SWM 2015: The San in southern Africa – adjusting to urbanization as a first people

Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)

Case study by Inga Thiemann

Southern African countries have urbanized rapidly in the last few decades, with significant impacts on San indigenous populations in the entire region. Urbanization has not only threatened access to land among rural communities but also in areas where some measure of urbanization has taken place, while the government has failed to provide San residents with skills, education or other assets. Very few have been able to find secure and well remunerated work in towns and cities, while many continue to face severe discrimination.

In Namibia, the San’s quality of life declined post-independence due to land redistribution and incidents of expulsion from their traditional grazing lands. They faced increasing obstacles to their hunter-gatherer culture, as most land was distributed among other ethnic groups. Post-independence, many San ended up seeking new livelihoods in nearby towns or migrating to communal areas occupied by other groups, for example in the Omaheke Region.

Many San households rely on food donations both from the Namibian government and NGOs, as well as state pensions as livelihood strategies. In many cases a basic government pension is the main source of household income. The Namibian Household Income and Expenditure Survey of 2009/10 found that 20.1 per cent of Khoisan speakers were relying on this as their main source of income. The San use the pension money to cover the costs of basic items for entire households, such as food, clothing and education-related expenses. However, many San households experience debt to the extent that most of the pension is spent on settling household debts on the day of the pay-out, leaving very little to survive on for the next month and resulting in further borrowing. Rural San often have difficulties accessing government pensions and other support schemes, as they lack identification documents or funds to travel to towns to register.

‘Veldfood’, a variety of fruits, roots, wild vegetables and worms gathered from uncultivated lands, remains a significant contributor to the San household diet, where possible. Gathering such food is both a cultural practice and a way of supplementing insufficient and irregular food supplies. However, limitations on San access to land have restricted their ability to gather ‘veldfood’. This is particularly true for San in settlements and on resettlement farms on commercial land, in urban areas with access only to small areas of land or on communal plots shared with cattle farmers from other ethnic groups.

The South African example of the San community at the Plantfontein farm shows that urbanization can have negative effects on the community, despite their access to the ‘veld’. This community, consisting of San belonging to the !Xun and Khwe groups, lives under difficult sanitary conditions, with unstable access to water, as well as issues of wastewater from neighbouring communities spilling into their ‘veld’. Irregular sanitation servicing of the communities’ dry toilets not only leads to increased risk of disease, but also forces many community members to defecate in the open, further contaminating one of the San’s vital food sources and undermining a key opportunity for them to maintain deep-rooted cultural practices despite urbanization.

This case study appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.

Photo: San bushmen listening to the tales of the elders around the fire.

Credit: goyamagata.com

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Date: 17/06/2015


South Africa


State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015
Indigenous Peoples

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