‡Khomani Cultural Landscape inscripted as a world heritage site

Event date: 
2017-07-08 11:38

About the ‡Khomani San people
‡Khomani San land claim
Khomani San  inscripted as UNESCO world heritage site
‡Khomani San world heritage status / standpoint 
‡Khomani San  people in pictures
 Related media products/ links


About the ‡Khomani San people

The San are the aboriginal people of South Africa. Their distinct hunter-gatherer culture stretches back over 20 000 years, and their genetic origins reach back over one million years. Recent research indicates that the San are the oldest genetic stock of contemporary humanity.

Today, the two largest San groups in South Africa are immigrants from Angola via Namibia. These are the !Xû and the Khwe, currently living at Schmidtsdrift, 80 km outside the Northern Cape provincial capital, Kimberley. There are 3 500 !Xû and 1 100 Khwe. Both groups claim an indigenous identity on the basis of their languages and cultures.

The next largest group is the San population of the southern Kalahari. Today, most San in this area (Lower Orange District) describe themselves as the ‡Khomani. The group is descended from several original San groups, including the ||Ng!u (close relatives of the !Xam who lived south of the !Gariep River), the ‡Khomani who spoke the same language as the ||Ng!u but had distinct lineage, the |’Auni, the Khatea, the Njamani and probably others whose names are now lost to us. Most San of this bloodline now speak Khoekhoegowap and /or Afrikaans as primary language. There are 23 confirmed speakers of the ancient N|u language. They constitute some of the few surviving aboriginal South African San. Approximately 1 500 adults are spread over an area of more than 1 000 km in the Northern Cape Province. Most people live in the northern reaches of Gordonia, at Witdraai, Ashkam, Welkom, Rietfontein and surrounding villages. Others live in and around Upington and Olifantshoek.

A small pocket of aboriginal South African ||Xegwi San lives on farms in Mpumalanga Province near Lakes Banager and Chrissie and around the towns of Lothair and Carolina. Their numbers are not known, though estimates run between 30 and 100 adults. These ||Xegwi San are descendants of a displaced group of Drakensberg San, famous for the rock paintings made by their ancestors up until the middle of the last century. Their original language is extinct.

There is a group of about 70 adult !Kung San living across the border from South Africa at Masetleng and Ngwaatle Pans in Botswana. These people originally lived next to the ‡Khomani in what became the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (KGNP). They were displaced by the KGNP and driven into Botswana. They have lodged a land claim in South Africa though they have yet to resolve the issue of their citizenship. !Kung is a Northern San language.

There are thousands of people in the Northern Cape who are to some degree aware that they are direct descendants of the largest South African San population of the 18th and 19th centuries, the !Xam. In the area of Prieska there are semi-nomadic farm labourers known as Karretjiemense (Cart People). These people know they are of San descent and may have spoken San languages in the previous century.


 [back to top] 


The ‡Khomani San Land Claim

In March 1999, the world media carried a picture of South African President Thabo Mbeki embracing Dawid Kruiper, leader of the ‡Khomani San. The ‡Khomani land claim, lodged under the legal framework provided by the 1996 post-Apartheid constitution and settled out of court by the South African government, is the only current example of a successful aboriginal land claim in southern Africa, and provides an area of 65,000 hectares to the San in addition to extensive land use rights in and to the recently renamed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP).

The “Southern Kalahari San” were evicted from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park soon after its formation in 1931 and dispersed over the southern Kalahari in a wide diaspora into South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. At the time of the land claim’s launch, they were no longer a functioning or definite community. In common with other displaced indigenous peoples, they had to a large degree become assimilated in or dominated by the local pastoralist groups, and their ancient cultural practices were sporadically maintained in isolated groups. The Southern Kalahari San were comprised of disparate groups known as the ‡Khomani, |Auni, and N|amani-speaking San. In seeking out members of the various clans and families with origins in the claimed land, anthropologists working for SASI discovered at least 20 old San community members still speaking a San language confidently pronounced “dead” in the early 1970s. After further study and analysis by socio-linguist Nigel Crawhall, this ancient language was named N|u (see page 49). A dynamic cultural resource management project is under way now with the aim of recording all existing forms of San culture and encouraging ways of reincorporating them into daily life. An entire dictionary is being prepared for the language, N|u songs are being taught to children and elders, and N|u original place names are being recorded. The process of restoring the language and associated culture from a position of near-extinction is dynamic, and has great power to resonate with and empower the reviving community.

