The San of Southern Africa – Among the Bushmen, nature is appreciated, respected, honored and revered.


Long considered “model” hunting and gathering people by anthropologists, the San, or Bushmen, of Southern Africa have begun to assert their human rights in seeking to direct their own social and economic circumstances and in conserving their environments.

The San, or Bushmen, of the Kalahari Desert and adjacent regions of Southern Africa have diversified livelihoods that are undergoing significant change. Numbering some 130,000 people in eight countries (Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe), the San are made up of approximately 50 self-identifying groups, many of whom speak mother-tongue San languages. Some San groups have been involuntarily moved from their ancestral lands by the establishment of protected areas, agricultural projects, commercial livestock ranches and mines. Many San also have had to deal with the criminalization of their livelihood strategies, notably hunting and gathering.

In recent years, the San have achieved some success in organizing themselves, both locally and internationally. Notably, they have filed successful legal cases aimed at regaining their land and resource rights in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. As a result, San have gained a degree of control over the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, in South Africa, along with the rights to park gate receipts. In the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, in Botswana, San (and Bakgalagadi) who were removed in 1997, 2002 and 2005 have obtained the right to return to the reserve. The people also were able to secure the rights to water in the Central Kalahari, which set an international legal precedent. In Namibia, !Kung, !Xun and Khwe San have successfully challenged illegal cattle-owning immigrants who had entered the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy in what used to be defined as West Bushmanland.

Distribution of San groups across Southern Africa. Author’s map

A critical issue for the San has been the government policies that led to criminalization of their hunting. In the colonial era, laws were passed in many Southern African countries that made subsistence hunting illegal. The only contemporary exception to this is the Nyae Nyae Conservancy of northeastern Namibia, where Ju/’hoansi San have the right to harvest a limited array of wild animals with traditional weapons (bows and arrows, spears, clubs). San in other regions are arrested, jailed and fined if they are caught hunting. One of the only ways that these San have been able to obtain game meat is through the operations of safari hunting companies in their areas, which donate meat.

G/ui San legally spearing a gemsbok, Ghanzi Farms, Botswana. First People of the Kalahari photo


The vast majority of San today live below the poverty line, defined there as $2.50 per day. Their livelihoods generally are diversified, consisting of a combination of formal sector employment (such as working on cattle ranches or for NGOs or safari companies) and income-generating activities including handicrafts production and sale, gathering wild plant products (such as Devil’s Claw, Harpagophytum procumbens) to be sold commercially, running small businesses, involvement in tourism, agriculture, livestock or fishing.

Unemployment is high, with as many as 90% of San households lacking formal employment and sufficient income to sustain themselves. The governments of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa help to offset the livelihood problems faced by the San and other rural people through the provision of food and other commodities under government social-safety nets.

San gatherers and hunters in the Central Kalahari bush, Metseamonong, Botswana. Melinda Kelly photo

Environmental awareness & needs

San individuals habitually scan their environment and its constituent parts, and this information is integrated into EKS, ecological knowledge systems, that are shared among individuals and passed down from one generation to the next. G/ui folk knowledge extends not only to animals but also to plants and to landscapes and key features in them, such as places where water can be found at specific times of year.

People in the Central Kalahari are also aware of point resources, such as pans, specific groves of trees or patches of valuable plants (e.g., morama, Tylosema esculentum and melons, e.g., n≠a: Citrullus lanatus). Places where water could be sucked from the sands with one’s mouth, known as sip-wells (tsàho, //tanata, mamuno), were crucial to San survival in certain parts of the Kalahari Desert.

Among the G/ui and other San hunter-gatherers, a territory is an area over which local people have rights of access and resource use. It is usually a unit of land that contains natural resources upon which people depend, including water, wild food, medicinal plants, fuel wood, trees for shade and house construction, and materials such as stone used to make tools or minerals such as ochre for body and facial decoration.

In general, the size of the territory is based on the types and numbers of resources it contains, which (at least theoretically) should meet the needs of a group of San in a normal year. Boundary-marking of territories occurs in some contexts, and some if not all people in a group or band know roughly where these boundaries are. Knowledge of landscapes and their features is incredibly important to the San and is shared broadly among community members.

Some San maintain that they are “purposeful conservationists” and that they manage the resources in their environment very carefully. If individuals are thought to be overhunting, they often draw the attention and ire of their fellow group members. There is anecdotal evidence that individuals will stop hunting if they have been successful several times consecutively; this way, say the G/ui, G//ana and Ju/’hoansi San, an individual will not be criticized or become the object of envy of others. This set of practices also contributes to what some San say is their conservation ethic.

