The San and Khoi Centre in its First Year

The San and Khoi Centre, launched just over a year ago, has made tremendous strides in research, activism, and awareness around the First Nations people of South Africa and the importance of acknowledging their place and presence in our current society and culture.

By Amber Williams (Features Editor)

It has been over a year since the University of Cape Town (UCT) launched the San and Khoi Centre in the Centre for African Studies (CAS) Unit. Launched on the 21st of September 2020, the Centre aimed to bring to the foreground, the experiences, languages, rituals and knowledge systems of the indigenous San and Khoi people who have a history as South Africa’s First Nations group, dating as far back as 150 000 years ago, if not more.

UCT itself is situated on the historic Huri ǂoaxa (Hoerikwaggo) mountain, translated as ‘the mountain in the sea’, which was dispossessed from the First Nations’ tribes and is of great cultural significance to these tribes who once called the picturesque mountain and surrounding areas home. The San and Khoi people have faced extreme physical and cultural genocide, social exclusion, forced assimilation, geological dispossession, imprisonment, and violence under European settler rule and colonialism from the 1500s onwards. Many of their descendants still live in and around Cape Town today; some as students, staff, and graduates of the university itself.

Despite being launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the San and Khoi Centre has produced novel work that highlights the importance of preserving and recording the knowledge systems and traditions of the San and Khoi people. Dr June Bam-Hutchison has been appointed interim director of the Centre for the past year and has played an important role in the knowledge produced within the Centre, her latest publication being Ausi Told Me: Why Cape Herstoriographies Matter. June’s current research deals mainly with Khoisan identities and their link to social justice in South Africa. Along with leading scholars, feminist activists, community poets, and students, space has been opened up within the Centre for critical debate and reflection around the historiographies of the Khoi and San people and their place in our society and culture today, not only on a local scale but globally as well.

The Centre has hosted regular webinars throughout the year, with internationally renowned scholars, poets, activists, and community leaders coming together and sharing their understandings and personal stories of their own heritage and ancestral histories. The Centre will work within the Worldwide Universities Network to contribute to global debate and discussion around indigenous communities with other first nations groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to name a few.

With the new constitution set up in 1994, the San and Khoi people have found it difficult to seek validation and expression as a cultural group in South Africa’s Constitution due to a large part of their history being swept away and degraded by centuries of colonial violence. The work done within the Centre will address this centuries old dissolution of their identities and culture as a people. The Centre recently implemented a foundational Khoekhoegowab language short course (one of the languages of the San and Khoi people) under the leadership of activist Bradley van Sitters, with hopes to have the language implemented as an official course within a degree structure in the next five years.

The work done within the Centre forms an important part of UCT’s Vision 2030, which aims to tackle themes of transformation, diversity, inclusion, and decolonisation within the university. This process of decolonisation has aided the university to address its harsh, dark and tumultuous past. Such action has culminated in the renaming of many important structures on campus, most notably the Sarah Baartman Hall, previously referred to as the Jameson Hall.

As a historically white university, UCT recognises the launch of the San and Khoi Centre as being crucial to decolonising the university and its associated spaces. With the Rhodes Must Fall movement many students were asking relevant questions concerning the history of the university’s land before Cecil John Rhodes possessed it for his own profit and gain. It is important to remember what once was (and still is) so we can move forward with this shared knowledge and not repeat the mistakes of the past.

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