The Khoikhoi

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The Zaamenkomst Panel

Rock Painting at Drackensberg (photo South African Museum)


The people who lived in South Africa before the European invasion can be divided into two language families, the Khoikhoi (or Khoisan) and the Bantu. During the time of white domination, the differences between the many tribes of South Africa were exaggerated for political reasons. There are however, cultural differences between the inhabitants and it remains a culturally diverse nation.

The Khoikhoi is a general term to describe the hunter-gatherers, also called 'bushmen' or the San, who were the earliest inhabitants of Africa. There were probably about 120,000 living in South Africa around 1500. They were still there when black Bantu-speaking farmers and finally the white settlers who came later.

The whites saw the Khoikhoi as little better than wild animals. When the blacks resisted white intrusion into their hunting grounds, the whites sent out killing squads. They usually killed the adults and captured the children to work on their farms. The Khoikhoi were driven to remote mountainous and desert lands which were not attractive to the white settlers. Many died upon contact with the Europeans because their resistance to the white diseases was low. Between disease, the killing squads and the inhospitable conditions in the new lands, the numbers of the Khoisan dwindled. There are few living in South Africa today.

A German traveler in the 18th century, O.F. Mentzel, observed:

By nature they are not savage or cruel, but the persecution of Europeans who shoot them like dogs, and the bitter hunger when they have nothing to eat, make them audacious and desperate so they risk their lives and become bloodthirsty.

Joseph Campbell, a Scottish missionary traveling in the Cape in 1813 described the displacement of the Khoikhoi:

We came to a Hottentot (a common Dutch term for the Khoikhoi) kraal (encampment) where we would have halted for the night, but their fountain was all dried up...From their own account they had once had a better place, but a Boor (Boer) asked permission first to sow a little corn, then to erect a mill, they allowed it; after which he applied for a grant from the government for the whole place, which they were promised, not knowing that the Hottentots possessed it; of course they were driven from it. An old Hottentot told us that he remembered the time when the boors were within five days journey of Cape Town and the country was full of Hottentot kraals, but they have gradually been driven up the country to make room for white people.

a reconstruction of Khoikhoi life from the South African Museum

This is part of the Bitter Union: The Story of South Africa Exhibit

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