In March 1999 the first phase of the land claim was settled. It returned to the San 38,000 hectares of farming land around the confluence of the Molopo and Nossob rivers, about 50 kilometers south of what is now called the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The second phase of the land claim was held in abeyance for a period of two years as the scattered members of the estimated 1500 ‡Khomani San (named after the largest of the original Southern Kalahari San groupings) organized their own self-government and began the novel process of managing communally owned farms. What made this process challenging was the community’s dispersion; no central coherence remained. Elected representatives had to lead a reconstituted and “virtual” community without the benefit of past policies or practices. Many of democracy’s lessons had to be learned, and in the absence of a functioning “tribal council” or other authoritative body, legislation required the San leaders to operate in accordance with received Western notions of “representative democracy.”

A particular challenge facing those facilitating the process was difficulty in ensuring that the interests of the more “traditional,” less modern, or less educated members of the community were sufficiently protected. A significant number among the ‡Khomani San abhor the constitutional instruments required to manage their affairs. Holding meetings, recording decisions, keeping minutes, and formulating land use plans and the like in accordance with government requirements are processes totally foreign to these San who “vote with their feet,” living apart from civil society. While their existence is clearly of importance to the emerging community’s identity, ensuring that they get a fair slice of the resources and are not sidelined by their more worldly-wise and therefore more effective colleagues is an ongoing source of conflict and debate. Their supporters want the community to experience the full extent of this conflict so that a solution will emerge from its own political process and not be imposed from outside.

With community-building processes underway, negotiations recommenced in May 2001 to finalize San rights to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The agreement is now close to completion, even as internal struggles continue.

In essence, what the San will achieve as a result of the emerging agreement is summarized as follows:

Ownership of 25,000 hectares on the Park’s southern boundary, within which they will be relatively free–within the limits of a “contract park agreement”–to carry out cultural practices, hunt, collect bush foods, and conduct ecotourism ventures. These will include walking and overnight trails, and 4×4 vehicle routes. The San accept the provision that no permanent residence will be allowed inside the Park itself.

Priority commercial use of the area between the owned area and the Auob river. In this zone, the ‡Khomani will be entitled, in addition to all cultural practices, to formulate and conduct ecotourism projects, with the SA National Parks Board (SANP) or other partners.

Symbolic and cultural use of an area comprising about one-half of the South African section of the Park–about 4,000 square kilometers in the southern section. This right means, in effect, that the San are able to use the entire region of their traditional and ancestral use for any other than commercial reasons. Groups of elders and youth, for example, may travel deep into the Park and experience the Kalahari as it was, living off the land as they once did. One or more central sites will be developed where the elders can gather regularly to travel into the vast red-duned interior of the Kalahari.

Commercial opportunities. The SANP has recognized that the San heritage is–and should be–inextricably linked with the identity of this section of the Kalahari, and it intends to find ways to give that notion substance. A jointly owned (San and SANP) commercial lodge at the confluence of the Auob and Nossob rivers has been agreed to in principle. The San will be employed there, not only as trackers but also in other capacities. Further commercial opportunities, where guests will be able to explore the Kalahari through the eyes and experience of the ‡Khomani San, are now being discussed.

A community nature park, shared between the San and their rural neighbors. The community of Mier has been agreed to in principle, covering the area between the small town of Welkom, 10 kilometers from the Park gate, and the Park itself. This nature park will provide opportunities for the sale of crafts and artwork to tourists who do not wish to engage in more arduous journeys into the Kalahari.

An international heritage listing will be applied for in due course to register the interaction between the ancient culture of the ‡Khomani San and the conservation of the unique Kalahari ecosystem. The Government of South Africa will thus become a stakeholder and partner in the process.

The entire ‡Khomani San/SA National Parks enterprise will be subject to a contractual “joint management” regime comprised of elected San individuals with appropriate skills as well as representatives from a council of elders who bring their deep knowledge of the traditional areas and cultural practices to the management. The plan draws on “joint management” experiences from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, as well as national parks in Australia. All parties recognize the importance of sensitivity by both the San and the national conservation authority to the cross-cultural nature of the agreement and to the importance of bridging differing worldviews and priorities.