Left: Ju/’hoan woman and child with a water-bearing root dug up on a gathering expedition, Dobe, Botswana. Right: Central Kalahari San hunters in Botswana, pointing to a Commiphora plant, valuable for its aromatic resin. Author’s photos


Questions have been raised by some ecologists and conservationists about the hunting activities of San, arguing that they are overutilizing their wildlife resources. Data on hunting by San do not support this position. Among the Ju/’hoansi San of northeastern Namibia and northwestern Botswana, for example, the numbers of large animals taken generally are below the limits set by government wildlife ministries. John Marshall, the noted cinematographer and anthropologist, found that the average Ju/’hoan hunter obtains fewer than 50 to 80 large animals in his lifetime. This meat is shared broadly among community members, who generally number between 25 and 50 persons.

Today, there are only 15 to 18 Ju/’hoan hunters at Nyae Nyae, in Namibia, among a population of 2,400 San. Data on own-use hunting by Nyae Nyae Ju/’hoansi over the past four years show that they are not meeting, much less exceeding, the game off-take quotas set by MEFT, the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism.

The balance of the San diet is made up of wild and agricultural foods, foods bought from stores with locally earned income, and distributions by the government of Namibia, which are supposed to occur monthly but generally are more erratic than that.

A Ju/’hoansi garden at Nyae Nyae, Namibia. Melinda Kelly photo

Some Ju/’hoansi San talk about conservation of nature (tsárúbé) and living in harmony with the environment. When Ju/’hoan individuals scout out a territory for possible occupation, they assess various parameters, including the amount, quality and availability of water, the distribution and abundance of food plants and wild animals, the availability of key resources such as beetles for arrow poison and salt licks for attracting game, and the distribution of water-bearing plants. Crucial in these assessments is evidence of occupation by other groups, either in the past or currently. If there are people already living in an area, outsiders will approach them to ask for permission to enter. Only once they have permission will they assess the new area and decide whether it has adequate resources to sustain both groups. Permission to enter is rarely refused, but if the territory (n!ore, no) is seriously depleted because of drought, the territory owner (n!ore kxau) might refuse permission.

Among the San, nature is not seen as separate from people. Nature is appreciated, respected, honored and revered. The importance of nature is expressed both directly and indirectly in the stories and discussions of the San. The connections between people and nature are found in the belief systems of all San peoples. Among the G/ui of the Central Kalahari, for example, God (N!adima) is the giver of life. The complex web of God’s creatures includes wild animals, plants, insects and humans. Humans are not supposed to take more than nature’s bounty offers to them. If they are collecting certain kinds of wild plants, for example, the G/ui believe that they should leave some in the ground to continue to grow. Information about indigenous knowledge among the G/ui comes from g//onkhwena (forefathers and foremothers, or ancestors).

According to Megan Biesele, a scholar who works among the Ju/’hoansi, there is a wonderful heroine in Ju/’hoan lore who gives birth and/or reconstitutes herself with the help of her grandmother, and during many of her escapades turns her heart into an antelope so that the people may have meat. But, unlike South American and other indigenous peoples, the San recognize no Gaia, no all-encompassing earth mother.

Knowledge of nature and nature’s components and their benefits to people (and the impacts of people on nature) are stored in the memories of the San and passed on in stories told around the fire or in San homes. Evidence of the importance of traditional ecological and cultural knowledge can be seen in the successful practices of San in dealing with challenges such as drought, floods, disease and other natural disasters.

These practices have sustained the San over generations, but in recent years—with severe droughts and the current coronavirus pandemic—they have been less successful than in the past. In these situations, Southern African governments, conservation organizations and non-government rural development institutions, run by San and by others, can play key roles in alleviating poverty, overcoming marginalization and enhancing the social, environmental, economic and political viability of San communities.

Robert K. Hitchcock, PhD, is a research professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and an adjunct professor of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University. He is also a board member of the Kalahari Peoples Fund, a nonprofit that supports education, development, land claims and capacity-building training for indigenous and minority peoples in Southern Africa. He provides anthropological expertise in land and resource rights-related legal cases and conducts social and environmental impact assessments of large dams, agricultural projects, refugee resettlement and conservation programs mainly in Africa, but also in North and South America. Some of his more recent work is on border issues, including those relating to the rights of migrants from Central and South America to the US. He has been working in southern, central and eastern Africa for 45 years, primarily on indigenous peoples’ rights and development issues.

Banner image: A Ju/’hoan woman drilling ostrich-shell beads in //Ao//oba, Nyae Nyae region, Namibia. Author’s photo