Earlier this year in February, Deputy Minister Obed Bapela said that granting First Nation status to KhoiSan peoples was not possible. He made the comments in the context of a parliamentary committee hearing on the Traditional and KhoiSan Leadership bill. The deputy minister’s reasoning was that understandings of Indigenous rights were more appropriate to contexts such as the Americas, where there was a clear history of displacement, genocide, and settlement. He claims that recognition of Indigenous realities in South Africa would cause for there to be nations within nations, which he considered counter-productive.
Mr Bapela seems to misunderstand both the context of Indigenous rights protections, and the history of colonisation as it occurred worldwide. The point of the Indigenous rights is not necessarily who arrived first, but who has been dispossessed of their access to land and to livelihood.
As the Cobuqua show, the loss of land, livelihood, language, and community has been profound for the KhoiSan peoples across South Africa. Recognising their particular place within the history of colonisation does not change South Africa as a unitary state. However, the recognition of Indigenous rights does mean that the particular needs of peoples who have been rendered very vulnerable can be addressed adequately. The unique socioeconomic patterns that make up the reality for KhoiSan peoples in the country are not shared with other South Africans.
One of the most productive ways forward would be for the South African government to acknowledge these historical differences amongst people who live in this country, and set about a programme of rehabilitation and redress. But the KhoiSan Leadership bill does not address these concerns. Rather, it seeks to preserve the power of the government over communities by denying them self-determination, by preventing them to choose the relationship with the South African government that suits them. It does not allow for communities to express their dynamism – how they have grown and shifted during decades of survival, and does not allow them to reflect their current realities in their decision-making processes. Indigenous peoples around the world have resisted and adapted to the changes forced upon them, and their current political realities need to reflect these contemporary needs, not some imagined past.
For this reason, many KhoiSan people, including the Cobuqua, ask that the South African government negotiate with them directly, rather than through unrepresentative leadership, to address their goals in today’s world – livelihoods, human security, and a reclamation of their cultural base. Recognition of the reality of the historical trajectory that KhoiSan peoples share as a community, along with languages, lands, and social systems, is inherent to their quest of healing. Once we acknowledge everything from which the KhoiSan have been dispossessed, then they can start their own journey of healing from all that has transpired in their journey to become South Africans.
Indigenous peoples share tales of similar struggle from Japan to Botswana, from India to Sweden: the movements are not confined to the settler states such as Canada or Australia. South Africa is not an exception, despite the wishes of many people to ignore historical facts. At the heart of the KhoiSan movement is the request that the South African government recognise the unique features of KhoiSan history that ties their fate to the demands of Indigenous peoples all over the world.