Environmental practices of South Africa’s Indigenous ‡Khomani Bushmen
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Environmental practices of South Africa’s Indigenous ‡Khomani Bushmen

By Julie Grant

From Australian bushfires to the melting of polar icecaps – the climate emergency is on everyone’s lips. Daily reports proliferate from media houses, through newspapers and websites, while civil society distributes its own nuanced interpretations. Whether there is in fact a climate emergency is also being debated as are the best ways to address the situation- including how to contain the sustained damage while minimising future damage. 

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are a foremost contributor to climate change with the burning of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide being the main culprit (IPCC, 2007: 23-25). Deforestation contributes to the emergency as forests act as banks for carbon deposits (Survival International, 2007:2). When forests are destroyed this carbon is released into the atmosphere contributing to global warming. Although the global North is responsible for much of the GHG emissions, it is the global South that is most likely to incur the resulting extreme climatic events (Chanza and de Wit, 2016: 35). Indigenous Peoples (IPs) are most susceptible to climate change (Green and Raygorodetsky, 2010: 239).

Witdraai Farm, Northern Cape Province, South Africa. Photo: Julie Grant

IPs are affected directly and indirectly. For example, directly:  rising sea levels due to increased temperatures flood indigenous islanders living in the Pacific (UNPFII, 2008). Indirectly IPs are paradoxically threatened by the implementation of strategies aimed at abating the phenomenon. IPs in Kenya are being evicted in an effort to protect forests (Survival International, 2009: 7) while Brazil’s IPs are losing land to biofuel production (Survival International, 2009: 5-6), the production of which aims to enable a move away from fossil fuels.

Climate activists are calling for the world’s inhabitants to change their lifestyles. It is often suggested that people should learn from IPs who are perceived as living environmentally mindful lives, contributing little to climate change (Chanza and de Wit, 2016: 36).

The ‡Khomani Bushmen of South Africa

The ‡Khomani, the last remaining indigenous Bushmen1 of South Africa, reside in the Northern Cape Province in the southern Kalahari Desert. South Africa’s temperatures are rising at twice the global average (Heiberg, 2020) with 2019 producing record high temperatures (Gaworecki, 2020). 2015 was also the driest year on record in South Africa with water levels dwindling in particular areas. Specifically, the Northern Cape has been suffering from consecutive years of abnormally high temperatures and below average rainfall (Heiberg, 2020).

Historically, the ‡Khomani were hunter-gatherers living in the southern Kalahari in small family bands. They were nomads who relocated as resources became depleted. Resource acquisition was limited by adverse weather, the presence of predators, and the existence of neighbouring clans – although informal benefit sharing agreements were usually entered into.

Today the ‡Khomani live on land returned to them through South Africa’s land restitution process. Despite good intentions, when land is returned, recipients do not receive the land as it was prior to dispossession. Land changes over time, depending on how it is being used, as do the laws that regulate its use. Prior to the return of the ‡Khomani land, it was divided and fenced into farms and remains as such. One of the farms is managed as a private game ranch, Erin, while the others are inhabited by community members some of whom graze domestic livestock. Regulations mean that the ‡Khomani cannot hunt and gather at will.

There is little game on the ‡Khomani farms. If community members want to hunt on Erin or on the land that they own in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP), where there is game, they have to gain the permission of local governing bodies and secure a permit. Human habitation and the grazing of domestic livestock have also limited the growth of veldkos2 and medicinal plants on the farms. More are available in the KTP; however, gathering is controlled in the Park so community members need to request permits and secure transport to the Park, located 60 km away, before undertaking any gathering activity.

These requirements mean that since the return of their land, the ‡Khomani have been unable to pursue their environmentally sustainable hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence, and have been inhibited from passing on their indigenous knowledge to current generations. There are a number of environmental concerns regarding how the ‡Khomani live and use their land.

Buks Kruiper making crafts. Photo: Julie Grant.


The ‡Khomani as contributors to climate change

Successive community bodies have struggled to manage the assets in an environmentally, financially and culturally appropriate way. A consultant has been appointed by the South African government to work with the ‡Khomani, but there is still little, if any, discussion or training regarding environmentally responsible management.

