From political spheres, street corners, business offices and social media the race question continues to plague South African society. Racial tension, white privilege, economic inequality are themes that are highly emotional and easily get us rattled up. Therefore our approach must be guided by humility and sensitivity in a quest to extend social cohesion and relations. Our approach must also include rigorous critical thinking in order to draw correct and wise conclusions with implications for our society today. It is my opinion that a more reflective knowledge of the history of the interaction between black and white could lead to a more socially cohesive nation in our post-rainbow nation South Africa.

The origin of black and white racial interactions specifically in our country began in Mossel Bay between the Khoe and European traders from Portugal. These initial interactions were characterised by a flux of cooperation and eventually ended in conflict – which is part of the reason why the Portuguese never established a colony in South Africa.

The settlers who did set up camp in South Africa were the Dutch. They arrived at the Cape in 1652 to establish a refreshment post for the Dutch East India Company, also known as the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC).[i] However over time the refreshment post expanded and became a colony. During the course of this expansion interaction ensued with the indigenous Khoekhoe people which forever altered their history. It is during this period that the khoekhoe disintegrated and went from independent to dependent people.

The disintegration of khoekhoe people is defined as the breakdown of traditional, political, economic and social structures of Khoekhoe people. This essay will discuss the reasons for the disintegration of the Khoekhoe communities of the south-western Cape despite strong resistance to European settlement and expansion in the area between 1652 and 1720. It will argue that the loss of land and livestock were pivotal factors in the breakdown of Khoekhoe society as well as examine the causes that led to a loss of livestock and a loss of land.

When expansion by white settlers was still in its infancy: the khoekhoe resisted by withdrawing from trading cattle, the Dutch then started to steal khoekhoe cattle and thus the first Khoe-Dutch war began in 1652. A treaties in 1672 gave whites the whole of Saldanha and False Bay and in 1673 the 2nd Khoe-Dutch war began.[ii] Superior Dutch weaponry defeated the Khoe and effectively gave them control of the South Cape. More specifically, Gonnema was one of the most powerful chiefs of the Khoe who was defeated.[iii] The defeat of the Khoe made their political leadership impotent – their own political structures were no longer their highest authority. Without a strong political or leadership structure it is difficult to organize an effective resistance against an organized and much better armed force. White settlers could now expand more easily with little resistance. The Khoe people either then had to move or become labourers. Resistance by Khoekhoe failed because European settlers had superior weapons.

The loss of land due to VOC policies also led to the disintegration of the Khoekhoe people. Khoekhoe people were a herding and hunter gathering people. They had free access to land for grazing as well as other resources critical to a pastoral economy such as water. Possession of stock for the Khoe meant they had to always cling to well-watered areas.[iv] VOC policies gave unlimited land to settlers. One of the policies was begun by Simon Van der Stel who was the governor of the Cape in 1679, he was the first to give land on a freehold basis to settlers.[v] This policy went against the VOC’s initial policy of a contained settlement because they wanted a secure supply of food. Allowing farmers to farm extensively allowed them to produce sufficient grain and meat. This promoted expansion and encroached on land that had historically belonged to Khoekhoe. In 1703 free grazing permits were given whereby land not formally surveyed could be registered.[vi] Another VOC policy was introduced in 1714, the leeningplaats (loan farms) system. Farmers were able to choose and register any vast area of land and pay a small rental fee annually. This policy made obtaining land as easy as going out to point it and claim it. As the demand for land increased, white farmers started choosing land further into the interior. This increased competition for resources with Khoekhoe people. The white farmers had superior force and were able to overpower the Khoekhoe thereby enabling them to have access to good land for their pastures. Hunting and grazing completely depends on access to land. Without access to land khoekhoe lost their means of production and source of livelihood. Khoekhoe people provided with few alternatives opted to become labourers for white farmers in order to survive.

