Skip to Content

A Question Of Terminology

One of the objectives of the website is to sensitize and educate people about contemporary issues. One such issue has to do with how to address some of our fellow South African country people.

The following information is a commentary on terminology relating to Khoe-speaking communities.

Anthropologists generally use the terms San and Khoe (the latter in several variants), and Khoesan for the language group as a whole. “Khoe” is a more accurate representation of pronumciation and is thus increasingly replacing the older “Khoi” etc. Khoe and San are linguistic terms, not ethnic terms, and hence “Khoe-speaking” is sometimes preferred as more precise.

Neil Parsons, History Professor at the University of Botswana comments:

“Khoe [is] one of three major linguistic divisions of the Khoesan languages: Khoe in and around the Kalahari middle (though later also spread to the Cape), with Northern San to the north and Southern San to the south.

The great majority of so-called “Bushmen” or “Basarwa” in Botswana and probably Namibia are Khoe-speakers. The word khoe means “person” in Khoe languages, while San means something like “them others” or worse in Khoe languages. Hence Khoe people who are told that they are sometimes called San in the outside world can be quite virulent in their rejection of the term.

The people themselves have not as yet agreed on a single terminology.

Some activists and organizations prefer “San”, which is probably the most “politically correct” usage. However, in many places this term is not recognized (or is actively disliked, see above) by the people concerned, who often use either “Basarwa” or “Bushmen”. Unfortunately both of these are also disliked by some. “Basarwa” seems to some merely a euphemism for “Masarwa”, a name given by the oppressors. “Bushmen” sounds somewhat derogatory to many Southern Africans, though to western ears its connotations seem more positive. (This may be connected with the fact that while to westerners “bush” evokes nature in a positive/romantic sense, to Southern Africans “bush” indicates the opposite of civilized.)

An example: the Dqae Qare project, a venture in cultural tourism owned and operated by the Ncoakhoe people near Ghanzi (see page on historical/cultural tourism) is described on the publicity leaflet as “A community based tourism project of the Bushmen of D’Kar, Ghanzi District, Botswana”. Inside a note reads: “We are called San, or Bushmen. We call ourselves Ncoakhoe, the ‘red people’.”

In summary, therefore, it will be seen that no universally acceptable usage is yet available. In the present situation, the main thing is to be sensitive to the problem, and to respect the wishes of the people concerned in particular cases.