A new era for the Khoisan in Zimbabwe

Updated: August 19, 2013

by Divine Dube

They were the first Bantu people to occupy present day Zimbabwe yet they have lived as aliens for the last century, suffering at the hands of other tribes.

Despite their efforts to reclaim their rights as a people their plea has fallen on deaf ears as responsible authorities have not moved an inch to intervene.

They have been completely shut out from community participation and have been thrown into the wilderness of poverty and social turmoil. Such has been the life of the San tribe in Zimbabwe.

The San people, also known as the Bushmen or Basagwa, inhabit remote areas of southern Africa, particularly Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe today, the San community is found in Matabeleland North’s Tsholotsho (Tjolotjo) district and Plumtree in Matabeleland South.

They have lived under the dominion of BaKalanga and Ndebele tribes for the past century. Their leadership has in the past bemoaned abuse by these tribes whom they accuse of undermining them and treating them as animals.

The San have also accused the government of marginalizing them and failing to cater for their socio-economic needs like other tribes.

In May this year President Mugabe irked the San community when he accused them of resisting civilisation during his address at the memorial service for the late Deputy Vice President John Landa Nkomo in Tsholotsho.

But the late VP Nkomo had a soft spot for the San and donated food to them and provided education bursaries to some of their children.

But despite all these years of predicament the Khoisan have managed to survive. Their reprieve came in May this year when a new constitution that accorded their language “Tshwao” official status was passed in parliament.

Other marginalized groups which had their languages promoted include Kalanga, Tonga, Nambya and Venda and plans to fully introduce these languages into the school curricula up to university level are afoot.

However, the San were riled when the constitution drafters made a grave mistake of identifying their language as “khoisan” instead of “Tshwao” a clear indicator that despite being the oldest ethnic group in Zimbabwe the San are virtually unknown and looked down upon even by public institutions.

The San have argued that whereas Khoisan refers to an ethnic group their language is Tshwao but Chapter 1, Section 6, and Subsection 1 of the Zimbabwean constitution states Koisan as one of the official languages.

But despite this “error” the San held a “Bush Cultural Festival” on Saturday last week at Tsholotsho district in celebration of the recognition of their language in the constitution. The festival was also meant to re-unify all the San people from Tsholotsho and Plumtree.

The event was celebrated under the theme: ‘The Reunification and Revitalisation of the San Culture and Language: My Constitution, My Hope.’  This followed the United Nations (UN) International Day of the World’s Indigenous People which is recognised on August 9 annually to promote and protect the rights of the world’s peoples.

The San Community had an opportunity to showcase their culture through song and dance. Prior to the occasion the San elders had a meeting to resolve issues of leadership within their tribe as they are still subjects of Kalanga and Ndebele chiefs in areas they live.

Speaking at the event, Davy Ndlovu, the Director of Creative Arts and Educational Development Association, an organization promoting San language and culture, said there was a lot to be done to promote the San language and culture.

‘Our major worry at the moment is that the Tshwao language is dying and something must be done to preserve it. We have engaged University of Zimbabwe which is assisting us with the documentation of the language,” Ndlovu said during his speech at the ceremony.

He also said his organisation would engage the new government to assist the marginalized San Community.

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