 [back to top] 


‡Khomani Cultural Landscape inscripted as a World Heritage Site

At its 41st session taking place in Krakow, Poland from 02-12 July 2017, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee has inscribed on its prestigious world heritage list, the ‡Khomani Cultural Landscape.

This landmark inscription amplifies the ‡Khomani San unique cultural heritage  and add to the other eight  South African world heritage sites in: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa, Maloti-Drakensberg Park (Transboundary with Lesotho), Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, Vredefort Dome, Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape, Robben Island Museum, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas.

The ‡Khomani and related San people are unique in that they descend directly from an ancient population that existed in southern Africa some 150,000 years ago, the ancestors of the entire human race.

The red dunes of the ‡Khomani Cultural Landscape are strongly associated with this unique culture stretching from the Stone Age to the present, thus making it a landscape that has changed little from a time long ago when humans were mainly hunter gatherers.  The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape has been home to at most a few hundred people who have survived life in the extreme desert landscape of the southern Kalahari through their knowledge of the land. Particular to their practices is their ways of physically defining the land through designated uses of the different parts; how their movements were organised as well as other significant cultural practices.

The landscape which covers an area of 959,100ha in Dawid Kruiper District Municipality covers the entire Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (KGNP) and forms part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which is bordered by Botswana and Namibia in the east and west respectively.

The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Dr. Edna Molewa welcomes the recognition of the ‡Khomani cultural traditions at a global level and acknowledges the significant role played by the ‡Khomani community on the successful inscription of the site.  The Minister has committed that government will ensure its protection and transmission to future generations.  The South African National Parks (SANParks), which already manages the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, will also ensure that the integrity of the outstanding universal value of the property is sustained and that the ‡Khomani community will continue to be involved and benefit from their cultural heritage, she said.

In her acceptance speech, the Director General of the Department of Environmental Affairs, Mrs Nosipho Ngcaba assured the World Heritage Committee and the ‡Khomani community of South Africa’s commitment to support these efforts and ensure that the integrity of the outstanding universal value is not only sustained but also strengthened to boost the economic development of the area, contribute to job creation, enhance tourism experiences and contribute to skills development. The Director General expressed,  on behalf of South Africa,  congratulations to the governments of Angola and Eritrea for the inscription of their first world heritage sites. Further appreciation is extended to the governments of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger for the expansion of W National Park of Niger to W-Arly-Pendjari Complex.

In his address to the session, a member of the ‡Khomani San community in the Kalahari, Mr. Dirk Pienaar, remarked that “the decision that was taken today marks a long awaited historical moment for us the ‡Khomani San and all other San|Bushman communities. As one of the most researched and documented cultures in the world, it was finally acknowledged for its universal value and importance.  This listing will thus provide a foundation for us to continue to preserve, protect and practise our ancient culture and traditions with minimum threat of extinction within the current society.”

He promised that the community will never stop to respect and nurture their culture as transferred from generation to generation. “Conservation for us is not a planned action or a buzz word to use to impress when needed.  It is neither a choice but a way of life which is instilled within all San people from a very tender age.” He concluded by giving special thanks to all the elderly within the community including “Oupa Dawid Kruiper and Ouma! Una Rooi who died sadly whilst fighting for our cause.”


World heritage site status / stand point

The ‡Khomani are the last surviving indigenous San community in South Africa and their living cultural landscape is an important aspect of national culture. The San of southern Africa have left a unique artistic tradition and archaeological record throughout the sub-continent. In very few places is there any documented historical or contemporary evidence of their less tangible cultural practices, or recorded evidence for interpretation of what remains physically evident. This site is unique in this regard.

There has already been a tentative listing of the |Xam and ‡Khomani Cultural Landscape. There is now an initiative underway that aims to prepare the ‡Khomani San Cultural Landscape for nomination as a World Heritage Site, including the compilation of the documents necessary for the sensitisation of the community and the establishment of the necessary WHS management structures. The development of a world class Heritage Centre in the Kalahari is also being planned, in order that material that has been collected and recorded over the last 100 years can be returned to the community and showcased to local and international visitors.


 [back to top] 


‡Khomani San people in pictures


Related links / sources consulted


Benguela Current Commission (BCC)  
Related Branch Biodiversity and Conservation
‡Khomani  San
Cultural Survival
United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)



 [back to top]