Khoisan elders and activists prepare to honor the Khoisan activist Adam Mathysen at his grave on the outskirts of Johannesburg on April 27. (Nathan Siegel for Foreign Policy)
Khoisan elders and activists prepare to honor the Khoisan activist Adam Mathysen at his grave on the outskirts of Johannesburg on April 27. (Nathan Siegel for Foreign Policy)


South Africa’s First Nations Have Been Forgotten

As Pretoria prepares to confront the legacy of colonial and apartheid-era land theft, hardly anyone seems to care about the claims of the country’s earliest inhabitants—the Khoisan.

President Donald Trump recently sparked a fierce backlash when he tweeted that the South African government was seizing white-owned land and that white farmers were being killed on a “large scale.” In the United States, his comment was a flash in the media pan. In South Africa, his words received far more attention and added fuel to an already heated dispute between blacks seeking restitution for colonial land theft and white Afrikaners claiming they are being persecuted. Yet whites are not the only minority feeling victimized by the government’s land redistribution plans—so are South Africa’s first peoples.

The Khoisan were the first inhabitants of southern Africa and one of the earliest distinct groups of Homo sapiens, enduring centuries of gradual dispossession at the hands of every new wave of settlers, including the Bantu, whose descendants make up most of South Africa’s black population today. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has embarked on a mission to redistribute land. But this process has largely excluded the Khoisan, because South Africa does not acknowledge them as the country’s first peoples, and their land was mostly taken long before the apartheid era. Now, a growing movement of indigenous activists believes the time has come to take back what’s theirs.

One of the Khoisan’s biggest challenges is race. Land restitution was conceived to benefit black South Africans, but the Khoisan are not generally considered black; they are designated as “coloured.” The term, originally coined by the British, was used during apartheid to label citizens who did not fit the binary race model—including most Afrikaans-speaking nonwhites and mixed-race children. This amorphous categorization condemned much of the Khoisan’s history to oblivion and facilitated the theft of their land.

Even the word Khoisan is a foreign term, coined in the 1920s by a German anthropologist trying to describe multiple tribes—including the Khoikoi and San—as a single ethno-linguistic group. Recent DNA research shows that, for tens of thousands of years, the so-called Khoisan were the largest human population on the planet. These days, those who identify as Khoisan are an ostracized minority, not just inside their country but also within the coloured community.

In the third to sixth centuries, northern Bantu groups migrated into southern Africa from central Africa, establishing agricultural settlements and displacing many of the traditionally hunter-gatherer Khoisan. When the Europeans arrived—1,000 years later—the Khoisan were the first to fight against them, leading to a series of of 17th century wars between the Khoikoi and Dutch settlers. Their native resistance culminated in the 18th century in battles that came to be known as the Bushman Wars. Eventually, smallpox decimated the majority of the Khoisan population, making it easier for settlers to take their land and then force the natives to work on it.

Nobody knows how many Khoisans currently live in South Africa, and the government does not collect such data. According to 2017 estimates, 8.8 percent of the country’s population—or about 5 million people—is coloured, but the number of coloured people who have indigenous ancestry and currently identify as Khoisan is likely just a small fraction of that number.

The Khoisan have much in common with Canada’s First Nations or New Zealand’s indigenous Maori. Yet unlike other native groups, they are not recognized as their country’s first inhabitants, and their identity is largely invisible, forgotten even by most current descendants. Traditional customs, such as plant-based medicine and hunting, are dismissed as primitive, while the term “bushman” is often used as a slur. One of their languages features on South Africa’s coat of arms, but none of them is recognized among the country’s 11 official languages. This coat of arms—which also includes two human figures based on Khoisan rock art—is stamped on the 5 rand coin, but much of the ancient Khoisan rock art still lies unmarked on private land, where it is desecrated with graffiti and often stolen by thieves and sold to archeology collectors.

Anthony Phillip Williams, the national coordinator of the Khoisan Liberation and Mass Movement, at his home in Johannesburg on May 2. (Nathan Siegel for Foreign Policy)

Anthony Phillip Williams, the national coordinator of the Khoisan Liberation and Mass Movement, argues that land is a prerequisite for cultural identity. “How can our culture survive if we have no place where to practice it?” he asked.