The 400-strong community relies on water pumped from boreholes with the number of tap outlets having been significantly increased without a water use policy being conceived. Borehole water is not an infinite resource and given that the Northern Cape is mid-drought consideration regarding its replenishment would be pertinent. An environmentally minded land use policy is also lacking as over-grazing occurs due to inappropriate farming methods.

The government has not provided formal housing or basic services including refuse collection or sanitation provision. This is a contravention of the South African constitution (Grant, 2011). This situation promotes environmentally damaging actions that contribute the climate emergency-albeit in a small way compared to the broader population.

Community members collect wood which they burn for cooking purposes and for warmth on the cold winter nights. Although wood is not a fossil fuel, it does release carbon into the environment when burned and as it is less energy efficient than fossil fuels more of the product needs to be burned (Energy News Network, 2013). The community also substitutes the use of plastic bags for firelighters which again releases carbon into the environment along with toxic fumes. These fumes are known to cause a variety of health problems and aggravate existing aliments such as respiratory illnesses (UN Environment Programme, 2019). These are common within the ‡Khomani community and often lead to premature death.

Given the restrictions and difficulties involved with hunting and gathering, community members buy food and clothes from local shops. In the past when Bushmen sourced food by hunting and gathering, also satisfying their clothing needs in this way, it resulted in a limited amount of bio-degradable waste. Today, like everyone else they buy products packaged in plastic and non –biodegradable materials. As the ‡Khomani have no electricity to run fridges they buy much tinned food rather than fresh. Overall, the ‡Khomani now have a less environmentally friendly means of subsistence.

No refuse collection services are provided on the ‡Khomani farms. Households dig large unsightly holes within which they store their trash burning the contents on an irregular basis. Despite potentially carcinogenic fumes and carbon outputs everything is burnt – plastic fizzy drinks bottles and tins among other items. Although it is common practice for municipalities in South Africa to burn refuse at designated sites, the fact that community members are burning their own trash less than 100 meters from their homes means that they more readily inhale the toxins. This is of particular concern in regard to young children and babies.

The provision of sanitation services are non-existent on the farms. People have no option but to relieve themselves in the bush. This leaves a proliferation of toilet paper, human waste and sanitary products. Like other litter disregarded outside of the homestead it does not merit collection or burning. These disused items are just left to litter the environment and for local dogs to play with.

Despite the ‡Khomani being Indigenous People (IP), the majority do not live in, or strive to maintain, an environmental paradise. In the past when they have been offered trash bags and the use of vehicles to enable litter collection on their land, they have refused. Most community members will only join such initiatives if they are paid.

Communication towards environmentally mindful behaviour

Some ‡Khomani remain traditionally minded and share an affinity with the environment. In an attempt to maintain their traditional knowledge and facilitate the intergenerational transfer of indigenous knowledge some ‡Khomani have established a veldskool.3 Community elders act as mentors and are joined on the week long excursions to the KTP by the youth who are instructed in tracking and plant knowledge, including medicinal and food uses and how to gather plants in a mindful way that respects nature. The youth hear traditional stories at camp, and are taught dancing and the once spoken Bushmen languages. While the language of the climate change is not present on these excursions much of the practices being communicated and taught are environmentally beneficial.

Youth camps are another way that environmentally mindful messages are relayed. The camps are facilitated by ‡Khomani individuals who take the youth on weekend camps to either the KTP or the Erin Game Ranch. Youths are taken on guided walks by trackers and cultural guides to learn about nature and their heritage. Each camp has a specific educational focus. Some are obviously related to the environment and focus on environmental sustainability or how to encourage environmental mindfulness.

Others are less obvious in their relation to the environment but promote environmental mindfulness never the less. These topics include cultural restoration, identity and self-esteem, and what it means to be an owner or custodian of the land. Given that the ‡Khomani were historically hunter-gatherers, their culture, identify and aspirations are linked to environmental sustainability hence all these topics are pertinent to the climate emergency.

