In The Beginning: Khoisan and Bantu People in Pre-colonial Southern Africa [Part One]

When writing about South Africa’s history, many scholars mistakenly start from the point at which the Dutch East India Company arrived at the Cape in 1652. Time and again, South Africa’s history is shown and studied from the opening of colonialism, and just about no attention is given to pre-colonial South Africa. However, considering South Africa’s pre-colonial history matters and it is important for its own sake and also, for the reason that, the only way to know and understand the impact that colonialism had on the people of South Africa and their society is by understanding the long-established way of life of the inhabitants of South Africa before Europeans settled into the region. Accordingly, realizing this is, this piece is devoted to looking at the way of life of the Khoisan and Bantu in pre-colonial South Africa and, in pre-colonial Southern Africa as a whole.

Two Khoisan men on one of their hunting pursuits in the lands of Southern Africa.
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The Khoisan, a people group made up of two different groups that are, the San and the Khoikhoi, are the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa. Although they have similar physical features and vaguely related languages, the term ‘Khoisan’ is generally used to separate the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa from the Bantu who left West Africa, more specifically, present-day Nigeria and Cameroon, almost 2000 years ago and, journeyed into the southern regions of the continent. From as early as the 15th century, the Khoisan were trading with European merchants who often stopped their ships at the Cape peninsula on their way to the Far East. In time, Europeans identified the San as ‘Bushmen’, the Khoikhoi as ‘Hottentots’, and the Bantu as ‘Kaffirs’. Although Europeans identified these groups as that, these terms, however, carried distasteful undertones. The Khoisan and Bantu lived together for years in Southern Africa before the opening of colonialism and, although often overlooked, the kind of life that these people groups created together is important and worth exploring.

San People

The term ‘San’ means, “people who gather wild food”, or “people without any cattle”. The term ‘San’ also means “aborigines or settlers proper”. The San have small frames and light brown skins. Thousands of years ago, they were found living in the Karoo, Kalahari, and Namib deserts. To be precise, they were found living in the regions of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. They survived through hunting for wild animals and gathering plants suitable for human consumption. They led simple lives never building any permanent settlements to live in. They lived in caves or open camps near watering holes. They moved around a lot depending on the seasons, migration patterns of wild animals, and the accessibility of water. On account of their way of life, they kept only what they could carry.

Concerning their culture, while more than a few families often lived together, forming a large group, the main social unit was the core family which typically consisted of a man, his wife, and their children. However, because of the existence of polygamous marriages, families were often larger. In all groups, work was divided between men and women. Men were responsible for hunting for wild animals and women were responsible for taking care of the family and gathering plants. The San ate fruits, nuts, vegetables, bugs, birds, and wild animals, amongst other things. They were skilled at creating tools, clothes, musical instruments, and bows and arrows with poisoned ends from the materials around them. They also devoted a lot of time to artistic activities like rock paintings and engravings which they’ve come to be known for. A lot of their rock paintings and engravings have survived up until the present day, existing in protected spaces in a few parts of Southern Africa.

Khoikhoi People

The term ‘Khoikhoi’ means “people of people, or “men of men”, or “real people”. The Khoikhoi can be traced back to the western regions of Southern Africa. They were hunter-gatherers who became herders, keeping sheep and cattle. Resembling the San, the Khoikhoi moved around according to the time of year, seeking water and areas with enough grasslands. Although they were physically similar to the San, as a result of their way of life, the Khoikhoi were often taller.

Furthermore, not like the San who treated each other as equals, the presence of sheep and cattle, sheep and cattle that could be owned by persons, produced a hierarchical structure among the Khoikhoi. In contrast to the simple way of life of the San, the way of life of the Khoikhoi, consisting of chiefs and chiefdoms, was much more involved. Also, the establishment of herding as a way of life in Southern Africa led to a shift from a very simple way of life to a more involved way of life. What is more, although the Khoikhoi did not devote as much time to artistic activities as the San did, they were, however, great at craftwork. They often used the materials around them to create bags, blankets, mats, pottery, and clothing. Resembling the San who made bows and arrows with poisoned ends as their weapons, the Khoikhoi were also skilled at developing their weapons for their hunting activities.

