Africa Guide

Bushmen/San People

Introduction

The 'Bushmen' are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years. Their home is in the vast expanse of the Kalahari desert. There are many different Bushman peoples - they have no collective name for themselves, and the terms 'Bushman', 'San', 'Basarwa' (in Botswana) and so on are used variously. Most of those which are widely understood are imposed by outsiders and have some pejorative sense; many now use and accept the term 'Bushmen'. They speak a variety of languages, all of which incorporate 'click' sounds represented in writing by symbols such as ! or /.

The Bushmen are hunter-gatherers, who for thousands of years supported themselves in the desert through these skills. They hunt - mainly various kinds of antelope - but their daily diet has always consisted more of the fruits, nuts and roots which they seek out in the desert. They make their own temporary homes from wood that they gather. Many Bushmen who have been forced off their lands now live in settlements in areas that are unsuitable for hunting and gathering - they support themselves by growing some food, or by working on ranches.

The Bushmen had their homelands invaded by cattle herding Bantu tribes from around 1,500 years ago, and by white colonists over the last few hundred years. From that time they faced discrimination, eviction from their ancestral lands, murder and oppression amounting to a massive though unspoken genocide, which reduced them in numbers from several million to 100,000. Today, although all suffer from a perception that their lifestyle is 'primitive' and that they need to be made to live like the majority cattle-herding tribes, specific problems vary according to where they live. In South Africa, for example, the !Khomani now have most of their land rights recognised, but many other Bushman tribes have no land rights at all.

The Gana (G//ana) and Gwi (G/wi) tribes in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve are among the most persecuted. Far from recognising their ownership rights over the land they have lived on for thousands of years, the Botswana government has in fact forced almost all of them off it. The harassment began in 1986, and the first forced removals were in 1997. Those that remained faced torture, drastic restrictions in their hunting rights, and routine harassment. In early 2002, this harassment intensified, accompanied by the destruction of the Bushmen's water pump, the draining of their existing water supplies into the desert, and the banning of hunting and gathering. Almost all were forced out by these tactics, but a large number have since returned, with many more desperate to do so. 

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