The veldskool, however, has been limited by the number of reliable mentors available. This can be seen as an indicator that the culture is in decline. The youth camps have also suffered due to the lack of community members able and willing to assume the facilitators role and although the initiatives have been well attended they have not as yet resulted in noticeable behavioural change towards the local environment.


The situation of the ‡Khomani, forced into a mode of substance akin to other non-IPs has resulted in them contributing to climate change. Currently, the community is home to individuals who retain knowledge that could be communicated through various initiatives to help promote more environmentally mindful behaviour. These individuals will not be around indefinitely so time is of the essence.

Rather than romanticising that all IPs including the ‡Khomani live in harmony with nature, it would be pertinent to recognise that many are struggling to align their traditional beliefs with modern life, and to maintain and pass on their knowledge. By supporting the transfer of such knowledge, it could benefit the communities, the environment and the world more broadly.


1. Although the term Bushmen is controversial, I have chosen its use as it is preferred by the ‡Khomani.

2. Veldkos is an Afrikaans word literally translated as fieldfood. It refers to wild edible plants that can be harvested and eaten.

3. Veldskool is another Afrikaans word that translates as fieldschool.


Chanza N and de Wit, A. (2016). Enhancing climate governance through indigenous knowledge: case in sustainability science. South African Journal of Science, 112 (2/3): 35-41.

Gaworecki, M. (2020). 2019 was second-hottest year in record, 2010s hottest decade. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/01/2019-was-second-hottest-year-on-record-2010s-hottest-decade/(accessed 01/03/2020).

Grant, J. (2011). Rural development in practice? The experience of the #‡Khomani Bushmen in the Northern Cape, South Africa. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Green, D. and Raygorodetsky, G. (2010). Indigenous knowledge of changing climate. Climate Change 100: 239-242.

Energy News Network. (2013). Does burning wood instead of fossil fuels increase GHG emissions? https://energynews.us/2013/05/10/midwest/does-burning-wood-instead-of-fossil-fuels-increase-ghg-emissions/ (accessed 01/03/2020)

Heiberg, T. (2020). Years of drought threaten South Africa’s wildlife industry. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-safrica-wildlife/years-of-drought-threaten-south-africas-wildlife-industry-idUSKBN1Z50WY?utm_campaign=website&utm_source=sendgrid.com&utm_medium=email (accessed 01/03/2020)

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2007). IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. Technical Summary. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_ipcc_fourth_assessment_report_wg1_report_the_physical_science_basis.htm (accessed 01/03/2020)

Survival International Report. (2009). The most inconvenient truth of all: climate change and indigenous people.

UN Environment Programme. (2019). Plastic bag bans can help reduce toxic fumes. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-bag-bans-can-help-reduce-toxic-fumes(accessed 01/03/2020)

United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). (2008). Indigenous Peoples in the Pacific Region: Fact Sheet. www.un.org/en/events/indigenousday/pdf/factsheet_Pacfic_FINAL.pdf (accessed 01/03/2020).


Julie Grant has been working with South Africa’s Indigenous Bushmen for 15 years, first as a researcher and then as an NGO worker. Dr Grant holds a BSc (hons) in Psychology from Stirling University, Scotland and an MSc and PhD in African Studies from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Currently she conducts her research under the auspices of the Rethinking Indigeneity Project led by Professor Tomaselli. She is based in the Department of Communication in University of Johannesburg, South Africa where she is a senior research affiliate. Her publications are varied but all focus on Bushmen. Recent publications include, Wessels, M., Tomaselli, K.G. and Grant J. (2019) Introduction: Literacy and Language Amongst the KhoeSan. Tomaselli K.G. and Grant, J. (2019) The Literacy of Tracking. Grant, J. (2019) Language and Education: Photovoice Workshops and the !Xun and Khwe Bushmen; and Du Plessis, H. and Grant, J. (2019) Afrikaans on the Frontier: Two Early Afrikaans Dialects. These publications all appear in Critical Arts: Special Issue 33 (4/5), which Dr Grant co-edited with Prof Tomaselli. Dr Grant can be contacted on JulieGrant70@hotmail.com


Photo at top: Teaching the children. Photo: Julie Grant

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