For almost three years, a group of Khoikhoi and San indigenous people have been staging a sit-in protest on the Union
Buildings lawns in Pretoria. Leader, King Chief Khoisan SA, and his followers trekked for approximately five weeks from the Cape to Pretoria, with hopes of speaking to President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet about gaining legitimacy as an indigenous group and as true natives of South Africa.
King Khoisan SA’s demands to the President are, inter alia, the removal of the term “coloured” from their identification particulars. According to King Khoisan SA, the term is derogatory and they deem it a racial slur. Another demand is the
addition of the Khoisan languages to the official state languages. The protest has been taking place for almost three years now, yet President Ramaphosa has not had any engagement with them. “I find him to be a very arrogant man. We have been on these lawns for years now and not once has he ever crossed the road to come and engage us”, said King Khoisan SA.
In November 2019, President Ramaphosa signed the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Bill into law. The Bill seeks to transform traditional and Khoisan institutions in accordance with constitutional imperatives, such as the Bill of Rights. This is done to restore the integrity and legitimacy of the institutions of traditional and Khoisan leadership in line with customary
law and practices. Irrespective of this Act by the government, King Khoisan SA and his followers are still not satisfied. According to the Chief, the Bill is old and it was previously referred to as the Traditional Leadership Bill, but now they have included the term “Khoisan” to make it seem more accommodating. The protest still continued, even after the signing of the Bill because, according King Khoisan SA, the Bill does not state and acknowledge the Khoisan as the first nation of the country and the rightful owners of the land.
Dr Gairoonisa Paleker, a University of Pretoria senior lecturer in the Department of Heritage and Historical Studies, stated that everyone has a right to a peaceful protest (emphasis on peaceful) for what they believe to be injustices. “With specific reference to the Khoisan, I think the Khoisan are among the most marginalised South Africans so perhaps they have more to protest about”, Dr Paleker noted. Dr Paleker also indicated that the word ‘justified’ can be viewed as relative – with different people believing something is justified, while others believe it to be unjustified: “I think a more useful term to use is whether their demands are realistic and realisable. If one thinks of the demands in these terms then some are definitely realistic while others may be less realistic. The demand for recognition as the First Peoples is realistic even though it may be politically contested. The demand for official status for Khoekhoe, the Khoisan language, is also realistic. However, the demand for all expropriated Khoisan land is less realistic.”
As a scholar, Dr Paleker is of the belief that indeed the Khoisan are the first nation of South Africa. Dr Paleker motivated this by stating that “there is archaeological and historical evidence that would indeed confirm that they were the original inhabitants and most certainly the first people whom the Dutch encountered at the Cape”. According to Dr Paleker, the delegitimisation of
the Khoisan can be attributed to their relatively small size of the population. Historically, many Khoisan were killed through exposure to European diseases, and through conflict with the early settlers and other Black groups. Another important contributing factor has been the way in which Khoisan have been viewed by both European settlers and other Black groups. These
views are on a spectrum that either romanticise the Khoisan as ‘man in his natural state, at one with nature’ or demonise them as ‘shiftless’, ‘lazy’, ‘thieving’, etc.
On the aspect of the President and the government not engaging with the Khoisan protesters, Dr Paleker stated that it is an
unfair act by the state. “I think their struggle and certainly their tenacity and persistence- they have been camped out there now
for almost three years – deserves respect and acknowledgement from the government in the form of a serious engagement with them.” Dr Paleker suggests that scholars can indeed assist the protesters with getting their demands adhered to. “Well, as
scholars and academics we can certainly contribute by producing more knowledge about Khoisan history, their way of life, culture, language, etc”. She went on to add that she “visited them in February 2019 and spoke to King Khoisan SA to hear first-hand what their protest was about. Since that first visit, I have visited twice more in 2019 but only to take food and blankets. I have not visited them again since the onset of COVID-19”.
When asked what she thinks the impact of the government answering to the demands of the Khoisan will be on the country
generally, Dr Paleker responded by stating that “this is a difficult question to answer, because it involves a bit of prophecy and I
am no prophet. But realistically I don’t think the government will meet their demands, certainly not on the question of land.”