Written in the Sand South African San Institute
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This Site is sponsored by
UNESCO'S Division for Cultural Policies in the
Sector for Culture


In 1996, the South African San Institute (SASI) was asked by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) and the ‡Khomani San leadership to assist with a land claim in the southern Kalahari Desert.

Initially there were only 50 people who identified themselves as San from this remote corner of the South Africa. They were living and working at a tourist resort in the Western Cape Province, some 1000 km to the south of their place of origin.

The San of Gordonia District (now renamed Siyanda District) appear to have occupied the area north of the Orange River, near the town of Upington, for centuries and possibly for millennia. For various reasons, but notably as a result of the creation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in 1931, the majority of San people were forced to give up their hunting and gathering lifestyle and become farm workers in the District. A few families were able to stay on in the Park, working as labourers and trackers until they were expelled in the 1970s.

As part of the land claim process the surviving claimants had to provide convincing evidence that they were indeed the aboriginal people of this particular territory. The oral history of the people was highly fractured and their ancestral language was thought to be extinct. Over the following years, SASI worked with the San community to collect up the oral history of its dispersed elders and to review archival information. SASI was ably assisted by two other Non-government organisations (NGOs): Open Channels, a media NGO from the United Kingdom, and Strata360, a mapping NGO from Canada.

During this process it emerged that their ancient language, N|u, was not in fact extinct, but was still spoke by about two dozen elderly people. The N|u speaking elders, and those from the original group, speakers of the Khoekhoeogowab language, were able to recollect important details of their past and together reconstructed their 20th century history. This valuable knowledge and the practical skills of the elders have been a valuable resource to the ‡Khomani community and influenced the success of their land claim.

The land claim was settled on 21 March 1999. SASI has continued since this time with helping the San community learn more about their history, language and culture, and to put into place strategies for helping them manage their endangered intangible and tangible heritage.

This website provides a case study of this work.