Book Extract: New History of South Africa

This newly updated, comprehensive history of South Africa presents the story of our turbulent country in a fresh, readable narrative. Grippingly retold by leading historians and other scholars under the editorship of Hermann Giliomee, Bernard Mbenga and Bill Nasson.

An extract from the book has been republished below with permission from the publishers.

The Khoikhoi pastoralists

The Khoikhoi (called ‘Hottentots’ by early white settlers) were descendants of huntergatherers who had acquired livestock centuries earlier, probably in modern Botswana. Supporting a growing population through their pastoral economy, they expanded fairly rapidly throughout southern Africa. Those moving into high-rainfall areas to the east were probably absorbed over the centuries into Bantu-speaking societies that both kept cattle and cultivated crops; those moving southward and westward tended to retain their purely pastoral economy.


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When European settlement began in the mid-seventeenth century, Khoikhoi groups called the Namaqua were settled in modern Namibia and the northeastern Cape; others, including the Korana, along the Orange River; and others, including the Gonaqua, interspersed among the Xhosa in the present Eastern Cape. But the largest concentration of Khoikhoi, numbering in the tens of thousands, inhabited the well-watered pasturelands of the southwestern Cape. These ‘Cape Khoikhoi’ would be the first African population to bear the brunt of white settlement.

The polities of the Khoikhoi

In most areas of southern Africa, including the southwestern Cape, the pastoral Khoikhoi lived near hunter-gatherers who kept neither cattle nor sheep. The hunters were called ‘San’ by the Khoikhoi, ‘Bushmen’ by the Dutch. Some Khoikhoi who lost their livestock in times of war or disease fled to the frontier regions and joined San bands, reverting to hunting and gathering, and sometimes attacking the livestock of other Khoikhoi. Many of those whom the colonists called ‘Bushmen’ were in fact former Khoikhoi. For this reason, scholars sometimes find it convenient to refer to hunters and herders together as ‘Khoisan’.

Khoisan languages, characterised by implosive consonants or ‘clicks’, belonged to a totally different language family from that of the Bantu speakers. In contrast to the San, who spoke highly divergent languages, the Khoikhoi spoke closely related dialects of the same language.

From present-day Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) to the present Springbok, the Khoikhoi were organised in approximately twelve chiefdoms that the Dutch called ‘nations’. Some were ruled by male figures (called ‘kings’ or ‘captains’ by the Dutch), but others had no leaders above headmen of small clans.


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Though Khoikhoi had no standing armies and no military leaders apart from their chiefs, they seem to have engaged in frequent wars. European observers were deeply impressed by their dexterity in battle and by their skilful use of weapons. Wars were often triggered by cattle theft, murder or the abduction of prominent women – provocations that led to vendettas that would smoulder and flare up over the generations. Khoikhoi fought pitched battles, using assegais, bows, stones and darts as offensive weapons; they massed their oxen together as defensive ramparts and drove them forward as flying wedges to gore and trample the enemy.

Such battles, though apparently not very bloody, often resulted in significant transfers of herds and flocks from the vanquished to the victors. In other cases – as, for example, when they faced Dutch soldiers armed with muskets – the Khoikhoi could resort to guerrilla tactics, characterised by swift and overwhelming attack on the enemy’s herds.

Before the Dutch arrived, the Cape Khoikhoi herded their cattle and sheep, and also hunted game, in a favoured region of Africa far from cultivating societies that elsewhere would have competed with them for use of well-watered land. Although the Khoikhoi slaughtered cattle only on special occasions, their livestock provided them with milk, their principal source of nutrition, and also skins to make clothing, bags, bottles and other implements. Livestock served, too, as a means of transport and warfare, and the source of prestige and power.

The pastoral economy was occasionally a source of abundant wealth for Khoikhoi individuals and communities. But it was also a source of instability. As herders, the Khoikhoi had to move constantly in search of fresh pasture; the basis of their wealth was not land but the animals themselves. Because livestock was frequently stolen – and also vulnerable to drought, disease and war – wealth fluctuated dramatically among Khoikhoi as groups and individuals rapidly acquired, and rapidly lost, their herds and flocks.

Khoikhoi society seems to have been rather individualistic, with well-grooved channels of upward and downward mobility. While political power was in theory inherited on the basis of kinship, the rise of rulers was more decisively determined by their ability to amass livestock for themselves and to protect the livestock of their followers.

The Khoikhoi and the San

The instability in Khoikhoi society was further intensified by the nearby presence of San. Some San groups frequently attacked the Khoikhoi, sowing terror by firing off poisoned arrows normally used to hunt great game, and stealing and frequently slaughtering Khoikhoi livestock.

Yet many so-called San also lived peaceably in or on the fringes of Khoikhoi societies, serving Khoikhoi as hunters, guides or spies and soldiers in time of war. Khoikhoi hired some as herders and took some as wives. In many areas, notably the southwestern Cape, the boundary between Khoikhoi and San became increasingly unclear. Newly impoverished Khoikhoi were often called San, and San who had prospered were absorbed into Khoikhoi lineages and polities.

The coexistence of hunting and herding societies throughout the region created opportunities for upward mobility for enterprising San, and provided the safety net of an alternative lifestyle for newly impoverished pastoralists. But easy passage from herding to hunting would also accelerate the rapid crumbling of Khoikhoi society when it was confronted by Dutch colonialism.

Trading with Europeans

Though Khoikhoi themselves did not apparently smelt metals, the earliest Portuguese visitors attest that they used copper for jewellery and valued iron as tips for their spears; both metals probably reached the Cape through long-distance trade with Bantu-speaking peoples in the interior. Khoikhoi also traded dagga (marijuana). Long-standing demand for these three goods would form the basis of trade with European mariners, particularly the English and the Dutch, who began to call regularly at Table Bay on their way to and from Asia in the 1590s.

At first, Khoikhoi were willing to trade large quantities of cattle and sheep desperately needed by hungry European sailors. In return they received small quantities of iron, copper and tobacco (apparently used as a mild dagga substitute). However, they rapidly learnt that Europeans valued cattle far more than metal trinkets and tobacco; the price of livestock in Table Bay accordingly rose steadily, prompting some European sailors to resort to outright theft.

In the long history of spasmodic trade and conflict at Table Bay, enormous opportunities presented themselves to those Khoikhoi who could master European languages. Two of these – Harry and Doman  would play central roles in the politics of the new settlement Jan van Riebeeck founded in 1652.