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San in South Africa

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    In South Africa there are two main San communities, about 700 Khomani San in the Northern Cape (data: Irin News, 7 March 2005) and about 5,000 from the !Xu and Khwe groups brought to the country by the South African army from Namibia and southern Angola following Namibian independence in 1990.

    Historical context

    The Khomani are descendants of people evicted from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park on the borders of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana when it was established in 1931. The Khomani lodged a land claim under the laws of post-apartheid South Africa and won a landmark settlement from the government. In its first phase, the government returned to the Khomani 38,000 hectares of farmland for purposes of establishing a novel Khomani communal farm. After the dispersed population had established mechanisms of self-government, in 2001 it entered into negotiations with the government over the second phase of the settlement: land rights in the park, now connected to a national park in Botswana, and collectively named the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The settlement finalized in 2002 granted the Khomani extensive use of the park for cultural practices, including hunting, and establishment of eco-tourism ventures, as well as various cultural and economic activities in lands near the park.

    For over ten years from 1990, the !Xu and Khwe peoples languished in the tent army camp at Schmidtsdrift near Kimberley, almost entirely dependent on army salaries still drawn by some of them. They had been employed mainly as trackers by the South African Defence Forces, during the white-led government’s war in the front-line states. Their land claim to the army base was rejected when Tswana peoples successfully claimed it as their ancestral lands. Finally in 1999, the government allocated 13,000 hectares for the !Xu and Khwe at nearby Platfontein. But it took another four years for the government to begin building housing there. By January 2004, however, a new school had been built, as well as houses with running water and electricity for 300 families.

    In March 2005, the Human Rights Commission issued a blistering report on the government’s treatment of the Khomani. It cited police involvement in the January 2004 murder of a Khomani leader, and a failure to provide basic services to this marginalized group. Local government had obstructed development of the communal farm established for the Khomani in 1999 by failing to provide water, sanitation or waste water treatment.

    Current issues

    The Khomani, Khwe and !Xu communities are still among the most marginalized groups in South Africa, yet the government has taken some steps in acknowledging their rights and grievances, and addressing land claims. In August 2015, Khoi and San leaders within the National Khoisan Council (NKC) formed their own chamber of commerce and industry to address their socio-economic marginalization and lodge land claims, as they believe they are more likely to be successful if claims are lodged collectively rather than by individuals. Leaders from the council and other minority and indigenous groups met with ruling African National Congress representatives in Johannesburg to discuss access to education, housing and economic opportunities for their communities, among other issues. Following their meeting, representatives also called for their status as the country’s first indigenous community to be reflected in an amended Constitution.

    Urbanization has had significant impacts on San indigenous peoples. It has not only threated access to land among rural communities but also in areas where some measure of urbanization has taken place, while the government has failed to provide San residents with skills, education, or other assets. Very few have been able to find secure and well remunerated work in towns and cities, while many continue to face severe discrimination. The example of the San community at the Planfontein farm shows that urbanization can have negative effects on a community, despite access to ‘veldfood’ – a variety of fruits, roots, wild vegetables and worms that remain a significant contributor to San diets. This community, consisting of San belonging to the Xun and Khwe groups, lives under difficult sanitary conditions, with unstable access to water, as well as issues of wastewater from neighboring communities spilling into their ‘veld’. Irregular sanitation servicing the communities’ dry toilets not only leads to increased risk of disease, but also forces many community members to defecate in the open, further contaminating one of the San’s vital food sources and undermining a key opportunity for them to maintain deep-rooted cultural practices despite urbanization.

    Updated March 2018

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