The San people live since more than 120,000 years


- A first short outline on the early history of the /XAM people of South Africa and their war of resistance -

02. October 2005


This text was especially prepared for all people to know more about the /XAM KA !KE, who gave their consent to let others know about their history, culture and life.

In this context we use the word ABATHWA for the people of the /XAM Ka !Ke instead of the term ‘San’ and ‘Bushman’. Our ancestors used to call themselves ABATHWA. Both two terms ‘Bushman’ and ‘San’ were taken on and used by the Anthropologists in connotation, while the term Bushman was given to us by the European settlers and the term San was given to us by the Khoi-Khoi.

In the 17th and 18th century the European settlers, historians and travellers were active in building their community of the tall Europeans in southern Africa, who still today mainly know us only from some films or publications, produced by people who are not from the /XAM themselves.

This is a first trial to speak out ourselves. “We want to motivate them to learn about the true origin, culture and lifestyle as well as the real historic facts concerning the /XAM KA! KE.” The European settlers were not so close to our people’s live. This profile was therefore prepared to set all the mistakes right concerning the false facts propagated by the settlers.

The reader, however, must notice that the whole profile is not yet finalized, but he shall be motivated to try to understand the life and history of the /XAM ABATHWA and thereby helped to respect the tradition of the /XAM. We hope the reader will thereby have more knowledge of the /XAM.


The /XAM KA! KE were the biggest San population in the 18th and 19th century. They first lived at the Cape (covering all the areas in the South from the Kai !Garib to the South-West of the East-coast) long before the pastoral people and the herds of the Khoi-Khoi arrived.

AMANGUNI later became a settlement area for the pastoralists and the Europeans, because these people had moved from the coastal areas to the midland areas for their herds of animals to grow faster.

Rock art and history written at the Eastern Cape , the Western Cape and the South– North Cape proves all these facts.

The /XAM and Khoi–Khoi lived in a protection relationship. Some of the /XAM were soldiers and bodyguards and they were looking after the food and the animals of the Khoi-Khoi. But the /XAM and the Khoi were also always fighting. This was already documented and written by John Compisal when he discovered it in 1813 from the words of the Griekwa Captain, who let the /XAM use the milk of the cows for food.

The smallpox epidemic killed millions of indigenous people of South Africa in 1713 and many were killed or enslaved thereafter by the European colonizers, which is why in 1772 Carl Thumberg could meet only 59 /XAM people from the Roggevild, who had survived.

The /XAM and the European Colonialists

The /XAM and also the Khoi–Khoi were actually assisting the European settlers in the early days of colonization and did lead the white settlers to the Midland of the Cape . There the settlers then embarked heavily on the utilization of wild animals, which created conflict and tension with the local people.

Anders Spaarman met Khoi–Khoi people who lived in the colony. He took the Khoi–Khoi hostage and made them slaves. He specifically hated the ABATHWA very much. The highest rate of murder was committed against the ABATHWA, and not only men but also women and children were killed.

In the first insults the commandos targeted the ABATHWA settlements while the immigrants were killed too after the Khoi – Khoi found their settlements.

In 1715 the 1st Burger Commando was registered at the Khoi-San extension of the V.O.C and ordered by the whites to solve the problem.

In 1739 these Commandos covered the following areas: The Nuwefildmountain, Seekoeiriver and Sneeuberge, which were named by the Europeans as “Bushman-Land”. The North Eastern area of the colony extended to the Sneeumountain and over the Rhenostermount until near the Bamboersmountain. The Colonizers also moved into the Seekoeirivier, Kompasberg , Boesmansrivier and Sneeumountain districts and the Europeans named it the Heart of Bushman-Land. Today it is also called the “Karoo Heartland”. Incidents and conflicts happened daily and inside the district big scale operations were launched against the /XAM by the commandant in 1774, which was a horrible year when 500 /XAM were killed and 241 were taken hostages

The commandants had different places to operate in the first thirty years of the 18th century and the Burger commandos were glad that the “Bushmen” were termed “free” – as in “free to be hunted”, “free to be shot”, “free to be killed” or “free to be enslaved”.

There were many nationalities in the commandos, but the Dutch and the British were the majority.

Some “personal records”: The Vildcommandant Nicholas van der Merwe, who was stationed in the cold Lamvild and Roggevild, killed 42 /XAM people and took 89 as hostages. The commandant Gerrit van Wyk killed 96 and took 23 as hostages. Especially under the command of the letter the killer troops went against the /XAM. At Snow mountain and at Nuwevild 265 were killed and 129 taken as hostages.

