San of the Kalahari

Alternative names: Bushmen, Masarwa, Basarwa
Location: Kalahari desert in Botswana and Southern Namibia
Population: Total about 50,000: Botswana about 20,000, of whom less than 1,000 live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; Namibia 29,000
% of population: Botswana 1.8%, Namibia 2-3%
Religion: animist
Language: Khoi “click languages”

The San or Bushmen are by tradition hunter-gatherers. The term “Bushmen” was first used by early Dutch settlers in the Cape and still holds emotive connotations, either contemptuous or affectionate in tone; the Bushmen themselves have no generic term to cover all their socio-linguistic groups, but the Hottentot people, who have a similar language, refer to them as the San, or Hunter-Gatherers. The term “Khoisan” refers to the Bushmen-Hottentot group of peoples as a whole. The San speak a tonal, monosyllabic language which includes four “click” consonants. Today San are a tiny minority in both Botswana and Namibia.

The traditional San lifestyle is distinguished by a remarkable adaptation to a hostile environment. The basic social unit is the band, a small group which moves constantly within its own hunting territory and within which all scarce resources are shared. There is no formal system of government amongst the San and no single authoritative figure within the band, all decisions affecting the group being jointly taken after general debate.

Before the seventeenth century, the San inhabited much of the present-day Central and Southern Africa. With the gradual arrival of white colonists during the eighteenth century and the simultaneous arrival of southward-moving Bantu agriculturalists, the San were increasingly deprived of their food sources, and many resorted to stealing Dutch and Bantu cattle. Some became absorbed into the Bantu community whilst others were employed by the white settlers as servants or herdsmen; most moved to the regions where older San communities had been living for generations.


The administration of the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland had shown some concern for the San; an 1885 report had suggested that the San were being enslaved by the Tswana. However it was not until the end of the colonial period that action was taken on their behalf. In 1961 all “tribesmen” were granted the right to hunt in their “tribal areas” whilst land was granted to the majority population, the Tswana but not specifically to the San. In 1963 a Central Kalahari Game Reserve was established partly to provide a reserve for those San who still pursued their traditional lifestyle; the Bushman Survey Report, published in 1965, provided the basis for action taken by the independent government of Botswana which succeeded the colonial administration in the following year. Using 1964 government census figures the report estimated that the San population was 24,652 of which some 14,000 lived in or near Bantu villages, about 4,000 lived in the Ghanzi area on European-owned ranches, and only 6,000 still pursued the traditional hunter-gatherer life-style.

Despite being formally recognized as full and equal citizens of the new state, the San had no rights to land, as they had not been classed as tribesmen in the Tribal Lands Act of 1968. A Bushmen Settlement Officer was appointed in 1971 but non-governmental action had the most far-reaching effects in the first half of

the decade. In addition to a Dutch Reformed Church project at D’kar, a school, workshop, shop, reservoir and borehole were established at Bere and the Kalahari Peoples’ Fund was set up by a team from Harvard University in 1973. The government reactivated resettlement plans in the Ghanzi district to help those San living in poverty around the farms and villages of the Kalahari by resettling them in underdeveloped parts of the area as stock owners; however in 1971 it was decided that government focus should be on “hunter-gatherers” rather than specifically “bushmen”. This was partly because the government wanted to avoid creating ethnic or racial categories similar to those used in the Republic of South Africa, and partly because it did not want to single out one group for special attention at the expense of other groups. A decision was taken to spend government funds only on policies beneficial to “all citizens”, and it was agreed that only funds from foreign donors should be expended on projects involving the San. In 1973 funds were granted to several educational projects in Ghanzi District and in 1974 a “Bushmen Development Officer” was appointed.

In the latter half of the 1970s there was a huge increase in expenditure on rural development in Botswana. This had a considerable effect on the traditional San areas: between 1975 and 1978 26 different projects were started which were, as far as possible, under the control of and in tune with the needs of the San. More than 1,000 San children were admitted to schools in this period, boreholes were drilled and boarding hostels opened. In 1978 the Bushmen Development Programme was restructured and became the Remote Area Development Programme (RADP). This heading covered “all those living outside organized village settlements”, although emphasis on the San remained.

