San, Bushmen or Basarwa: What's in a name?

A reader wrote to me some time ago to object to the Mail & Guardian‘s usage of the term “Bushmen” for Southern Africa’s first people.

Kobus Faasen quoted at length from a Dutch dictionary published in 1902, which said the word meant “one who lives in the bushes” but had also been applied to apes, particularly the orangutan.

He highlighted a paragraph that read, in translation: “The possibility cannot be ruled out that the name ‘bosch(jes)man’ in this meaning of ‘ape-man’ was carried over to the despised group/tribe, whom (the settlers) in fact regarded as creatures of a much lower level, hardly indistinguishable from apes.”

In other words, the racist views embedded in the word’s history make it unusable.

It turns out that Faasen has been waging something of a campaign on this issue. He has taken up the issue with the South African National Editors’ Forum and the ombudsman’s office, and has taken Die Burger to the Equality Court for their use of the Afrikaans equivalent. So far, his views have not found much resonance.

Be that as it may, it’s an important question.

Names seem to carry an almost mystical power to capture and define identity, as reflected in the rituals we attach to the naming of babies. In an evocative poem adapted by writer Antjie Krog, the 19th-century /Xam poet Diä!kwain wrote: “The father of my father was a great star, because of that his name was Great Star. It is he who gave the stars their names, that is why the stars have names today.”

It’s small wonder that names and labels play such an important role in the struggles of marginalised people to assert themselves.

I have been troubled for some time by the confusion around the way we describe the country’s first people. For a while, “San” seemed to be replacing “Bushman”, but more recently the pendulum seems to have begun to swing back. In Botswana, the term “Basarwa” comes up, too. None is generally accepted.

But the etymology advanced by Faasen does not settle the issue. There’s little question that the history of the word “bushman” was shaped by racism, but that does not fully explain current usage and connotations.

Words carry different baggage in various contexts and times. In the United States, words like “native” and “coloured” have very different connotations from those they have in South Africa. Words gain acceptance, lose it and sometimes regain it. We have moved from “cripple” to “disabled” to, sometimes, “differently abled”. The word “deaf” has been proudly reclaimed by the deaf community in recent times. Similarly, “Bushmen” may be a word in the process of being rehabilitated.

I set about trying to find out what different interested bodies have to say. But there is little clarity.

There is a representative South African San Council, but despite its name, the chair, Andries Steenkamp, wrote in a letter Faasen forwarded to me that they don’t mind the word Bushmen, which he said underlines his people’s status as first nation.

The alternative, San, means “rogues and murderers” and was imposed by Europeans, Steenkamp wrote emphatically. (There seems to be no agreement about the meaning of San either—elsewhere, I have seen it translated as simply “gatherers”.)

By contrast, Alex Thoma, the adviser to the South African San Council, told me that a representative gathering of San in 1993 decided to use that term. He stressed that most groups would prefer the use of the names of their particular groups.

Stephen Corry of Survival International (SI) sent me a detailed explanation of its decision to use “Bushmen”. He argued that “San” has similarly pejorative roots, as does “Basarwa”. He said SI was using “Bushmen” simply because it is the best-known term, and is accepted by many members of the community.

The contradictory views available make a choice very difficult. Where possible, it would be good to use the name of the particular group involved. But that will often not be possible: for practical reasons, the media need an umbrella term.

I think that in this and other cases the people affected should have the strongest say in how they are described. But until there is a clearer consensus, both “San” and “Bushmen” will remain in use.

The Mail & Guardian’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact Krüger at [email protected]. You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message



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