"Khoi" redirects here. For other uses, see Khoi (disambiguation).

The Khoikhoi ("people people" or "real people") or Khoi, spelled Khoekhoe in standardised Khoekhoe/Nama orthography, are a historical division of the Khoisan ethnic group, the native people of southwestern Africa, closely related to the Bushmen (or San, as the Khoikhoi called them). They had lived in southern Africa since the 5th century AD.[1] When European immigrants colonised the area after 1652, the Khoikhoi were practising extensive pastoral agriculture in the Cape region, with large herds of Nguni cattle. The European immigrants labelled them Hottentots, in imitation of the sound of the Khoekhoe language,[2] but this term is today considered derogatory by some.[3]

Archaeological evidence shows that the Khoikhoi entered South Africa from Botswana through two distinct routes—travelling west, skirting the Kalahari to the west coast, then down to the Cape, and travelling south-east out into the Highveld and then southwards to the south coast.[4] Most of the Khoikhoi have largely disappeared as a group, except for the largest group, the Namas.


Early history

The Khoikhoi were originally part of a pastoral culture and language group found across Southern Africa. Originated in the northern area of modern Botswana, the ethnic group steadily migrated south, reaching the Cape approximately 2,000 years ago. Khoikhoi subgroups include the Korana of mid-South Africa, the Namaqua to the west, and the Khoikhoi in the south. Husbandry of sheep, goats and cattle provided a stable, balanced diet and allowed the related Khoikhoi peoples to live in larger groups than the region's previous inhabitants, the San. Herds grazed in fertile valleys across the region until the 3rd century AD when the advancing Bantu encroached into their traditional homeland. The Khoikhoi were forced into a long retreat into more arid areas. Today, in the southwest country of Namibia, the majority of the Khoikhoi people are mixed with one of the Bantu groups known as the Damara—today, they have a mixed-light skin tone, resulting from the light color of the Khoikhoi people and the darker color of the Bantu people. This people group—known as either Damara or Khoikhoi—live around the Erongo region of Namibia. They speak the language known as "Khoikhoigobab" or simply (the more wide spread term) "Damara".

Migratory Khoi bands living around what is today Cape Town intermarried with San. However the two groups remained culturally distinct as the Khoikhoi continued to graze livestock and the San subsisted as hunter-gatherers.

Arrival of Europeans

The Khoi initially came into contact with European explorers and merchants in approximately AD 1500. The ongoing encounters were often violent. Local population dropped when the Khoi were exposed to smallpox by Europeans. Active warfare between the groups flared when the Dutch East India Company enclosed traditional grazing land for farms. Over the following century the Khoi were steadily driven off their land, which effectively ended traditional Khoikhoi life.

Khoikhoi social organisation was profoundly damaged and, in the end, destroyed by European colonial expansion and land seizure from the late 17th century onwards. As social structures broke down, some Khoikhoi people settled on farms and became bondsmen or farm workers; others were incorporated into existing clan and family groups of the Xhosa people. The first mission station in southern Africa,[5] Genadendal, was started in 1738 among the Khoi people in Baviaanskloof in the Riviersonderend Mountains by Georg Schmidt a Moravian Brother from Herrnhut, Saxony, now Germany.

The Griqua

Early European settlers sometimes intermarried with the indigenous KhoiKhoi, producing a sizeable mixed population known at the time as "Basters" and in some instances still so-called, e.g.: the Bosluis Basters of the Richtersveld and the Baster community of Rehoboth, Namibia.

Like many KhoiKhoi and mixed race people, the Griqua left the Cape Colony and migrated into the interior. Responding to the influence of missionaries they formed the states of Griqualand West and Griqualand East which were later absorbed into the Cape Colony of the British Empire.

The Kat River settlement (1829–1856) and the Khoi in the Cape Colony

By the early 1800s, the remaining Khoi of the Cape Colony were suffering from restricted civil rights and discriminatory laws on land ownership. With this in mind, the powerful Commissioner General of the Eastern Districts, Andries Stockenstrom, facilitated the creation of the "Kat River" Khoi settlement near the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. The more cynical motives were probably to create a buffer-zone on the Cape's frontier, but the extensive and fertile lands in the region did allow the Khoi to own their land and build their communities in peace. The settlements thrived and expanded, and Kat River quickly became a large and successful region of the Cape that subsisted more or less autonomously. The people were predominantly Afrikaans-speaking Gonaqua Khoi, but the settlement also began to attract numbers from other Khoi, Xhosa and mixed-race groups of the Cape.

The Khoi were known at the time for being remarkably good marksmen, and were frequent and invaluable allies of the Cape Colony in its frontier wars with the neighbouring Xhosa. In the Seventh Frontier War (1846–1847) against the Gcaleka Xhosa, the Khoi gunmen from Kat River distinguished themselves under their leader Andries Botha in the assault on the "Amatola fastnesses". (The young John Molteno, later Prime Minister, led a mixed Commando in the assault, and later praised the Khoi as having more bravery and initiative than most of his white soldiers.)[6]

Harsh laws were still implemented in the Eastern Cape however, to encourage the Khoi to leave their lands in the Kat River region and to work as labourers on white farms. The growing resentment exploded in 1850. When the Xhosa rose against the Cape Government, large numbers of the Khoi, for the first time, joined the Xhosa rebels.

After the war and the defeat of the rebellion, the new Cape Government endeavoured to grant the Khoi meaningful political rights to avert any future racial discontent. William Porter, the Attorney General, was famously quoted as saying that he "...would rather meet the Hottentot at the hustings, voting for his representative, than meet him in the wilds with his gun upon his shoulder", and so the beginnings of the multi-racial Cape franchise was born in 1853. This law decreed that all citizens, regardless of colour, had the right to vote and to seek election in Parliament. This non-racial principle of franchise was later eroded in the late 1880s, and then finally abolished by the Apartheid Government. [7]

Massacres in German South West Africa

From 1904 to 1907, the Germans took up arms against the Khoikhoi group living in what was then German South West Africa, along with the Herero. Over 10,000 Nama, more than half of the total Nama population, perished. This was the single greatest massacre ever witnessed by the Khoikhoi people.


The religious mythology of the Khoikhoi gives special significance to the Moon, which may have been viewed as the physical manifestation of a supreme being associated with heaven. Tsui'goab is also believed to be the creator and the guardian of health, while Gunab is primarily an evil being, who causes sickness or death.[8]

World Heritage

UNESCO has recognised Khoikhoi culture through its inscription of the Richtersveld as a World Heritage Site. This important area is the only place where transhumance practices associated with the culture continue to any great extent.

See also

South Africa portal


Further reading

  • P. Kolben, Present State of the Cape of Good Hope (London, 1731–38);
  • A. Sparman, Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope (Perth, 1786);
  • Sir John Barrow, Travels into the Interior of South Africa (London, 1801);
  • Bleek, Reynard the Fox in South Africa; or Hottentot Fables and Tales (London, 1864);
  • Emil Holub, Seven Years in South Africa (English translation, Boston, 1881);
  • G. W. Stow, Native Races of South Africa (New York, 1905);
  • A. R. Colquhoun, Africander Land (New York, 1906);
  • L. Schultze, Aus Namaland und Kalahari (Jena, 1907);
  • Meinhof, Die Sprachen der Hamiten (Hamburg, 1912);
  • Richard Elphick, Khoikhoi and the Founding of White South Africa (London, 1977)

External links

  • Women in World History website
  • An article on the history of the Khoikhoi
  • The Khoekhoe People of Southern Africa