Khoisan Consciousness. A meta-historical ethnography of Khoisan revivalism and articulations of 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 



My research focuses on ‘Khoisan revivalism’ in South Africa: the increased visibility and politicization of Khoisan identity claims and Khoisan history in the post-apartheid era, especially among people officially classified as ‘coloured’. I focus on Cape Town where colonialism took root in the 17th century and decimation, forced assimilation and land expropriation of the indigenous people has been most fierce. Many no longer consider the Khoisan as a distinct population group due to the extent of this devastation. As a result, comments by academics and the media have been scarce or sceptical despite the burgeoning Khoisan revival in Cape Town in recent years. Critics dismiss the movement as opportunistic, fraught with inflated and inaccurate claims and as a vessel for retrograde traditionalism. These opinions are voiced despite a glaring lack of in-depth engagements with Khoisan activists, their grievances or their calls for recognition.

In my PhD project I build on my previous research and undertake longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork among Khoisan activists in Cape Town to set up a body of knowledge on the subject. As engagements with Khoisan history are omnipresent in the movement, I apply a meta-historical analysis and focus on how and why historical events and figures are enmeshed by Khoisan activists with contemporary calls for recognition, expressions of indigeneity and intellectual and ideological traditions. More specifically, I explore three interrelated fields of interest:

  1. Why and how are Khoisan revivalists making historical events and figures relevant for the present and how is this reflected in diverging expressions of indigeneity and/or calls for recognition?
  2. What are the historical, ideological and intellectual roots of Khoisan revivalism in Cape Town and who are the main actors involved?
  3. How can we understand the dynamic between post-apartheid state politics and Khoisan activism and how does it relate to debates on decolonization, settler colonialism and identity politics?

Scrutinizing this relationship with the past is imperative to account for the timing, political context and the driving forces of the contemporary revival. The majority of the activists are not driven by a desire to carve out a political space in South Africa’s neo-ethnic mosaic by drawing on exclusive indigenous identities or engaging in the strategic mobilization of essentialist ideas and imagery. Rather, I posit that the movement revolves around the spread of what I term ‘Khoisan Consciousness’: an amorphous ideology inspired by Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness philosophy which stresses a creative reconnection with Khoisan history in pursuit of aesthetic reclamation, healing, belonging and social justice. I argue that those influenced by this Khoisan Consciousness are prioritizing a therapeutic relationship with the past whereby objective fact-finding is subordinated to subjective readings of history in search for meaning in the present.




Phd Student(s)


William Ellis

University of Western Cape