The San today: Strug­gling culture at risk

The hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari are no longer isolated from the modern, money-making world. Nowadays, they maintain many aspects of their indigenous way of life, but like any other people, they adjust to the circumstances.


Challenges faced by San today

There is a great interest in getting to know, explore and better understand the San Society. However, with the lack of cultural understanding, conflicts can quickly arise.

"We have encountered lack of respect in many instances in the past. In Genomics research, our leaders were avoided, and respect was not shown to them. Researchers took photographs of individuals in their homes, of breastfeeding mothers, or of underage children, whilst ignoring our social customs and norms. Bribes or other advantages were offered." - San Code of Research ethics, 2017

This quote is from the 2017 San Code of Research Ethics, published by the South African San in collaboration with the EU-funded TRUST project. In doing so, they call for four core values, namely fairness, respect, care and honesty, to which not only researchers but all people interacting with the San should be committed.

In the past, there have been unjust land dispossessions. Through various protests, representatives of different San tribes want to reclaim areas where they have lived in harmony with their natural environment for at least 20 000 years. Passing on age-old traditions has become harder being based in a resettlement village. This problem continues to exist today.

"South Africa continues to fail to meet its obligations to protect the rights of Khoi and San Peoples to their lands, political representation, identities, languages, and cultures." - Cultural Survival

Tourism as an opportunity to turn traditional skills into income

The modern-day bushmen (including women) have discovered eco-tourism as a source of income. Those who are open-minded and proud of their culture like to show it to honestly interested foreigners. Making fire from sticks. Plait rope from fibrous plant. Traditional dances.

Zwei junge San Männer beim Feuer machen
San Survival Skills: Lagerfeuer machen mit Stöcken
Bedrohte Kultur in- Gefahr: traditionelle Faehigkeiten wei das Feuer-Machen der San von heute

However, conventional cultural tourism can be exploiting and disempowering when the modern-day bushmen are portrayed as unchanging primitives. It is our responsibility to be aware of the dynamics and consequences of cultural tourism. The “authenticity” of a “bushmen experience” is often romanticised, neglecting that these indigenous peoples should be seen as fully human selves underlining both their historical background and the modern influence and development.

In contrast, eco-tourism providers focus on mutual benefits. In eco-tourism, both capacities are attributed to the Bushmen: They participate as objects of tourism and have an active role as modernising tourism producers. These two roles are strongly interlinked, as the tourist interest in the wealthy San culture and traditional skills offer the opportunity to sell something. It is a far more efficient strategy to harness this interest rather than potentially spending days on an unsuccessful hunt. The crucial point, however, is also to recognise the bushmens’ modern role as tourism producers. And thus, be helpful in economic development. One example of implementation can be contractual arrangements in which Bushmen are given shares in the profits of such tours.


If you want to be part of a progressive example of bushmen tourism, make sure to check out Natucate’s San survival skills and tracking course.

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