in South Africa, and 2,000 in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Khoisan also refers to their language, which includes a number of click sounds, some of which have been borrowed into Bantu languages such as isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, and Setswana.
The Khoisan were once spread through-out southern and much of eastern Africa. It is believed that the San, at least, are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, stretching back more than 12,000 years ago, though some have tried to connect them to fossil remains of more than 40,000 years ago. The Khoikhoin or Khoehoe seem to have emerged from the San and changed their main economic life from hunting and gathering to pasto-ralism some 2,300 years ago, and at least 2,000 years ago, they had reached the Cape of Good Hope.
The arrival of the Bantu peoples some-time in the third to fourth centuries CE put the new arrivals into conﬂict with both the San and the Khoikhoin. Bantu farmers and stockmen did not take kindly to San killing their valuable cattle or foraging their crops. Khoikhoi pastoralists competed for important grazing areas, and the Bantu were often hostile to Khoisan peo-ples.
Rock art made by the San show them in conﬂict with the larger, spear-carrying Bantu. By the arrival of the Europeans in South Africa, Khoisan were already displaced or being displaced by Bantu farmers. Many Khoisan sought refuge in the less productive mountains (such as the Drakensburgs and Malotis) or in the more arid areas where settled farming is more difﬁcult.
Most San have retained their traditional religion, which centers on a supreme god who is both great and good. He is the father of the moon and the sun, though the moon plays a greater part in ritual life; curing/trance dances occur most often at night during a new and full moon.
San cur-ing/trance dances are still held as people try to adjust to the difﬁculties of modern life. In the trance dances, the person able to deal with spirits (similar to a shaman) begins with a slow circling dance around the women, who are seated at a central ﬁre. The women sing in high falsettos and clap.
The men form a ring around the out-side andsinginlower ranges inharmony with the women. The men both stomp as they dance and also clap their hands to give a syncopated rhythm to the dance. The spirit medium goes into a trance, and his eyes roll back into his head.
He takes on the illness of the person to be cured and shouts out of himself the spirit which caused the illness. In doing so, he may suf-fer nosebleeds as his body stiffens and he throws his stiffened arms behind him. In rock art, representations of healing cer-emonies are easy to pick out since they show one or more ﬁgures in the stiffened position, arms behind them, bleeding from the nose.
Rock art in southern Africa is the prod-uct of mainly San peoples, and in recent years archeologist and anthropologists have developed a great appreciation for the insights into San life provided by the paintings. Some of the sites, such as those at Tsodilo Hills in Botswana, are still visited and retouched by San. In 2001, Tsodilo Hills was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are no San still living as their ancestors did before European contact. Claims to this effect for the international release of the South African ﬁlm The Gods Must Be Crazy have proven to be untrue.
By the 1960s, all San were in contact with modern nation-states, and Botswana and South Africa had programs to settle San and teach them to farm. White and Bantu farmers closed off important food-gathering areas as well as important water sources, interrupting San seasonal gather-ing patterns.
In the 1960s and 1970s, San bands were left with no food or water sources, and some died of starvation or thirst. San became low-paid farm workers, with little to hope for continuing their tra-ditional life style. In the 1980s, John Mar-shall took over a failed San project and turned it into a successful cattle project for them.
The idea was to integrate cattle ranching and traditional use of the region in the north of Namibia. The project was initially objected to by both Herero ranch-ers and the Namibian government. Despite attempts to close the project, international organizations such as Oxfam began to pro-vide needed ﬁnancial aid and international notoriety.
Some San now make money by selling traditional San decorations made from leather, glass beads, and ostrich shell. Sev-eral cooperatives and income-generation projects help market their work in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. In some instances, the money made from sales of San craft are more than the sala-ries offered to San by white and Bantu farmers and ranchers.
Most Khoikhoin have lost touch with their pre-contact traditions and have con-verted to Christianity. The Khoikhoin were heavily inﬂuenced by the Dutch set-tlers from the Cape of Good Hope and rap-idly adopted both the horse and the gun.
Although many Khoikhoin became serv-ants to Trek Boer farmers, those who remained free, such as the Griqua, estab-lished their own independent areas in the early 19th century, defeating Bantu peo-ples. The Griqua were themselves eventu-ally absorbed into the Afrikaner Orange Free State. Others, such as the Nama in Namibia, were able to expand at the expense of Bantu and San again using the gun and the horse.
Khoikhoin from around the Cape region came into contact with Europeans starting with the arrival of the ﬁrst Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. With the Dutch settlement in Cape Town in 1652, many were forced into labor for the Dutch freehold farmers and within a century had been absorbed into the emerging mixed race Cape Coloreds (Creole). Afrikaner expansion into the interior was greatly facilitated by Khoikhoin labor.
By the 19th century, pressures from both Bantu and European farmers for land had pushed into more and more isolated and unproductive areas. The Afrikaners thought of them as “vermin” and organ-ized hunting parties to exterminate them. In the 20th century, surviving San have struggled to maintain their ancestral lands from encroaching needs of Bantu and white governments.
In 2006, the San in Botswana won their court case to be allowed to return to their homeland in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and in 2008, the UN Human Rights Council criti-cized Botswana for selectively not allowing some of the San to return.
John A. Shoup
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