As to the relations between the San and the Khoikhoi, even though it is to be expected that there were cases of conflict, in general, however, owing to their different ways of life, the San and the Khoikhoi developed mutually beneficial relations. They traded with one another, developing peaceful and organized relations. For example, in exchange for the gains of their hunting activities, the Khoikhoi are likely to have given the milk from their sheep and cattle to the San groups. Trade is also likely to have strengthened their relations, allowing them to not only defend one another against competitors but, also allowing them to live together peacefully. As a whole, while it is in the cards that there could have been incidents of conflict between the two people groups, it is more likely, however, that friendly relations were developed, since, despite their differences, they had more in common.

Bantu People

Different from the Khoisan in Southern Africa who had smaller frames and light brown skins, the Bantu had strong frames and dark brown skins. Bantu people groups who journeyed into the southern regions through the eastern regions settled in the southern regions around 1700 years ago. These Bantu people groups included; the Tsonga who settled in Mozambique, the Shona who settled in Zimbabwe, the Sotho and Tswana (originally from Tanzania) who settled in Botswana and the northern regions of South Africa, the Venda who settled in the northern regions of South Africa, and the Nguni who settled in the southern, central, eastern, and northern regions of South Africa.

These Bantu people groups were the earliest mixed farming and metalworking people to journey into the southern regions of the continent from the northern regions of the equator. Bantu people groups who journeyed southwards using the western regions of the continent survived through fishing and crop farming. Similar to the Bantu people groups who journeyed southward through the eastern regions, these Bantu people groups journeyed through the dry western regions and settled in the regions of Angola and Namibia, in the western regions of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Both eastern and western Bantu people groups, journeyed over hundreds of years, settling in different regions of Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa. Unlike the Khoisan, the Bantu lived in semi-permanent villages and built shelters made from saplings or stone. Once more, unlike the Khoisan, the Bantu had strong and complex governmental structures. The effective governmental structures were independent regional units under the leadership of a traditional chief. These independent regional units were different and diverse when it came to size and population, and too, they transformed over time.

As to the relations between the Khoisan and the Bantu, several historians argue that when the earliest Bantu people groups entered into a region that was, until that time, occupied only by the Khoisan, it is possible for there to have been too few Bantu to pose a serious threat to the rule of the Khoisan. From this perspective, mutually beneficial relations were likely established. In other instances, interdependent relations are also likely to have been established, usually leading to the inclusion of the Khoisan into Bantu societies. In most regions, however, as the Bantu grew in numbers and gained control over the land, it is also expected that independent Khoisan groups, struggling for survival, would have attacked cattle belonging to the Bantu, creating the kind of contact that often disintegrated into warfare. Generally, however, as with the relations between the San and Khoikhoi, the Bantu typically lived peacefully with the Khoisan, including them in their communities.

The way of life of the people of South Africa and Southern Africa, as a whole, is not only interesting but it is also important and studying it should be considered as that. It is important to know and understand the accepted way of life of the Khoisan and the Bantu before the opening of colonialism for it is only in knowing and understanding this way of life that it is possible to have a better and deeper understanding of the impact that colonialism truly had on the indigenous people. It is only in studying this important part of the history of South Africa and, in general, the history of Southern Africa, that we can come to respect and value the way of life of the indigenous people which, for the most part, has repeatedly been lessened and undervalued.

References and Further Readings

Barnard, A. (1992). Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. Cambridge University Press

Booyse J. J., le Roux, C. S., Seroto, J. & Wolhuter, C. C. (2011). A History of Schooling in South Africa. Van Schaik Publishers

Elphick, R. (1985). Khoikhoi and The Founding of South Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press

Giliomee, H. & Mbenga, B. (2007). New History of South Africa. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishers

McKenna, A. (2011). The History of Southern Africa. Britannica Educational Publishing

Schapera, I. (1934). The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Shillington, K. (1987). A History of Southern Africa. Longman

Thompson, L. (2000). A History of South Africa. Yale University Press

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