Back with a vengeance? Khoisan indigeneity as a political resource in South Africa's settler-colonial present

October 2021 to March 2026
settler-colonial studies
University of Johannesburg (South Africa)
Research fields
History and Archaeology
Law and Political Science

The Khoisan are fast asserting themselves in post-apartheid South Africa after experiencing centuries of assimilation and dispossession. They reject their racial classification as ‘Coloured’ and claim indigeneity to fight their ongoing marginalization. Indigeneity increasingly competes with race as a political resource as the Bantu-speaking ‘Black’ majority calls for expedited land reform and decolonization. Those invested in minority politics and fearing these prospects, particularly ‘White interest groups’, have supported claims to Khoisan indigeneity. The resulting competitive politics of history relates to apartheid, but equally to the legacies of settler colonialism, an earlier and distinct mode of domination which disavows indigenous presences. South Africa is a unique case where multiple actors claim indigeneity in a variety of ways and to varying degrees.

My research teases out these complexities by conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Cape Town and the Johannesburg/Pretoria area and critically engaging with theoretical tenets of settler-colonial studies. I analyze how Khoisan and ‘exogenous others’ engage with the past to define, resist and undo settler-colonial legacies, both discursively and in practice. Probing beyond apartheid, my approach yields an original interpretation of South African minority politics, as well as novel analytical tools to study resistance in settler-colonial societies, debates on decolonization and the politics of indigenous revival.