A 1973 report recommended the expansion of Botswana’s beef exports by the opening up of new grazing lands for commercial breeding primarily by large individual owners as well as smallholders. These moved into San territory, forcing the San in some cases to become dependent on Tswana or white ranchers for their livelihood, tending cattle in exchange for food or access to water. It was thought that the San should also own cattle while not necessarily abandoning their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. More water holes were bored to facilitate the herding of cattle by San. The expansion of the beef industry created unforeseen problems for the San. Much of the land intended for commercial grazing was not in fact available, either because of conservation measures, lack of water or the presence of bands of San; as a result, although numbers of cattle have steadily increased, they are concentrated in the hands of a few large-scale breeders, large areas have been fenced in, and the movement of game and thus the mobility of the San has been affected.

In 1980 a report evaluating the achievements of the RADP recorded a considerable fall in the numbers of San inhabiting the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Numbers had dropped from the estimated 3,000 to 6,000 of 1965 to only 1,125. By 1982 there were thought to be about 800, and many of those now living in the Kalahari region were of mixed Bantu and Khoisan origin. The report put forward a programme of development involving small scale self-help projects and further provision of water. Apart from those few San still pursuing a hunter-gatherer way of life within the Kalahari reserve area the majority of the San have become sedentarized. Their children attend school, there is access to health care and social services and many are now part of the cash economy. There is greater interaction with the dominant Botswana culture and many San have adopted a Tswana diet and Tswana-style housing.

San were also affected by the drought which affected Botswana from 1981 and many sought employment in towns or construction camps or became dependent on feeding stations. The San diet also suffered from the lack of game as wild animals died; this created international concern and the Botswana government announced that it hoped to extend wildlife protection by relocating over 1,000 San from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Critics say that alternative lands for resettlement simply do not exist and this action, if carried out, will result in the end of the traditional San lifestyle in Botswana.


Namibia, like South Africa, is organized on the basis of “racial” classification, with a total population of around one million being divided into eight population groups. In 1980 there were estimated to be about 29,000 “Bushmen” in Namibia, some 2%-3% of the total population. Land for grazing and other uses was allocated to the various groups in 1968 and 1969. Under these acts “Bushmanland”, the area allotted to the San, was smaller than that which they had previously occupied, and whereas plans existed for limited rights of self-government for the other groups, such plans were not envisaged for the San. In 1976 the Advisory Board for Bushmen was established and San representatives participated in South African sponsored talks on the future of the territory.

Although “Bushmanland” has not played any great part in the guerrilla war in Namibia, the San have been recruited as soldiers by the South African Defence Forces (SADF). The “Bushman” unit, established in 1974, is the oldest of the ethnic units, with two battalions in the South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF). About 5,000 San soldiers and their families are based at the Omega military base, thus becoming completely dependent on the army for facilities. One report stated that while engaged in military service “Bushmen” have been taught basic hygiene, schools have been built and health services have been established; others see the relationship between armed forces and the San as one of exploitation. Plans for the establishment of a nature reserve of about 6,000 square kilometres put forward by the South-African dominated government in 1978 have also been heavily criticized by anthropologists as leading to the complete demise of the San as a viable community. The plans would affect the 200 Juwasi who have been involved in a development project aimed at creating a viable mixed economy.

The military presence has apparently encouraged the San in their feelings of hostility towards the majority Ovambos and assumed that in the event of a victory of the South West African Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) any freely elected government would represent Ovambo needs at the expense of minority groups such as the San. Whatever the future for the San in Namibia it seems certain that if internationally supervised elections do result in SWAPO being elected, the present ethnic-based system would be abolished and the position of the San would change. Under such circumstances similar issues to those being faced in Botswana might well be raised.