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A brief history of South Africa

The very early
Khoisan People

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

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Our knowledge of early indigenous settlement patterns in southern Africa is very sketchy because the inhabitants left no writings and few ruins. Archaeologists, however, have brought to light a number of artifacts (bones, stone tools, weapons, etc) which help us to build up some form of a picture.

A certain degree of evidence has also been brought to light by linguists who have been able to compare language structure to reach some conclusions about the origins of these early inhabitants.


When one deals with the Stone Age people (as in the historic case of the Khoikhoi, the San, and the Strandlopers) the situation is vague. There still exist some groups of San or "Bushmen" in the Kalahari Desert but the Khoikhoi or "Hottentots" have for the most part disappeared as a people.

Indeed, modern research indicates that it is not absolutely clear whether there was actually any difference between the three groups at all and for this reason the term Khoisan is preferred when referring to them.

When the early European explorers first made contact with southern Africa during the 16th century, they reported the existence of two groups of inhabitants which have traditionally been given the names "Bushmen" and "Hottentot" but which anthropologist today call the San and the Khoikhoi.

Of the two, the former were probably there the longest and, as such, were possibly also descended from the line of early prehistoric man. It is probable that the Khoikhoi then acquired livestock and so were forced to begin the process of migration in search of better pastures.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Khoikhoi reached the Cape Peninsula by at least 500 AD, some 1 000 years before Bartholomew Dias first rounded the tip of southern Africa.


Since the Khoikhoi were originally hunters, their physical stature (they would have been short) would probably have been identical to that of the other hunters (San). An altered diet would have changed that and over the centuries they grew into taller people. A major change with the acquiring of livestock was also the alteration of the economic foundation of the society.

It seems that the hunters were essentially communal people, holding everything in common, and therefore supporting each other through times of tribulation. On the other hand, livestock appeared to provide the Khoikhoi with personal wealth and therefore created a dichotomy between the wealthy and the poor.

This in turn increased the tendency for warfare and the emergence of political authority based on livestock wealth. There was nevertheless regular contact between the Khoikhoi and the San, and a down-and-out Khoikhoi could become San by adopting hunting for his livelihood.


Khoikhoi wealth was dependent upon the private ownership of cattle. A wealthy person was therefore one who had many cattle while a poor person was one who had few or none at all. This rather singular basis of wealth, however, made cycles of prosperity and depression a regular feature of their society.

Wealth would be generated with good rain and luxuriant pastures, together with periods of peace when few livestock would be carried off. On the other hand, cycles of depression could lead the Khoikhoi to poverty, often forcing them to become hunters. (In those times, people did not have immediate access to the resources available today, such as understandannuities.com, to provide information regarding investments, annuities and other financial plans!)

The Khoikhoi clans at first appeared to welcome the European invasion of the Cape after 1652. Indeed, they were quick to set up commercial ties, bartering livestock for tobacco, beads, copper and iron. When the first colonists settled in 1657, outcast Khoikhoi had no objection to taking employment as labourers and herders.

By the time that it became clear that the colonists were there to stay, however, there was little that the Khoikhoi could do to oppose it because they lacked a tribal structure which might have held the Dutch at bay.

Moreover, because their pastoral economy had created an individualistic society which was accustomed to seeking labour whenever its luck was out, individual Khoikhoi would unhesitatingly give up society to take up labour on Dutch farms. The evolution from pastoralism to labour was therefore an easy one.


Initially contact with the Dutch was aimed solely at barter. With the gradual escalation of shipping, more cattle were needed and therefore contacts increased. It would seem that Commander Jan van Riebeeck at first showed tact and wisdom in his negotiations with the Khoikhoi but he soon revealed resentment at their manner of trade.

The Khoikhoi began to give only sickly animals and continually raised the prices, while influencing inland tribes not to sell. Eventually the Governor's attitude hardened and he proposed to enslave the peninsula Khoikhoi and take their cattle by force. Although such action was forbidden, his subsequent livestock raids resulted in a breakdown of the traditional diplomacy.

The creation of a colony soon began to restrict Khoikhoi access to grazing and water and it created a group of free men who were able to vent their anger against the Khoikhoi. At the same time, the Company entered into alliances with the inland clans against the peninsula groups. Circumstances thereupon deteriorated until 1659 when a series of Dutch-Khoikhoi wars broke out.

Although the wars ended in stalemate, they did give the Dutch a decisive advantage because the most powerful of the Khoikhoi clans were forced to pay annual tribute of cattle and this opened the door to government involvement in Khoikhoi disputes.

Company officials also started bartering further and further inland, thereby decreasing the importance of the peninsula clans and increasing the number of groups over whom the Dutch gained nominal control.

By 1690 the Khoikhoi fear for their diminishing herds lead them to hide their animals and to trade as little as possible. The Company responded with threats and force. By 1700 most of the Khoikhoi of the western Cape had become dependent on the Colony for their livelihood.

The Company, through pressure of barter, had succeeded in breaking down the economic system and the colonists then stepped in to provide labour to those Khoikhoi who became impoverished.


To some degree, of course, one could argue that the Khoikhoi society fell apart at the seams because its own weak economic system collapsed when confronted by a stronger alien one. The small-pox epidemic of 1713 then possibly helped decimate an already weakened population.

The first outbreak was followed by a second in 1755. By 1795, therefore, the Khoikhoi society was to all intents and purposes destroyed, leaving the Cape Coloured people as its remnant. Even their language was superseded by that of the conqueror.

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