Meet the San People of Southern Africa

by on December 3, 2008 at 10:22 am

A mere seventy kilometers outside of Cape Town sits the San Culture & Education Center, a center dedicated to culture and training for Southern Africa’s First People, the Bushmen, now called the San.

The center, otherwise known as !Khwa ttu is designed to be a living celebration of past and present San culture.

Their 850ha nature reserve is surrounded by rolling bushlands, birdlife, game, West Coast farm buildings and fynbos. Formed as an NGO, the center is a joint venture by the San people and a Swiss philanthropic foundation (UBUNTU). !Khwa ttu’s CEO is sexy Michael Daiber, a blonde South African crocodile Dundee with perfectly weathered skin and khaki cotton clothing head to toe.


For the first time in 10,000 years, there’s a central place for all the San people wherever they may be living in southern Africa to go for education, inspiration and growth. When they first thought about where to hold the center, Botswana and Namibia were considered but ultimately southern South Africa was chosen despite the fact that it houses fewer San people than the three considered.

This is their ancestral land so it is here they should be able to speak in their original language and learn how to pass it on to the next generation. The San language has numerous dialects (!Khwa ttu employees Andre Vaalbooi and Kerson Jackson – both of them San people, go into detail about the language, giving examples of various dialects in a movie we shot below).

Only four elderly San still speak older generation dialects because it simply wasn’t passed on to the next generation over the years. Why? Apartheid had a lot to do with it. Afrikaans farmers wouldn’t allow their San workers to speak their own language.

Knowing that their children might be punished by their Afrikaans boss (baas-man they would have called them), it was safer not to teach their children their native tongue. The result is near distinction of certain dialects as the last few generations learned Afrikaans instead and passed on “it” as the mother tongue.

How unnatural Afrikaans must have felt to a people whose language sang rather than spoke. As I listened to them speak one dialect after another, the sounds came out as clicks, clacks, oings and mooias with lingering aaang delays that were hypnotic at times.

Frustrated by the inaccurate image people had of Bushmen around the world, one goal of the Center is to educate others about who the modern Bushmen (the San) are today. They also wanted to reintroduce certain vegetation and restore the land.

Says a very passionate Daiber, “A lot of the San people who work here have developed a sense of ownership. They hold workshops that range from arts & crafts to zoology. People come together to learn about their own identity and heritage as well as develop skills they can use elsewhere, such as the tourism industry or in a game reserve. We create an environment where they can learn and interact while maintaining self respect and dignity.”

The big challenge, Daiber maintains, is to find a foothold in the tourism industry. “We have to sell the place in a unique way so the rest of the world can see that the San people are so much more than a visual they might have in their minds of loin clothes and bows & arrows from centuries ago.”

The center appears to be succeeding from what I could tell by talking to Andre, oddly an Afrikaans name. Andre’s facial features as you can see below couldn’t be more different from an Afrikaaner, yet the strong verbal and cultural connection to their world doesn’t seem to bother him.


When asked how they felt about losing their language over the years because of an Apartheid way of life, he merely said “what has passed has passed.” In other words, what can we do by spending time in the past? Here, they are focused on the now and the future, which is maintaining their language and the numerous dialects as well as educating others about their culture and history.

The pictoral museum itself also shed history of the Bushmen from the beginning of time.



The below map shows the regions where they spread.


Below is footage we shot of Andre and Kerson giving us lessons on the why, how and pronunciation of the various dialects of the San language. It’s a fascinating watch whether or not you have some familiarity with their culture and history.

Before we explored what was past and what is now, we were served Springbok tartare with melon. It was prepared and presented in a way that might lead you to think you were in a top-end Parisian restaurant rather than a rural center in the middle of the South African bush with nothing on either side but rolling bushland, hay, trees and four lonely wind mills less than 60 kilometers away.

The main course was equally exciting and tasty as hell. Springbok curry served with rice, chutney and egg brought out some of the best flavors I’ve tasted in awhile. Southern African curry is unlike the curries from northern India and the states and share more in common with the Indian curries you can find today in the southwest of India, some of which made its way to England and Scotland.



As it was time to leave, a playful Daiber followed us to the dusty parking lot outside of their locked gate that was opened today just for our visit since they’re normally closed on Mondays……an amazing treat since it meant that we had the place to ourselves.

Here, natural beauty is in raw form. You can actually hear the silence in a way I’ve only found possible on the African continent. I had forgotten how different the air is in southern Africa and how the place gives a new meaning and definition to the “sounds of silence.”

These sounds of silence weave its way into your memory accompanied by a late afternoon sky – diffused oranges and yellows, more yellow today, yes, more yellow.

The day after a windstorm and the afternoon after a helicopter ride around Table Mountain, the sky was calm with blue sky, a smattering of white clouds that had managed to form an impressionist-like mass by 5:30 in the afternoon as we made our way out of the dusty road and onto Stellenbosch. As I looked out the window to our rear, I could see Daiber’s Jack Russell terrior Bullet wagging his tail and watching us drive out of sight.