The Khoi don't share our culture, say San

Delegates rejected the idea of a Khoisan people at a conference in Windhoek

John Grobler

San teachers and linguists from Namibia, Botswana and South Africa have agreed to produce a standard orthography for their language groups. At a meeting in Windhoek last week they devised a plan for the new system that will divide San languages into two groups, the Khwedam and !Xun.

Delegates to the meeting want the new orthography to be incorporated in the spelling of place names throughout the sub-region, which will form the legal basis for their future land claims, anthropologists said.

The delegates also rejected the idea of the Khoisan people, terming it a political ploy by non-San-speaking people to continue subjugating their unique culture to that of the Nama and !Xirigowab (better known as Griqua) language groups. Attempts to lump the Khoi and San languages into one group smacks of apartheid practices, said the various Ju/‘hoansi, !Xun, Khwedam, Khoekhoegawab and Nora groups.

In terms of the landmark Penduka Declaration issued last week in Windhoek, the first San orthography produced in 1850 by German linguist Wilhelm Bleeker will be replaced by a simpler, standardised alphabet. This also applies to the way in which modern computer keyboards are used in producing the distinctive San click sounds, which are distinctive from the click sounds in the Nama and Nguni languages.

The conference, held under the auspices of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities of Southern Africa, brought together representatives of all the San groups, who reviewed the historical influences that shaped the way the Ju, Khoe, Taa and !Ui San languages were written.

“Previous and subsequent research showed that there are at least four entirely distinct language families, each with its own completely different and unrelated grammar,” said Nigel Crawhall of the South African San Institute.

The new San alphabet also rejects the spelling !Kung or Kung for the !Xun people, whose language has never been written but who will now employ the Ju/‘hoansi alphabet used in Namibia. Although phonetically distinctive from each other, the Ju/‘hoansi and !Xun languages are considered “brothers and sisters”, according to the delegates.

The San groups plan to implement the use of the new alphabet in their own schools as part of educating children in their mother tongue. Education in San is available only in two schools in eastern Namibia, said anthropologist Jennifer Hays. “Formal schools contribute to the social breakdown in San communities because they fail to acknowledge their home language and culture.”

Speakers of Khwedam, which include the Bugakhwe and //Anikhwe languages, have also modified their working alphabet with the help of researchers from the University of Cologne. The new version does away with what they considered unnecessarily complicated letters and creates nasalisation in the same way as the Khoekhoegawab language. “This language will be known as Khwedam and the people will be known as the Khwe. The old spelling of Kxoe and Kxoedam is inappropriate and does not represent the new spelling system,” says the Penduka Declaration.

But some work still needs to be done to standardise other San languages like N/u and !Xun, the last surviving !Ui and Taa languages, as well as the Hai//om variety of the Khoekhoegawab. There are also other Khoe languages in eastern Botswana and western Zimbabwe that have to be incorporated, as well as the other Ju languages of Angola and the Kihadza language of Tanzania.

The new orthography is also an effort to halt damaging stereotyping of the San people as nomads living in perfect harmony with nature, with all San commonly referred to as “Bushmen”. For example, the difference between the Khwedam and Ju languages is greater than the difference between the Otjiherero and Zulu Bantu languages. Equally, the difference between the Naro and N/u languages are greater than that between English and Hindi, both Indo-European languages.

“Governments, the media and the public should have greater awareness and respect for San peoples’ language and cultures. The media should stop projecting stereotypes of the San people, portraying us as speaking one language and living in a stereotypic manner,” the declaration states.

The delegates’ strongest criticism of stereotyping was reserved for the Khoisan Council, which earlier this month decreed it was the only authentic and legitimate representative for all Khoi and San people. The delegates rejected the “Khoisan” label, saying it was demeaning the San by labelling them as only a part of the larger Khoi group, which does not share any of their languages or culture.

Tomson Nore from Schmidtsdrift warned that the Khoisan Council was trying to impose an apartheid-era generalisation that would include what is largely a group of Afrikaans-speaking academics on everyone else as a numerical majority.

“They just want to jump on the bandwagon and make a political name for themselves by using the San name, at the cost of the real San people,” said Xhwaa Qubi of Botswana.

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