Khoisan consciousness. Articulating indigeneity in post-apartheid Cape Town

Start - End 
2016 - 2020 (ongoing)
Department of History
Other institution(s) 
University of the Western Cape
Research Focus 
Research Period 
Research Region 
Research Language 



The Khoisan of Southern Africa have faced violent dispossession and assimilation alongside several others into the racial group ‘coloured’ during colonialism and apartheid. Many today no longer consider the Khoisan as a distinct collective as a result, particularly in urban settings. An ever greater number of people have been challenging these conceptions by self-identifying as or with the Khoisan and reviving their cultural heritage in the post-apartheid era. More than ever before, Khoisan heritage and identity is at the core of protests, celebrated at cultural events, debated on social media, contested in parliament and sold as consumables. ‘Khoisan revivalism’, as this phenomenon is sometimes referred to, entails campaigns for cultural development and socio-economic justice. Many Khoisan revivalists also spark controversy by laying claim to indigenous rights, traditional leadership titles and land.

Few have carried out in-depth or first-hand engagements with Khoisan revivalists and their grievances, yet many reject Khoisan revivalism as opportunistic, fraught with inflated and inaccurate claims or as a vessel for retrograde traditionalism and ethnic chauvinism. It is commonly dismissed as an attempt at carving out a political space in South Africa’s neo-ethnic mosaic by drawing on exclusive indigenous identities, repackaging coloured identity or strategically mobilizing essentialist ideas and imagery. This emphasis on exclusion, entitlement and the omnipresence of (post)colonial conceptualization of the Khoisan is not entirely unwarranted, if lacking in detail. It is however incorrectly taken to be representative of Khoisan revivalism as a whole; thereby reducing a multifaceted phenomenon to its excesses and caricaturing it as a misguided attempt at belonging. To productively understand Khoisan revivalism’s appeal, political aspirations and historical trajectory, one has to appreciate the various ways in which the events, figures and cultural practices of the Khoisan past are informing the equally diverging discourses and practices of Khoisan revivalists.

This research, which constitutes the first comprehensive study of the subject, does so by drawing on longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork among Khoisan revivalists in Cape Town – the hub of Khoisan revivalism – and utilizing sources ranging from interviews and observations to social media and grey literature. More precisely, I pursue three interrelated questions:

  • What are the historical and intellectual roots of Khoisan revivalism?
  • Why and how are Khoisan revivalists making historical events and figures relevant for the present and how are these embedded in diverging articulations of indigeneity?
  • What does Khoisan revivalism entail for contemporary debates on decolonization and the politics of indigeneity in a South African context?

With the help of insights from settler-colonial studies and scholarship on (indigenous) cultural identity, I argue that Khoisan revivalism revolves around the spread of ‘Khoisan Consciousness’: an amorphous ideology that is indebted to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness and stresses the need for a reconnection with Khoisan heritage in pursuit of existential bearings and social justice. As a result of the historical and political context in which it is embedded, the emphasis in Khoisan Consciousness is firmly on what I term a ‘therapeutic’ engagement with the past, whereby neutrality, ‘being accurate’ and fact-finding is secondary to subjective readings of the past from which meaning, relevancy and relatability for the present can be derived. Engagements with the past are therefore informed by contemporary socio-economic and political configurations, as well as personal and collective experiences of being known as coloured. Moreover, since priorities lie elsewhere, Khoisan revivalists are unencumbered by debates on invented traditions, anthropological studies and critiques regarding popular images or conceptions of the Khoisan. Most Khoisan revivalists engage any source that helps them articulate what Khoisan heritage and identity means to them in the 21st century. A plethora of interpretations and appropriations of Khoisan identity and heritage exist as a result. Important challenges arise as these are mobilized and contested as grounds for entitlement claims. With South Africa’s current political climate in mind — particularly the debates on decolonization and the politics of indigeneity — I therefore conclude with a meditation on the societal implications of the framework of Khoisan Consciousness and the therapeutics of history.




Phd Student(s)


William Ellis

University of Western Cape