The San and Khoekhoe are descendants of the first people who lived in southern Africa, before black or white people migrated into the region. The San groups lived mainly as hunters and gatherers, and, as we have just seen, had a rich and brilliant artistic culture.
Sometimes the names by which we refer to groups of people are not names accepted by those groups in the present day. “San” is a good example of this: the labels “San” or “Bushman” have been complicated by their loaded history. Some reject these names and prefer to be known by their particular group name, such as the “Red People”. According to the South African San Institute, “San people had names for themselves, such as |Xam-ka-!e (the Karoo San), N||n‡e (southern Kalahari San), ||Xegwi (North Drakensberg San), etc. In the N|u language, spoken by the N||n‡e people, the word for San hunter-gatherers is Sasi. This word may have had the same origin as the word San, but it also refers to the sacred eland antelope.”
San people lived, and still live, all over southern Africa. They know and understand thousands of plants and their uses – nutritional, medicinal, mystical, recreational, and as poisons. San men have had a reputation as extraordinary trackers and hunters, who can follow the “spoor” (tracks) of an animal across virtually any kind of surface or terrain, and can distinguish between the tracks of a wounded animal and those of the rest of the herd.
But from the time of the very earliest contact with other groups coming into the region, many San communities were displaced, harshly exploited, and even hunted. Contemporary San communities, like the !Xun and Khwe, have been moved a number of times from the lands they originally occupied. Under the former Nationalist Government, the South African army conscripted large numbers of San men as trackers in what was then South West Africa, using their hunting skills to track signs of human presence. After Namibia (as it is now called) became independent in 1990, the army relocated the !Xun and Khwe people to live in a basic tent settlement at Schmidtsdrift in the northern Cape. Finally, because Schmidtsdrift was later reclaimed by a Tswana clan, they were permanently settled on the farm Platfontein, outside Kimberley.
While still in Schmidtsdrift, the !Xun and Khwe community began to
make art – partly to revive the creativity which was an old
and established aspect of their traditional history, and partly
as a means of earning some income. These !Xun and Khwe artists made paintings and prints on paper and fabric. They often took their themes from the very old stories passed down by parents and grandparents, and from memories of a hunting and veld-food-gathering way of life. Another artmaking project is the Kuru art project in Mpumalanga. Full of information, these works express a mix of the old and new ideas that inform the culture.