The San, ‘Bushmen’ or Basarwa are the living descendants of the first populations that inhabited in southern Africa over 20,000 years ago. They are famous the world over for their distinctive ‘click’ languages (see box), their rich culture rooted in thousands of years of hunting and gathering, and their unrivalled knowledge of the lands they inhabit. Despite all this, they are also among the most disadvantaged people in the region.
HistoryUntil very recently, most San were hunter-gatherers, using their exceptional knowledge of local flora and fauna to subsist in some the world’s most inhospitable lands, including the Kalahari Desert.
People lived in bands of 10 to 40 people, which contrary to popular stereotypes occupied well defined territories, where they the had access to water, plant foods, game, and other resources. With no centralised leadership structures, decisions were made by consensus. Material possessions were distributed on an egalitarian basis, and men and women, though they had different roles, were treated as equals. There was no sense of collective San identity. Rather, communities labelled themselves by local groupings, which were usually based on linguistic differences.
The extent to which San were reliant solely on hunting and gathering and how much they interacted with other groups is still being debated and documented by anthropologists, but there is no doubt that the traditional way of life has all but come to an end in most parts of southern Africa. With the expansion of socially dominant African groups as well as European settlers and their farming economies, San communities were dispossessed of vast tracts of their traditional lands. Gradually, they were either pushed towards the margins of their ancestral territories, or incorporated into the new social order as impoverished landless labourers. In the wake of this upheaval, some communities lost languages, cultural practices and important pieces of indigenous knowledge and many became riddled by social problems.
The present day
100 000 San, belonging to more than 13 different language groups, continue to live in the southern African region. The vast majority of these are in Botswana and Namibia, whose populations number 46 000 and 38 000 respectively. In Angola there are 7000 San and in South Africa there are 6000. Zambia and Zimbabwe also contain small San communities numbering just a few hundred.
San languages are characterised by ‘clicks'. Below is a simple orthographic explanation of how to pronounce clicks:
| Dental: Place the tip of the tongue on the back of the front teeth and pull tongue back sharply (as in the European ‘Tut!' or ‘Tisk' to utter disapproval)
! Palatal: Place the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth against the hard palate and pull away sharply (sounds like a bottle being uncorked if the mouth is kept round)
‡ Alveolar: Place the blade of the tongue on the alveolar ridge above the front teeth and pull tongue back sharply
|| Lateral: Place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth and release air from one side of the mouth using tongue (like the clicking noise people make to horses)