We call it the Wild Coast now, but for many Cobuqua people it has been home since time immemorial. With its inexplicable beauty, with deeply forested, rounded hills through which the Umzimvubu River winds suddenly giving way to the expanse of the sea, the area around Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape is where this Khoi-San community had long gathered its sustenance from land and water.
Details of Khoi-San history remain vague for many people in South Africa. To understand the current predicament for many communities, a history going back millennia needs to be learned. The term Khoi-San is a modern invention that encapsulates a wide variety of cultures, languages, and relationships to the environment. As a very general understanding however, like for many other Indigenous peoples worldwide, Khoi-San describes communities who had learned to live in a delicate balance with the ecosystem of southern Africa – hunting mammals and birds for clothing and sustenance, gathering plant materials for food and medicine. While archaeological findings are thin because they used so little, the Khoi-San are responsible for much of the rock art found in the region, which depicts a rich cultural life and an elaborate myth structure.
About six hundred years ago in eastern Africa, nomadic pastoralists – people who herded cattle – began to experience pressure from expanding populations. These people were the ancestors of the people we know today as the Zulu, and the Xhosa. As they migrated across the continent, they brought their own language family, and their own customs. When they arrived into the southern portions of Africa, they began to use the land used by the Khoi-San.
In some circumstances, this shared usage of land was peaceful, and cohabitation occurred without problem. Indeed, there seems to have been such close cultural contact that features of Khoi-San languages infiltrated into the languages spoken by the pastoralists, so that the distinctive click consonants became features of isiXhosa, isiZulu, and Sesotho. But there was also considerable conflict between the two groups over resources as well, as groups struggled to sustain livelihoods in such a fragile ecosystem.
These pressures were exacerbated by the violent invasion of a new people, a new economy, and a new way of organising land. Arriving from Europe, where competition for land was so fierce that territorial defence became inherent to their way of being, Dutch and British colonists brought with them a system of sole proprietorship of land (as opposed to the shared usage concept common to many Indigenous peoples). As economic and ecologic systems disintegrated by the pressure of the rapacious extraction of resources by the Europeans, Khoi-San were relegated to increasingly marginal lands, dismissed as mere inconveniences in the quest for access to territory, unless they collaborated with these new rulers by providing valuable information. This enforced irrelevance was hard, but in our next post, we will explore how with the coming of apartheid, things sadly got worse.