Williams himself says he grew up resenting his “bushman” heritage and preferred to be seen as coloured. He was already in his 30s when he met a Khoikhoi chief who told him about his people’s history and indigenous status. “It was a real shock,” Williams recalled. “It was really scary to realize most us have been divorced from our identity.” Soon after, he decided to quit his job as a pastor and business consultant to become a full-time activist.

Now Williams’s biggest concern is educating the next generation. Most Khoisan youths have only ever seen themselves as coloured and are often too preoccupied trying to make a living to ponder their cultural lineage. Land restitution is essential for the economic future of the Khoisan, Williams argues, because the earth brings not just heritage but wealth, whether it’s from the trees above or the diamonds below.

The United Nations agrees. In 2005, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, issued a report on South Africa’s Khoisan. He wrote: “The most pressing concern of all the Khoi-San communities is securing their land base, and where possible, re-establishing access to natural resources.”

A decade later, South Africa’s Human Rights Commission published another report on the subject, highlighting the Khoisan’s high poverty rate and criticizing the government’s slow progress toward land restitution.

Still, the ruling ANC party says it has done plenty for the Khoisan. In 1999, then-President Nelson Mandela called for the creation of the National Khoi & San Council to look after the community’s needs. Yet the body was given no legislative power, which means it has never done more than advise the government when asked. What’s more, most Khoisan reject the council’s authority, because they say it does not represent all indigenous subgroups and is marred with corruption.

In 2012, then-President Jacob Zuma promised to promote the development of the Khoisan. He even mentioned them in his State of the Nation address, saying, “It is important to remember that the Khoi-San people were the most brutalized by colonialists who tried to make them extinct, and undermined their language and identity.” Five years later, he backed the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Bill, to recognize the Khoisan traditional leadership structures. The bill passed but had virtually no impact, as it made no mention of the Khoisan’s indigenous status or ancestral land rights.

Last year, Khoisan activists staged a three-week hunger strike in Pretoria to protest the law’s shortcomings. The ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa, who has since become president, met with the protesters and promised to address their concerns. Yet, so far, he has not taken any initiative on their behalf.

After 24 years of waiting, the Khoisan have lost their patience. “There is a hierarchy of blackness in this country, and it dictates who gets help and who doesn’t,” Williams said. “We are tired of it. We will no longer be sidelined.”

Earlier this year, Ramaphosa announced his support for a constitutional amendment that would enable the state to seize land without compensation. The Khoisan Liberation and Mass Movement used the news as an opportunity to convene the first-ever Khoisan land summit in Johannesburg.

A Khoisan chief speaks to attendees of the Khoisan land summit in Johannesburg on April 26. (Nathan Siegel for Foreign Policy)

The event was held in a small hotel and attended by dozens of delegates, from elderly chiefs to young pan-African activists. Some arrived wearing suits. Others dressed head to toe in traditional attire, with skirts made of gazelle and headbands fashioned out of porcupine. After three days of fiery debate, the group wrote a long list of demands including the recognition of their indigenous status and the amendment of the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, which only contemplated restitution for communities that had their land confiscated after the passing of the Natives Land Act in 1913. Most Khoisan lost their land before then—many in the early 19th century—so this post-apartheid cutoff is their descendants’ biggest obstacle to restitution.

Their much-debated requests went largely ignored. Just a few days after the indigenous land summit, the University of South Africa hosted an academic seminar on land expropriation without compensation. The organizers invited speakers from all backgrounds, except the Khoisan. Williams and other activists found out about it on the day of the event and, after reprimanding the organizer, they were allowed to attend and speak.

The public applauded when the Khoisan condemned the use of the term “coloured,” but as soon as they brought up the subject of indigenous land rights, the cheers turned into boos. Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, the former ANC defense minister who is now president of the opposition Congress of the People party, was the only politician who jumped to their defense, but when he referred to the Khoisan as the country’s original owners, the crowd laughed him off the stage.

Even South Africa’s most left-wing politicians oppose the Khoisan agenda. Andile Mngxitama, the president of the fringe pan-Africanist political party Black First Land First, says the Khoisan are undermining the restitution movement by trying to get special treatment. “The Khoisan are part of us, and we will take them to freedom,” he said, “even if we need to drag them, screaming and kicking.”

