Pre-colonial Southern Africa: Khoisan and Bantu Peoples

When writing about South Africa’s history, many scholars usually start from the point at which the Dutch East India Company arrived at the Cape in 1652 and just about no attention is given to South Africa’s pre-colonial history. In spite of this mistake, studying South Africa’s precolonial history matters, however. It matters, first, in its own right, and second, because it is only through studying South Africa’s precolonial history that we can truly come to understand the impact that colonialism had on the indigenous people of South Africa as well as their cultures. Accordingly, realizing this is, this article aims to deal with the history of the Khoisan and Bantu peoples in present-day South Africa, and Southern Africa as a whole, before the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century.

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 2 different groups that is, the San and the Khoikhoi, were 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, journeying 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. Nevertheless, Khoisan and Bantu people groups lived together for years in before Europeans ultimately settled in the region.

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 had small frames and light brown skins. They were found living in the Karoo, Kalahari, and Namib deserts that is, present-day Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, thousands of years ago. They survived through hunting for wild animals and gathering plants suitable for human consumption. They led simple lives. 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. Because of this way of life, they only kept what they could carry.

Concerning their culture, while more than a few families lived together, often forming large groups, the main social unit was the core family. Due to the existence of polygamous marriages, however, families were often larger. Work was divided between men and women in each group. Men were responsible for hunting and women were responsible for taking care of the family and gathering plants. The San were skilled at creating tools, clothes, musical instruments, and bows and arrows from the materials around them. A lot of time was also devoted to artistic activities like rock paintings and engravings which have largely survived up until the present day in protected spaces in 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 complex way of life. What’s 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 own weapons for hunting activities.

Bantu People

Arriving later on in Southern Africa were the Bantu peoples. Different from the Khoisan who had smaller frames and light brown skins, the Bantu had strong frames and dark brown skins. Bantu people groups that journeyed into Southern Africa through East Africa settled in Southern Africa 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 present-day South Africa. These Bantu people groups were the earliest mixed farming and metalworking people.

Bantu people groups that journeyed into Southern Africa through Central Africa also settled in the southern regions of the continent around 1700 years ago. These Bantu people groups eventually settled in Angola and Namibia, in the western regions of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. These Bantu people groups survived through fishing and crop farming. Moreover, 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, it is likely that mutually beneficial relations were 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.

Studying the history of the indigenous people of South Africa and Southern Africa as a whole, is not only interesting but it is also important. It is important to know and understand the cultures of the Khoisan and Bantu people before the arrival of Europeans for it is only through understanding their cultures that we can come to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of colonialism. It is only in studying this part of the history of the people of Southern Africa that we can also come to respect the indigenous people and their cultures which, for the most part, have 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

Fourshey, C., Gonzales, R. M., & Saidi, C. (2018). Bantu Africa: 3500 BCE to Present. Oxford University 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

Molema, S. M. (2019). The Bantu, Past and Present: An Ethnographical and Historical Study of the Native Races of South Africa. Alpha Editions

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

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

South African History Online (SAHO). (2020). The Khoisan. [Online]. Available:

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

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