The disconnection of the San community from the modern economy

Keith Phiri

The San peoples’ way of life in Southern Africa has always been thought of as based on hunting game and gathering wild edible fruits. This traditional, nomadic culture has dramatically changed across the region as a result of displacement and land tenure laws that favour permanent settlements while criminalizing game hunting. Contact between San communities in different countries has also been affected, with the exception of a few San families in Zimbabwe and Botswana who have managed to maintain contact. Consequently, years of separation from each other and assimilation into different ethnic communities in their respective countries have eroded their socio-cultural norms, language, self-identity, history and beliefs. 

While the San peoples in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa have been able to organize and make their voices heard, the situation facing the small San community in Zimbabwe is less publicized. Estimated at around 2,500, the majority are located in Tsholotsho district in Matabeleland North and smaller numbers in Bulilima district in Matabeleland South. The San were moved to their current location in Tsholotsho, away from the Hwange National Park, during the colonial era when the park was designated a wildlife area under the Game and Fish Preservation Act of 1929. Their proximity to the Hwange National Game Park, in the extreme southern and western parts of Tsholotsho district, is therefore strategic for hunting-based livelihoods opportunities. They live in the outlying parts of the district, towards the national game park, alongside Ndebele and Kalanga communities. With no assets or wealth-derived social power, the San are easily dominated by their Kalanga and Ndebele neighbours, who exploit them as cheap labour. The challenges are especially acute for San women, who typically work in the fields planting, weeding and harvesting the crops of the dominant Ndebele and Kalanga tribes in exchange for food items such as maize, sorghum and millet. They are rarely paid in cash. 

The San community in Zimbabwe identifies itself as the Tshwa (meaning a person), a designation that also depicts the language spoken by them. Other monikers used to describe them, such as ‘Abathwa’ or ‘Amasili’ in the local Ndebele language or ‘Bakhwa’ in the local Kalanga language, are perceived by the San as derogatory. 

With no assets or wealth-derived social power, the San are easily dominated by the Kalanga and the Ndebele ethnic groups, who exploit them as cheap labour.

The terms are themselves a reflection of the unequal power dynamics and socio-economic relations between the San and the dominant Ndebele and Kalanga neighbouring ethnic communities, as well as the barriers they face in terms of accessing the same opportunities as other members of wider society. Furthermore, the San way of life in Zimbabwe, as is the case of other San communities elsewhere, has been affected by the shift away from traditional activities based on nomadic hunting and gathering livelihoods to permanent agropastoralism. In a rapidly modernizing and globalizing world, such profound livelihoods and cultural transformations pose serious challenges for marginalized communities like the San to adapt and sustain their livelihoods. 

The San people in Zimbabwe, as well as in much of Southern Africa, have struggled to adapt their livelihoods to these rapid changes and have remained on the fringes of their country’s political economy. Since their contact with various Bantu groups and later with colonial administrations, the San people have lost a great deal of their traditions, culture and sacred lifestyle. The prohibitions against game hunting by colonial governments and displacement from their ancestral lands through such legislation as the Land Husbandry Act of 1951 further weakened the community’s means of survival and increased poverty among them. This has led to their exploitation as cheap sources of labour, with little or no bargaining power, by neighbouring Kalanga and Ndebele groups. The postcolonial Zimbabwe government further perpetuated the exclusion of the San community through various resource and environment management policies and regulations that prohibit unregulated hunting of wild animals. For instance, San were not able to participate and benefit as equal partners with other ethnic groups in the so-called CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) initiative that the government implemented from the late 1980s as an innovative rural development strategy. 

To date, the San community remain amongst the poorest and most marginalized people in Zimbabwe, deprived of basic social, cultural and political rights and fundamental freedoms, including rights to their lands, territories and natural resources. Poverty levels among San have also been aggravated by prejudice and negative stereotypes on the part of larger dominant ethnic groups like the Ndebele and the Kalanga. This discrimination, built on socially constructed perceptions of the San’s inferior status by neighbouring ethnic communities, leads to them being denied socio-economic opportunities and so entrenches the community’s state of destitution. Their plight was exacerbated in the wake of Covid-19, when many San contracted the virus through interacting with other communities in search of food, particularly during the harvesting of mopane worms – an important source of protein among the poor. Some became seriously sick and even died as a result. When cases escalated, the dominant Ndebele and Khalanga tribes refused to take them in as labourers on their fields. Consequently, many were pushed into food insecurity and struggled to access adequate health care. 

Unfortunately, as a result of these deep-seated structural inequalities compounded by the community’s very small size, the San people lack the emancipative political voice necessary to challenge these injustices. This leaves them with few options to transform their current predicament, in a limbo between the traditional livelihoods that have become increasingly difficult to practise and a modern global economy that has so far failed to accommodate them on equitable terms.

Photo: The border of Hwange National Park, from where Zimbabwean San have been expelled since the colonial era, seen from the air. Credit: Christopher Scott/Alamy Stock Photo

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