In 1778 the Baron Joachim von Plettenberg chose Cpt. Adrian of Jaarsveld as Commandant at the East and Maritz Woeke Landros of Bushman land and the Zuurveld streek.

In the period between 1786 and 1813 up to 2.700 /XAM were shot and 669 taken hostages in Graaff Reinet alone.

In 1774 and 1795 there were 5900 /XAM killed in the North areas. Most of the hostages were women and children who worked as slaves at the farms.

While hundreds of ABATHWA were killed every year in the beginning of the century, during the later years of the 18th century there were less than a hundred shot per year.

In 1809 the colonialist Richard Collins ordered all the /XAM to leave these areas and 280 were killed between 1813 and 1824.

These operations also killed the local farming communities. Some of the British went to live in the Snow mountain – Rhenosterberg area and wanted the XAM to have an easier live.

When the history writing started and an academic organization of Whites began its work, these Whites wanted to protect the local people and told outsiders that the /XAM no more existed. But the people, the language, the lifestyle and the culture are still alive and developing. They thank the Hottentots for the proclamations of 1809, 1812 and 1819, from when on the /XAM went to live at farms until now. Most /XAM people are now speaking Afrikaans and because of the race classification in 1948 when the Apartheid regime classified them, they are listed as Cape Coloureds .

Leadership structure

To the question “Did the Bushmen have any structure of leadership?”, the answer is “Absolute, Yes!” But it must be noted that the history writers made them to have soft structure. Here are some of them : George Stow-It was clear that the bushman were divided into different groups. The groups were also divided into subgroups. Each of these groups had a leader, which meant in their time that he is the principal over everyone and certain decision has to made by him. The leaders were also in control of the tribe they are bound to live in. To show the significance of this men, he made a list of all the traditional names.

Here are some of the traditional names of our leaders:
Hon ‘ke, Ma’ ku-une, co-ro-ko Ma’ kla
and others had Dutch names like
Knecht, Wind, Vogel, Kwaai Stuurman, Koegel-man
and some had names combined of both: Ow’ ku Ru’ Keu. /Baardman.

There were a few woman leaders too, like Nigel Penn.

On 14th January 1779 the colonialist Robert Jacobs reported that he made freedom with the “Bushman” leaders near Doerop and Gronjam at the nearby Loensfountain North of Calvinia. They were helped by media soldier Johannes Schumacher. The leaders were Lynx and Frolic. They had more than 200 people with them.

Earlier the “Bushman” had a higher rate of self – discipline within their branches and they were very good at helping each other. They didn’t need leaders to take care of their self-discipline, the leader were important only when most of the individuals were needed to perform a major task involving the whole branch.

Life, Religion, Arts and Culture


The families of the /XAM lived in big groups of approximately 200 to 400 people. Each group was ruled by a headmaster. Men had to hunt for food and to catch fish for a living, while the women had to gather plants, fruits and vegetables as well as to prepare the meals. While mainly catching smaller wild animals like antelopes, also hippos and even elephants were caught with big holed nets. Fire was made by using two parts of sticks and by rubbing them together. Calabash and ostrich eggs were used to carry water. The turtle shell was used as dish to eat out of it. The /XAM weapons were made from various animal skin and bones; mainly they used these to make spears and arrows. The /XAM lived on mountains in caves and on the lower areas in huts, which were made of grass and bushy sticks. They were known by blood identity and made use of the name identity. Men usually between 20 and 30 years of age got married and the woman between 14 and 16 years. A young men who wants to get married must first give his future parents in-law some presents.

Arts and Culture

ABATHWA people had and have the experience in the following arts: Woodwork, dance, play/acting, storytelling, and had a huge knowledge of medicine made from plants and potions. Necklaces are made of ostrich eggshells, bones and seeds. Shells are also worked by a woman for decoration. Sugar reeds were used for keeping their medicines. Skins of wild animals are used for hand bags, carrying bags, blankets and mats as well as for the preparation of pieces of clothing.
The following instruments are used for music; Gorah, Tekwa, Finger-piano and the Trom. Springbucks ears are filled with dry seeds to make rattles. Woman clap hands and sing while men dance.

Religion Mythology and the Supernatural

Every clan group gave themselves an animal name that is holy. /XAM and IIkulle of the Malt mountains did not believe in two gods as the ABATHWA tribe. Dr Wilhelm Bleek had translated the Afrikaans word “Bidssprinkaan” into the English term “Praying Mantis”.

