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Indigenous of Africa. Photo: pxfuel.com

Indigenous Peoples in South Africa

23 August, 2023 | Mónica Garzaro Scott

South Africa, also called “the cradle of human kind”, is a complex bio-diverse country with violent historical events, especially, during and after the colonization period. The territory of South Africa was colonized by different Europeans, firstly the Portuguese in the 15th century. They established commercial routes along the coast but did not establish significant settlements.  In the 17th century the Dutch and British settlements provided commercial routes in different parts of the country.   Over time, it came under British control in the early 19th century. As the British influence expanded, conflicts with indigenous groups arose. The arrival of European settlers negatively affected the indigenous populations, their land was taken, diseases were introduced, and the strong assimilation process started. The indigenous cultures and ways of life were often marginalized or disturbed. In South Africa, “indigenous” can be considered all South Africans of African Ancestry or non-dominant groups of aboriginal descent[i]

After the triumph over the Apartheid era, South Africans identified as the “rainbow nation”. The legal framework was updated to the new Republic and National Constitution, one that is democratic and prevents any discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc. The South African constitution recognizes the rights of indigenous communities and promotes cultural diversity, while Legal frameworks have been established to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples. The official languages of South Africa are:  Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. Since the territory is divided into 9 provinces, the local governments have to adapt services and access to information based on the main languages spoken in a specific area.

South Africa is home to various indigenous peoples, each with their own cultural traits, languages, and traditions. Some of the prominent indigenous peoples in South Africa include: Khoikhoi and San, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Ndebele, Venda Tswana, Bapedi, Swazi and Tsonga.

The Khoi-San are among the oldest indigenous groups in Southern Africa. They still live as hunter-gatherers and have received support from the Republic of South Africa to maintain their lifestyle. Since the Khoi-San are a trans-frontier indigenous people, they started their fight for their rights in the 90´s in neighbouring Namibia. In 1996 representatives of the San People stablished the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa as a regional NGO. Under this structure the South African San Council was in 2001created to represents San communities in South Africa. “The apartheid state of South Africa classified Khoi and San people as “coloured”, and racist policies relating to land ownership, group areas and job reservation were applied to them. However, this classification had the additional effect of denying the existence of indigenous people, and any depictions, for example in school curricula and museums, were profoundly dehumanising in their portrayal of a homogenous, largely static and primitive culture.”[ii]

San People, through various efforts, have brought the attention of the Southern African region and internationally on human rights violations, indigenous people’s rights violations, poverty, discrimination, land dispossession and extinction as a people.

The Zulu and the Xhosa people are the largest ethnic groups in South Africa.  Several powerful kingdoms emerged in the regions where they are located and these traditional structures still exist today. Many individual members of these two ethnic groups have managed powerful positions in the government, but there is still not a national discussion of indigenous peoples demands as a whole. Some organizations have been presenting arguments to denounce disputes and conflicts over land ownership, calling for recognition and protection for their cultural practices and traditions, self-determination, self-governance and political representation at national level.

In South Africa there is no strong indigenous people movement with visibility at national level.  There are many organizations and NGOs demanding the respect of indigenous people’s rights, as in the case of the many communities that have introduced legal claims supported by the Restitution of Land Rights Act, 1994. These claims have led to some positive legal and political developments aimed at addressing the concerns of Indigenous Peoples in South Africa. Despite the changes that the governments of the Post Apartheid Era in South Africa have introduced, the minorities, like Khoisan people, still continue to face challenges related to poverty, insufficient access to healthcare and education, inadequate economic opportunities, and ongoing struggles for land rights and cultural preservation.

It’s important to note that the situation of Indigenous People´s is complex and multilayered, and addressing their historical and ongoing challenges requires a wide-ranging approach.  While progress has been made, challenges remain to fully resolve the historical injustices and inequalities faced by the indigenous communities in South Africa.


[i] Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Southern Africa edited by Robert K. Hitchcock, Diana Vinding, p. 98

[ii] Ibid, p.100