The VOCs restrictive policies on the farmers and poor administration of the Cape led to resentment with VOC amongst freeburghers. These freeburghers wanting independence from VOC went further into the interior and became trekboers. Trekboers were far from the Cape and therefore the VOCs authority over them was limited and could not easily be enforced.  Trekboers adopted a lifestyle very similar to the Khoekhoe lifestyle of hunting and pastoralism. This placed pressure on the resources that both Khoekhoe and Trekboers needed. The superior power of trekboers allowed them to have access to the best land, this uprooted the Khoekhoe. Who then had to move or become labourers.

The loss of cattle and stock of the Khoe people was a major factor that caused their disintegration. Cattle was not only a dietary resource for the Khoe people but also served important social roles such as: births, marriages, burials, inheritance and wealth status. “Khoekhoe society was only held together by the ties of patronage provided by the leaders being able to dispense cattle and sheep and by the prestige that substantial flocks and herds conferred on these men”. [vii] Without their stock, the Khoe people could not maintain social unity and stability. The economy of the Khoe people was based on cattle, they were dependant on it. Various causes can be attributed to the decline in Khoe cattle: drought, cattle disease, unfair trade and raiding. It must be noted that the Khoe people had always experienced a natural cycle of cattle and livestock decline due to natural events such as droughts and disease. When this happened the Khoe could revert to a San lifestyle of hunting when stock declined.[viii] The cape experienced 2 years of intense drought followed by seven years of recurrent stock disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease after 1713. This had a major impact in killing Khoe livestock. A second factor for cattle decline is that the khoe also took part in unfair trading whereby they traded cattle for non-productive or luxury items such liquor and tobacco. This served only to decline their cattle. A third factor was that trekboers had made it a normal routine to plunder Khoe livestock. The loss of cattle meant the loss of livelihood coupled with a loss of land the Khoe lost their whole independence.

The contraction of smallpox by the Khoe exacerbated their deteriorating state. The khoe people suffered an outbreak of smallpox in 1713. The Khoe had no immunity to it. It is estimated that 30% of the population of Khoe people died. This had disastrous consequences for a people already feeling pressure from loss of land by white expansion. A large population mortality rate can have catastrophic consequences. It wiped out leadership structures that were in place and probably left remaining Khoe people vulnerable to be taken advantage of. Prior to the Khoe people contracting small pox, there were 8 previous outbreaks which had greatly reduced their strength. Contracting small pox was the proverbial last straw to brake the camel’s back.

The disintegration of the Khoe people from independent people to dependent people working as farm labourers was ultimately caused by white settlement. White expansion in the Cape took away land the Khoe relied on. Resistance that the Khoe attempted against the injustice was squashed by advanced Dutch weaponry. Thus the Khoe people lost authority in the Cape thereby making their political structures impotent. A second factor in the decline of Khoe was a loss of livestock due to disease, drought and theft. Losing cattle meant the Khoe no longer possessed any means of production. The introduction of small pox served to worsen an already bad situation by wiping out 30% of the population. The Khoe people had limited options and so turned to becoming farm labourers on white farms thereby completing the transition from independent people with land access to impoverished people restricted to being labourers.

The implications of what happened to the Khoe set the economic and political pattern that would go on to define the complex relationship between whites and blacks, master and slave, owner and worker, privilege and exploitation. If we as a country are to move forward it can only be through an understanding, reconciling and acceptance of the role that history has played in shaping our present socio-conditions. All South African must understand the roots of white privilege; how far it stretches it back; how all its effects manifest in systemic inequality; and how it needs to be eradicated.


[i] The making of early colonial South Africa, p12

[ii] The making of early colonial South Africa, p62

[iii] Ibid

[iv] B.A. Ogot (ed), General History of Africa Vol 5, p687

[v] The making of early colonial South Africa, p25

[vi] The making of early colonial South Africa, p45

[vii] C. Hamilton et al (ed), Cambridge History of South Africa, Khoesan and Immigrants: The emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500 – 1800, p179

[viii] B.A. Ogot (ed), General History of Africa Vol 5, p687