According to the /XAM mythology IKAGGAN had a wife and an adopted daughter (Krimpvarkie) who’s son (Skilpad) was her handy man. The Mantis or IKAGGEN is being attached with the overcoming of the Moon through a myth which describes; how IKAGGEN was attack by the Meerkats which he stabbed with a knife poisoned with the content of a gallbladder of an Eland.
The Whites and the Black People still are still killing the Eland in South Africa , which we, the San, detest, because for us it is a holy animal and we call all people to support us in protecting this species.

During full moon nights
The /XAM believe that when they danced, the Meerkats would get out of their holes and dance with them. The dance isn’t any ordinary dance, it is a praying dance. The night before a hunt iss scedulred for the following day they dance the dance of the respective animals such as the Oryx (Gemsbok), Eland antelope, Giraffe, Ostrich, Springbuck etc., which they intent to hunt. For each of the specific animal they dance around the fire. The movements of the specific animal and its sounds are used in their dancing. The men dance around the fire in a circle with stamp movements of their feet, while the woman sit or stand in a half circle and sing in a high harmonic voice tone. Forces are being named like the Eland, Giraffe, Gemsbok, Honey and Sun.

Most of the rock paintings in the mountains of the Western Cape , Karoo and Eastern Cape are painted by the /XAM !Gitans. Some women, as time goes by, had also turned over to the !Gitans. The reason for the rock paintings was then for them being visible on the rocks. The following animals are bond to rain for example the chameleon, puff adder, tortoise and frogs. When a teenager is going through puberty, they would also do a prayer-dance for her to go through these bad and awkward times of her life. She will be put into a hut at /NamasasJ. Her mother and a few other volunteers will then do the eland- dance daily for a period of time. When she comes out of the hut, her eyes must be starring on the ground until she arrives at the / NamasasJ River . She’ll then show new life, good luck and prosperity for the tribe.


The ABATHWA have their own language that they speak and the other tribes obviously wouldn’t understand what they’ll say. But the sound may have sound alike. Those sounds are called “click”, “suig” and “clap sound”. There are five types of sounds, namely:

/ (Forward slash) denotes a frontal dental click similar to the English "Tsk-Tsk" of disapproval. /? is a Glottal variation and ?/ is a nasal type. The identical click = The end of the tongue reaches the back side of the front teeth and pushes then goes away that makes a sound as a Afrikaans speaker.
// (2 Forward slashes) denotes a lateral dental click similar to the sound used to urge a horse. or (II) - Lateral click = The tongue is in position of as the Aloevial click, but is free because the teeth are taken in. Jockey us this sound to encourage the horse.
(Equals sign bisected by a forward slash) denotes a sharp alveolar click made with the tongue against the roof of the mouth.
! (Exclamation mark) denotes a sharp palato-alveolar click made with the tongue on the back of the gum ridge. Cork popping sound. Alluvial – Palate click = The end of the tongue are pushed against the backside of the Aloevial outgrown where it stays at the palate and gives off a hard sound. The sound are used to call the horses to knock their hoofs.

The following click is only used in the Southern San like the /XAM:

O          Labeled click = The closing are caused by the lips and resultant gives a kissing sound.

Today there are only eight people left, who can still speak the /XAM language fluently.

Land use in the Karoo

Middleburg in the East Cape Province has the most amounts of rock shelters in a township. It is mostly common in the Karoo .

Intensive data collection by the agriculture department had roughly calculated, that 16.000 land units formed a city which stretched over approx. 5.000 square km, from the Seekoeirivier valley between Richmond and Middelburg into the Kazoo.

The /XAM people are very much concerned about their land. The Lord gave us this piece of earth and we own nothing. People in the Karoo area today are landless especially the indigenous people, while the indigenous people believe in the rights of their forefathers and –mothers.

If we are given back the land it will be very beautiful.


N.B.: The senior traditional leader and head of the /XAM today is Jan Goliath.  He was chosen by the traditional leaders of the different clans (family groups) The traditional leader is responsible for the welfare of the branch and the active participants of the branches.



When this short profile was created many people were motivated and helped. We give thanks to all these people.

Special thanks go to:

  • Lea Aries, the Mibras from Middleburg in the Eastern Cape , for writing a book about the /XAM of Oudstrooring.

  • Andries Arries for the translations.

  • Peter Stephens for his help with the compilations concerning culture, music and dance.

  • Martin Oormeyer, Hessie van der Westhuizen and “Ant Kottig” as co-operators with the culture, music and dance.

We also thank many South Africans for their individual contributions. All the personal participant Port Elizabeth Town Library and the Midros and Middleburg Library.

We thank the Lord, the one and only one who makes things right because He is the Creator and Taker.

Commemorations of the wars of 1739 against the San people will be held in Nieu- Bethesda during the time between 21st September to 16th December annually.