SAN, KHWE, BASARWA, OR BUSHMEN?:
TERMINOLOGY, IDENTITY, AND EMPOWERMENT IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
The San, who are also called the Khwe (Khoe), Basarwa, or Bushmen, are some of the best-known groups of people in the world, thanks in part to extensive research, films, popular books and articles, and detailed documentation by development workers and extension personnel conducted over many years. Residing in and around the Kalahari Desert region of southern Africa, the San in the past lived as hunter-gatherers (foragers). Many San lived traditionally in small groups consisting usually of 5-6 families. These groups, which were 25-50 persons in size, were tied to other groups through bonds of kinship, marriage, friendship, and trade. In the past, these groups moved about the landscape, aggregating and dispersing according to season, resource availability, and the distribution of other groups.
Today, the San exhibit a wide variety of adaptations and types of interactions with other societies, governments, and international institutions. Many if not most San live in small settlements, earning their living through a combination of foraging, agriculture, livestock raising, small-scale industries (e.g. handicraft sales), and wage labor. A significant percentage of San in Botswana receive food and earn some income through government-sponsored programs. Many San live below the Poverty Datum Line (PDL) and face difficulties in terms of access to social services, employment, and income-generating opportunities.
The terms "San,” “Khwe,” “Bushmen," and "Basarwa" have all been used to refer to peoples of hunting and gathering origin in southern Africa. It should be noted, however, that each of these terms has a complex and problematic history. The state of debate about the terms "San," "Bushmen," or "Basarwa" as possible appellations for the general group of small, click-speaking, yellow-skinned peoples in southern Africa can be illustrated by the case of two Ju/'hoan brothers, both active in national and local politics in Namibia. At a large community meeting in the Nyae Nyae region of northeastern Namibia in 1991, each of them argued differently about the word "Bushman." One said that he never wanted to hear the term used again in post-Apartheid Namibia. The other argued that the term could be ennobled by the way in which they themselves now chose to use it. Thus, he argued, the term "Bushman" could be used in a positive way for all the people in southern Africa who shared similar ethnic backgrounds and customs.
As for the term "San," many people at the meeting had heard of it, but they knew it has a pejorative connotation in Nama, the language from which it comes. In the 1960s "San" was used by the Harvard Kalahari Research Group as a replacement for "Bushmen," which was believed by researchers to have negative social connotations and to be sexist (Lee 1976:5). None of the people at the 1991 Namibia meeting advocated use of the term San, but they noted that they were familiar with no other over-arching term besides Bushmen.
Some linguists have suggested using "Khoesaan" as an overarching term for both Khoekhoe and Nama peoples. The term "Khoisan" has been used to refer to the groups of hunters and herders in southern Africa who speak click languages (Schapera 1930; Barnard 1992; Batibo and Tsonope 2000). In Botswana, some 20 languages are classified as Khoisan (Ethnologue 1998). There are some 100,000 people who consider themselves San in the various countries of Southern Africa. As "pan-San" and "pan-Khoekhoe" consciousness grow, one can assume that general terms will emerge to cover all of the groups in southern Africa who claim these identities. .
The various countries in southern Africa use different names to refer to those populations known popularly as Bushmen. Namibia used Bushmen to refer collectively to the various former foraging and agropastoral groups in the country until 1996, when San began to be used. For several years South Africa used the term Bushmen, but recently the term San has begun to be favored, as seen in the establishment in July, 1996 of the South African San Institute, SASI and at a conference on Khoisan Identities and Cultural Identities held in South Africa in 1997 (Bank 1998). Angola does not yet have an official term for Bushmen and other non-Bantu peoples, but they are sometimes referred to in Angola as Kwankhala, Bushmen, or Bosquimanos, the Portuguese term for Bushmen. Neither Zambia nor Zimbabwe have official terms for San, although in the latter case the terms Amasili and Batwa are used on occasion..
In Botswana the term employed most often was "Basarwa" (singular, "Mosarwa"). This term is said to be derived from a word signifying "people of the south." In the past, the term "Masarwa" was employed, but this word was seen as pejorative because it did not signify the status of being a person. The government of Botswana has made efforts to avoid the problem of ethnic identification in its programs, since, in its eyes, this is reminiscent of the kinds of terminology used by those espousing apartheid (separate development). Instead, the Botswana government since 1978 has used the term "Remote Area Dwellers," which covers all of those people living outside of villages in rural areas. A Setswana term for this appellation is tengyanateng, which, according to some, means "people from deep within the deep," a description that is not necessarily always appreciated by the people to whom it is applied (Mogwe 1992; Saugestad 1998:4).
Some spokespersons for San non-government organizations in Botswana have argued for the use of the Naro term N/oakwe (“Red People”) to refer to the San. A number of them have also suggested that the term “First People” be used, building on the idea of these groups being the “first comers” or aboriginal peoples who first occupied the Kalahari Desert. The designation “First People” was used by the San non-government organization Kgeikani Kweni (First People of the Kalahari) that has sought to draw attention to the plight of the San. First People of the Kalahari has also used the term Khwe extensively to refer to all of the peoples in Botswana who identify themselves as members of the overarching group that Setswana-speakers refer to as Basarwa. The term N/oakwe has yet to gain currency in Botswana, and many people who view themselves as San or Basarwa have not heard the term. The term Khwe, which means “people” in Central Bush languages, is sometimes used in central, eastern, and northern Botswana.
The Republic of Botswana has taken the position that all residents of the country are indigenous and thus does not accept the designation of "First People." The government of Botswana has chosen specifically not to target assistance on ethnic groups. The government’s Remote Area Development Program has concentrated its development efforts on a target group, Remote Area Dwellers, who are defined on the basis of their (1) spatial location (remote areas outside villages), (2) sociopolitical status (marginalized), and (3) socioeconomic status (impoverished and subject to discrimination) (Chr. Michelsen Institute 1996). The numbers of people defined as Remote Area Dwellers in Botswana vary, depending on the source of the information, but an estimate of the number of people who reside in remote areas range from 60,000 - 100,000. Of these people, some 50,000 are San.
In late 1996 representatives of various San groups met in Namibia, where they agreed to allow the general term "San" to designate them externally. This decision was reaffirmed at a meeting on “Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage” held in Cape Town, South Africa in July, 1997. It was also agreed at the Cape Town meeting that specific group names should be employed for the various individual social units. Adopting terms of self-appellation acknowledges the new sense of empowerment of indigenous southern Africans.
Today, the peoples of the Kalahari and adjacent areas refer to themselves broadly as San. When speaking to government officials and to visitors in Botswana, people sometimes refer to themselves as Basarwa. In Namibia, on the other hand, one sometimes hears people refer to themselves as Bushmen. While the term Khwe is gaining currency in some circles in Botswana, the general term today used by the organizations working with these populations is San.
It is anticipated that with greater numbers of children having the opportunity to go to school and people having the opportunity to attend meetings that address the situations of the San/Khwe/Basarwa/Bushmen, there will be additional efforts to come up with a term or set of terms that are agreed upon locally to identify these populations as part of a larger community of people with similar backgrounds, interests, and objectives.
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