How to make sense of Khoisan revivalism


How to make sense of Khoisan revivalism

Khoisan Consciousness is sweeping across South Africa. Exploring multiple perspectives is vital to make sense of it, writes RAFAEL VERBUYST.

WHAT does it mean for an “extinct people” to reassert itself politically, economically, and culturally? Who determines their supposed extinction and how is this notion challenged? How and why do people “revive” a purportedly forgotten past in search of identity, recognition and reparations? Where does such a movement come from and what kind of followers does it attract? And why, most of all, does “indigeneity” play such a prominent role?

These questions lie at the heart of my book, Khoisan Consciousness: An Ethnography of Emic Histories and Indigenous Revivalism in Post-Apartheid Cape Town ( (published by Brill in 2022). The term Khoisan has controversial origins, but it is commonly used in reference to the Cape Khoi, San, Griqua, Korana and Nama ethnic groups with the oldest footprint in Southern Africa, including by many of the people concerned.

Despite putting up fierce resistance, the Khoisan were dispossessed by settlers from the mid-17th century onward. Their culture, language, and modes of subsistence were suppressed as they became assimilated into colonial society. During apartheid, the Khoisan were classified as “Coloureds” alongside various other racialised groups, which fed the stubborn myth of their virtual extinction. “Coloured” has demeaning connotations of miscegenation, but many internalised or re-engineered the label over time. Most individuals with Khoisan ancestry indeed still identify as “Coloured” and the “remaining” Khoisan are popularly regarded as “Stone Age throwbacks” living in the Kalahari Desert...

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