The Khoïsan, the first inhabitants of South Africa, want to find land and identity

The Khoisan, the first inhabitants of South Africa, want to find land and identity

Pretoria | Under the imposing statue of Nelson Mandela, in front of the office of the South African president, a small black tent has been set up over time: these activists of the Khoisan people, the first inhabitants of South Africa, want land and recognition of their languages.

For two years, they have camped on this lawn of Pretoria to also demand the abolition of the term colored , a racial classification dating from apartheid and which still appears on official documents, to designate in particular half-breeds and indigenous populations.

The group of activists marched over a thousand kilometers to this massive British colonial-style building, the seat of both the presidency and the government, to demand a hearing. “We will wait here until we get what we came for,” says one of its leaders, who calls himself King Khoisan.

Large white signs in front of the tent display messages of anger towards President Cyril Ramaphosa. “We've been here for over a year and what is he doing?” Nothing! Says one of them in Afrikaans, the language of the descendants of the first white settlers.

President Ramaphosa last year signed a law that grants greater autonomy to the Khoisan community, largely enslaved and decimated by colonization. But for these activists, this law is only the first step in a constitutional and cultural battle.

Bushmen or Hottentots

The number of Khoisan among the 59 million South Africans is not established and their identity is also debated. “We are talking about the Khoi pastors and the San hunter-gatherers, but from an archaeological point of view, it is difficult to dissociate them”, explains Tammy Reynard, curator at the Center for the Origins of the University of the Witwatersrand.

The Khoisan were long referred to as the Bushmen and when Dutch settlers landed in South Africa in the 17th century they called them Hottentots, a term derived from their famous clicker languages.

These languages are characterized by the use of particular consonants, clicks produced by the mouth that are also found in other South African languages such as Zulu or Xhosa.

One of the languages of the Khoisan family is only spoken by three people, Unesco recently noted.

But for many of these activists, the key topic remains land. The recurring issue of restitution of part of the land taken by white settlers should also concern indigenous populations, not just black communities, they claim.

“You can't talk about identity, let alone land,” says Philip Williams, founder of the activist group Indigenous First Nation Advocacy SA.

“We ask the government to return the land on which we can live, produce and access resources. The resources of this land belong to our ancestors ”.

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