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Explained: Who are the Khoisans protesting near the South African president’s office for three years?

The Khoisans have been protesting near the president’s office for the past three years for recognition of the community and their language among other things.

Written by Sanskriti Falor , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
January 14, 2022 9:19:03 am
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa (AP Photo: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

King Khoisan, the leader of one of South Africa’s oldest inhabitant communities, was arrested on Wednesday for growing cannabis near South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s office in Pretoria. The Khoisans have been protesting near the president’s office for the past three years for recognition of the community and their language among other things. King Khoisan has said his arrest was a way of silencing the protests and displacing the community.

King Khoisan’s arrest

On Wednesday, King Khoisan was dragged away from the cannabis plants he had been growing near president Cyril Ramaphosa’s office for the last three years since the community has been protesting at the site. There were several police officers present, including some in riot gear as reported by Eyewitness News, to destroy the cannabis plants and arrest the leader.

As the cannabis plantation was being destroyed by the police officers, King Khoisan stated that this was the police’s way of declaring war. He added, “We have been here peacefully. We are coming for you.” In 2018, South Africa had legalised the personal cultivation, possession and use of cannabis by adults in private places.

The police, as quoted by AFP, said that King Khoisan was arrested for dealing in, illegal plantation of and cultivation of cannabis as well as for the failure to wear a mask in public even after being asked to do so by police officers.

King Khoisan’s wife Queen Cynthia said the president just didn’t want to talk to the community while all they wanted was recognition. “I am very cross. We’ve been here since November 2018 and Ramaphosa has never even taken a minute of his time to address or acknowledge our presence yet they now bring in police to torment us.” She said her community has been using dagga (cannabis) for medicinal purposes for a very long time.

After getting out of jail on Thursday, King Khoisan, calling his arrest a slap on the nation’s face, said, “This was also just their way of getting rid of us. But this is not going to stop. We will continue to fight because it is in our blood.”

Why have the Khoisans been protesting since 2018?

The Khoisans have been protesting outside Union Buildings in Pretoria, where South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s office is. A group of Khoisans marched 1200 km from Port Elizabeth to the Union Buildings along with King Khoisan. On reaching the Union Buildings, the group vowed to not move until their demands were met. Since then they set up a camp outside the Ramaphosa’s office and near the statue of Nelson Mandela.

One of the major demands of the Khoisans was that they be recognised as the first nation of the country. Along with this, the community has been demanding land rights and to be declared rightful owners of the land that was historically taken from them. Even though the government had set up a new land reform process, which would let disadvantaged communities buy land for agriculture, the Khoisans want the government to rightfully hand over land to the community’s people. The community also wants their language, Khoekhoe, to be declared as another national language of the country.

The Khoisans also are demanding for the word ‘coloured’, which originates from the apartheid times, to be scrapped from government documents and removed as a term to describe the country’s public. The phrase has been recognised as derogatory but the Khoisans are demanding for it to be banned.

On November 28, 2019, Ramaphosa signed the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Act 3 which aims “to provide for the recognition of traditional and Khoi-San communities, leadership positions and for the withdrawal of such recognition”. It also talks of providing for “the recognition, establishment, functions, roles and administration of kingship or queenship councils, principal traditional councils, traditional councils, Khoi-San councils and traditional sub-councils, as well as the support to such councils”.

But the Khoisans were not satisfied. King Khoisan had said the act didn’t do anything to recognise the community. “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,” he had said.

Who are the Khoisan?

The Khoisans are known to be the first people to inhabit South Africa is made up of two different communities who practised similar cultures and spoke the same languages – the Khoikhoi, who were nomadic farmers, and San, who were hunter-gatherers.

The Khoisans are known to be the first people to come in contact with the Dutch settlers in South Africa in the 17th century. As the Dutch began to take over land in the country, Khoisans were enslaved or killed and hence their popular diminished over the years. The community was derogated by the European settlers with names like Bushmen and Hottentots. According to a research paper by Shula Marks, ‘Khoisan Resistance to the Dutch in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, the Khoisans were called uneducated, “of inferior intellect and culture”, “thievish and not to be trusted” and unassimilable.

In 2009, The Independent reported on a study of “121 distinct populations” of Africans that found that they all descended from only 14 populations. The scientists, after studying the genetic variation among the DNA of more than 3,000 Africans for over a decade, found that the San were the most genetically diverse group which means that the San were the oldest population of humans in South Africa and on Earth. Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Independent that the project found modern Africans had the most diverse DNA of all racial groups in the world, confirming the idea that “Africa is the birthplace of humanity”.

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