The Khoi Khoi and the San

Political, social and economic organisation of the Khoi Khoi and the San

These are two of the earliest communities of people to arrive in Southern Africa.

The Khoi Khoi were called Hottentots by the early Europeans that came to Southern Africa. The San were called Bushmen. Today, these names are no longer used to refer to the two communities. They were thought to be derogatory.


The Khoi Khoi

The Khoi Khoi settled in Southern Africa after the San. They were mainly pastoralists. However, they were also hunters and gatherers. They were organised in larger groups than the San. They lived in groups known as camps or settlements which consisted of 500 to 700 people. The size of each community or nation depended on the following factors:

  • Availability of water.
  • Availability of grazing land.
  • Unity of the community members.

The land was communally owned. They hunted and grazed communally, waterholes and mineral rights belonged to all. When the nation became too large, the land was sub-divided among clans which then begun to operate like independent nations. The Khoi Khoi never developed into a big and powerful empire because of their nomadic way of life.

Below is an image showing hunters

All the clan leaders formed a Council of Elders which assisted the chief in making important decisions and in settling disputes. Discussions were held in open forums and if a group within the community felt that it could not cope with the rest, it had the freedom to break away and form a new clan with a new name.

Because of this, splits were common and as a result, the Khoi Khoi spread to occupy a larger area than the San.

The main functions of the chiefs included settling disputes involving different clans.

An image on council of elders


The San

The San were the oldest community to settle in Southern Africa even before the Khoi Khoi. Before the coming of Europeans, they lived mainly by hunting and gathering.

They led a nomadic way of life and their population was small and scattered in the region. They lived in small units of between 25-70 people. These units had men who jointly hunted wild animals and birds with poisoned arrows. These animals and birds were a source of food for the unit. Their main food was animals and birds, they also ate roots and other items gathered by the women.

The San people image:


Government of The San

Government decisions were made by common agreement or consensus. Leadership was not clearly defined. However, there was equality and mutual respect in the running of the affairs of the community. There were no chiefs or kings.

Each government consisted of a Headman and a Council of Elders.

The Council of Elders held regular meetings. These meetings were open to all male adults of the village. The San were democratic and allowed every adult male to participate in the affairs of the whole community.

Here is an image on Council of Elders


Similarities between the two communities

They lived close to one another and had the following similarities:

  • They both were yellowish-brown in colour.
  • They had similar physical appearance and tended to be short and stout.
  • They were both nomadic.
  • They had similarities in their languages, both of which had click-sounds.

Differences between the two communities

  • The Khoi Khoi were cattle keepers while the San were hunters and gatherers.
  • They had different political organisations. Khoi Khoi were led by chiefs while the San did not have a defined leader.

Below is an image of some modern San people in Namibia

The role of traditional forms of government in society

  • They unified the community under one leader.
  • They defended the freedom of the community.
  • They gave members of the society a sense of belonging.
  • They settled disputes among members of the society.
  • They officiated ceremonies and gave guidelines.
  • Their laws, customs and taboos brought order in the society.
  • It preserved the community’s cultures.
  • It trained and shaped future leaders in the community.

  • san_people by Various sources used under CC_BY-SA
  • san_hunters by World Culture Tourism used under CC_BY-SA
  • council_of_elders_1 by Various sources used under CC_BY-SA
  • San by The Telegraph used under CC_BY-SA
  • council-of-elders by africancouncilofelders used under CC_BY-SA
  • san_people by pinterest used under CC_BY-SA

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