South Africa’s first inhabitants, the Khoisan, have been protesting outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which house the official Presidential offices, for almost two years.
In November 2018, a group of Khoisan people, along with their leader, Chief Khoisan SA, embarked on a 1,200km walk (about 750 miles) from the Eastern Cape province, to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where they vowed that they would not be moved until their demands were met.
They have since kept to this vow and continue to camp outside the landmark today, settled before a monumental statue of Nelson Mandela.
Among other demands, the Khoisan are protesting to be constitutionally recognised as South Africa’s first nation. Archaeologists have found that their presence in the country dates back thousands of years; and their people were the first to interact with Dutch settlers in the 17th century.
When the European settlers began staking their claim on the land, the Khoisan were evicted, killed, or enslaved, and as a result, their numbers dwindled.
Today the Khoisan are fighting for this history to be recognised and for the government to acknowledge the importance of their people.
The Khoisan’s demands
Along with being recognised as the country’s first nation, the Khoisan are calling for the rights to the land that was historically taken from them. While the government recently put in place a strategy for land reform that encourages previously disadvantaged people to purchase state land for agriculture, the Khoisan are demanding that land be expropriated and rightfully given to their people to continue their traditions.
They are also demanding that the use of the term “coloured”, a tag that originates from the apartheid era to describe mixed-race people, be discontinued and scrapped from government documents. The phrase was recognised as derogatory in 1991 and should have been banned along with other phrases that once described people of colour.
Finally, they are asking for KhoeKhoe, one of the Khoisan’s languages, to become South Africa’s 12th official language. While the University of Cape Town has begun developing a course for the study of the Khoisan language, the government has not said anything with regard to this demand.
The Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Act
At the end of 2019, president Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Bill into law. According to the president, the bill seeks to transform traditional and Khoisan institutions so that they are in line with the Bill of Rights. The overall aim of the act is to restore the integrity and legitimacy of these institutions and recognise their traditions and practices.
This may seem like a step in the right direction, but the Khoisan are still unsatisfied. Chief Khoisan SA told Independent Online South Africa (IOL) in 2019 that the act doesn’t do much to recognise his people.
A group of seven Khoisan activists from the Eastern Cape say no hunger or coronavirus will deter them from camping on the Union Buildings lawns until government recognises Khoisan people as the “first nation”, and does not classify them as “coloureds” https://t.co/irLOluQBvxpic.twitter.com/dRnXzTJvsu— City Press (@City_Press) April 7, 2020
“The bill does not clearly state and acknowledge us as the first nation of the country and rightful owner of the land,” he said. “We went through a public participation process and made suggestions of what we want and those suggestions were not used to amend the bill. Clearly the president is not ready to take us [seriously] and we shall continue our protest.”
How COVID-19 has affected the Khoisan protests
Before the pandemic, the protesting Khoisan members managed to live off donations from tourists and visitors who came to see the Union Buildings and Nelson Mandela’s statue. However this came to an end when the president mandated a national lockdown earlier this year.
Although Chief Khoisan SA welcomed the lockdown and he and the Khoisan protesters have been happy to follow the regulations set out by the department of health, they faced new, unprecedented struggles because of it.
Among these struggles were hunger and security. At the beginning of the lockdown, Chief Khoisan SA told News24, “...if we don’t die of [coronavirus], we’ll die of hunger,” further highlighting the fact that they had no source of food. This resulted in them reportedly hunting for pigeons to make it through the lockdown.
Their security was also limited, as Chief Khoisan SA told The Pretoria Rekord that they had been robbed during the lockdown and had their cellphones taken from them.
The protest continues
The next step in their protest is to mobilise more of their people to protest. Chief Khoisan SA hopes that getting more people to join the protest will put pressure on the government to accept their demands.