The Khoisan put on a strong front in public, but their movement is marred by infighting. Their efforts are splintered, not just between political factions, but also among traditional chiefs. There are even several men claiming to be the only Khoisan king. One of them, Henry January, lives in a small town near Cape Town and insists that all of South Africa is his personal property. “This country belongs to my family,” he said. “Everyone else is our guest.”

Each self-proclaimed Khoisan leader has a different solution to the land problem. January wants to take the government to court, while another king has chosen to secede and start a new country. Williams is trying to lobby Parliament, but the First Nation Liberation Alliance, a tiny Khoisan political party, is busy setting up a parallel government.

Khoisan elders and activists walk around Mathysen’s grave on the outskirts of Johannesburg on April 27. (Nathan Siegel for Foreign Policy)

Larry Fazel Varrie, one of the party’s leaders, says freedom may require violence and claims to have an army at the ready. “South Africa’s black colonial government does not represent the Khoisan,” he said. “If they won’t give us our land back, we are ready to take it by force.”

What Varrie calls his “army” is actually a volunteer group of retired Khoisan servicemen. Most members served in the South African Cape Corps—a battalion of coloured soldiers inside the South African Army, which existed intermittently from the late 18th century until the early 1990s. After apartheid ended, coloured soldiers were meant to reintegrate the South African National Defence Force, but most ex-Cape Corps were dismissed during this transition. Jobless and frustrated, a few hundred of these middle-aged veterans formed what they call the Khoisan Nation Self Defence Unit. Now, some threaten to use their military training to recover their ancestral land.

To be sure, not all Khoisan activists share their goals, and many believe military tactics would be counterproductive. “Some chiefs say it’s time to go to war, but why would we destroy the land that we are hoping to get back?” Williams asked.

Trapped between public disdain and private infighting, the Khoisan movement recently gained an unexpected ally: AfriForum. This activist organization describes itself as a civil rights group for the Afrikaner community, but many say it has a white nationalist agenda. Ernst Roets, AfriForum’s deputy director and public face, recently appeared on Fox News with Tucker Carlson, leading Trump to parrot his concerns about anti-white violence in South Africa. In recent years, the group’s youth arm has issued statements in support of the Khoisan and even joined them during protests at the Department of Land Affairs. Roets was recently invited to speak at the Khoisan land summit, where he defended their indigenous land rights but argued not all colonial land was acquired illegally.

A radio host plays music during her show for X-K FM, a community radio station that broadcasts in two Khoisan languages, in Kimberley, South Africa, on May 4. (Nathan Siegel for Foreign Policy)

It may seem ironic for descendants of Dutch settlers to defend the rights of a community that their well-armed ancestors helped dispossess. But Roets says their support of the Khoisan is in line with AfriForum’s commitment to advancing minority rights in South Africa. “The only difference between majoritarianism and democracy is whether minorities feel like they are integrated and their rights are respected,” Roets said, “that is why we work with the Khoisan.” Most Khoisan activists have declined AfriForum’s help but vowed not to give up the fight until they see their names on a few title deeds. Their land claims are scattered all across South Africa, from Hangberg, a scenic mountainous neighborhood on the outskirts of Cape Town, to the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, a wildlife preserve on the northern border with Botswana.

The coming months promise to be a crucial turning point in the land debate because, in 2019, South Africa is holding a general election. Ramaphosa could use the promise for land restitution to win back dissatisfied voters from Julius Malema, his fiercest opponent and the leader of the left-wing party Economic Freedom Fighters. But after spending 2.7 billion rand ($188 million) per year on land reform, the ANC government may also feel mounting pressure from voters wanting to collect the plots they were once promised.

If the Khoisan succeed in restoring their land rights, South Africa’s first peoples could become an example for many other indigenous groups on the continent, including the Ogiek in Kenya, the Baka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the neighboring Khoisan-descendant communities of Angola. But if their efforts fail, activists warn they may not be able to stop their people’s anger from spilling into violent protests or even illegal land grabs.

Either way, the political window of opportunity is closing fast on South Africa’s first peoples. With every passing year, their centuries-old land claims get harder to verify, and their children grow increasingly indifferent toward the Khoisan cause. “We need our land back so our people can have a future,” Williams said. “Without it, we will forget who we are.”

Laura Secorun is a foreign corespondent based in Nairobi. She covers politics, nationalism and migration in Sub-Saharan Africa. Twitter: @LauraSecorun