Opening of Khoisan hut commendable

The “Khoisan” hut that has been opened at the Galley restaurant on Fish Hoek’s beachfront is commendable.

It’s good to see that efforts are being made to celebrate the original people of the Cape and offer information to tourists. Of course, one has to be very careful that the information is accurate, and in the case of Khoi ancestry this involves one in walking a minefield.

I do not know King Koebaha Calvin Cornelius III and my comments are not directed at him personally. The problem is that some claims to royal titles that have been made are very dubious. Many people even claim to be !Xam or Khoena today, when they have no such ancestry at all.

I use the terms !Xam and Khoena because Khoisan is itself a dubious label. It was invented in 1928 by the German professor Leonard Schultze and today it is considered reductive and pejorative by academics who study our history. Khoisan throws together not only the Bushmen (which is not an insulting label!) or !Xam, but also all the Khoena tribal formations from the Peninsula up to the northern parts of what is our country today. They were prosperous sheep and cattle farmers – Hessequa, Attaqua, Chainouqua, Cochouqua, Goringhaiqua, Gorachouqua, Chariguriqua and other smaller offshoots of these.

All of these groups were attacked, dismantled, and pacified through 15 wars of ethnic cleansing, fiercely resisted by free Khoena, over the 176 years between 1652 and 1828.

I trust that the Galley has done its “homework” responsibly, because the task is hazardous and difficult.

Today there is a vocal, but unfortunately highly splintered Cape Khoena Revivalist movement of descendants who are attempting to resurrect the old tribes. They are exercising their right to self-determination and to self-identify. Their core focus is to revive and respect the memory of those decimated and removed through ethnic cleansing or ethnocide. There are a number of formations that respectfully remain true to this cause. Among them, however, are lots of little formations of chancers who use a discourse of pseudo history that is easily disproven as their claims are fraudulent. It is important to distinguish between those seeking attention with gimmickry, and those who really care about their communities and their hidden and marginalised heritage.

Trying to actually recreate the tribes of 400 years ago, now in the 21st century, is probably neither wise nor viable. The model being followed by those less informed is unfortunately of the tribes and kingdoms that were given patronage by the apartheid regime and then later by the current ruling government following in their footsteps. Authenticity is something that aligns a broader public behind the cause, while the lack thereof ultimately invites ridicule.

We cannot ignore some very worrying tendencies. Some of these include claims to be the actual old tribes, a number of which disappeared long before the colonial onslaught. At least nine Khoena tribes exist within the Xhosa and retain their clan names within the Iziduko system. However, once the floodgates are opened anyone can literally invent a tribe and a title and make a dubious material claim.

There are, interestingly, also false claims being made of “Coloured” people being the only true descendants of the !Xam and Khoena, and claims of being “First People” or “First Nations”. Our South African bloodlines are, in fact, so intertwined that this is a ridiculous exercise. There is denialism around the dreadful past assault on the San by the pacified Khoena as well as denial of collaboration by pacified Khoena against the San, Free Khoena and Xhosa and right up to the apartheid era as the Cape Corps and security police operatives. Our history is fraught and complex – a minefield indeed. We have to be so careful to channel our respect and remembrance correctly.

An excellent reference is Richard Elphick’s book, Khoikhoi and the Founding of White South Africa. Readers can also consult the blog camissapeople.wordpress.com by Tariq Mellet, to whom I am greatly indebted for information for this letter.

Melanie Steyn Simon’s Town