As Europeans colonised many continents during the era of imperial expansion, many settler men enforced their hold on land by marrying women Indigenous to that country. This intermarriage gave rise to populations of mixed settler and Indigenous ancestry, such as the people who became known as the Métis in Canada. In South Africa, a similar process of children born to Khoi-San women with European fathers led to the rise of populations such as those who became known as the Griqua.
Under apartheid, many of this now substantial mixed-race population became known as Coloured. As so many people in this grouping had Khoi-San ancestry (usually on the maternal line), a lot of Indigenous identity in South Africa became subsumed into this artificial category created by colonists to enhance their own political aims. Estimates suggest that about half of all Coloured people in South Africa now have Khoi-San ancestry. In line with the colonial project, Indigenous identity – with its relationship to the land, relationship to language, relationship to ties between families – was quickly decimated, so that Europeans could extract resources from the environment and from communities, displacing and disorienting people from ways of life that had sustained them for many, many generations.
The resultant loss of the Khoi-San landbase, Khoi-San community structures, and Khoi-San languages led to a serious breakdown of economic and social stability for people with Khoi-San ancestry within contemporary South Africa. Coupled with the repression and the violence that the apartheid state visited upon communities, the erasure of Khoi-San’s lives and livelihoods has had repercussions that are similar to experiences of Indigenous peoples across the world who faced the onslaught of European colonialism.
While the primary struggle against ending apartheid dominated the work of Khoi-San peoples over the last century, that struggle has now shifted, as the fall of that regime has not resulted in complete liberation or restitution of what has been lost for many Khoi-San peoples. The interplay between three major participants in the history – the Khoi-San, the Bantu peoples, and the Europeans is an interesting feature of South African history, which has some replication in India, where the Indigenous Adivasi peoples had to deal with the arrival of Aryan Hindu settlers for many centuries before the arrival of European colonialism. Today, even as European colonialism has gone, the age-old tensions between the dominant cultures of India and Indigenous Adivasi culture continue to riddle Indian society. Similarly, the end of apartheid has not resulted in the resolution of all tensions about the role of Khoi-San in the country. As Khoi-San communities have begun to mobilise to respond to the new political reality to ensure that that which was taken from them during apartheid is now restored, the new millennium is bringing new challenges to people like the Cobuqua in the eastern Cape, whose traditional leaders are now strategizing how to respond. In our next post, we will discuss some of these actions.