In: Khoisan Consciousness
Rafael Verbuyst
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Right then and there I knew it was preface material. As I was browsing my social media feed on a lazy afternoon in early February 2019, I came across a dance performance, ‘coloured swans i: KhoiSwan’, that was taking place in two weeks’ time at the arts centre Vooruit, located a stone’s throw from my desk at Ghent University in Ghent, Belgium. The show was part of a two-week festival, ‘Same Same But Different’, organized by Vooruit and partners. With a packed program of performances, the festival sought to reflect on the decolonization debate in Belgium and beyond, with a focus on the role of the arts and African artists in particular. I booked my ticket in a flash, then read a bit more about the performance itself on Vooruit’s website:

In ‘coloured swans’, dancer, performer and choreographer Moya Michael wonders how the various different identities that are imposed on us might influence our body and how we move, speak and sing […] In ‘coloured swans i: KhoiSwan’ Michael teams up with visual- and performance artist Tracey Rose to explore their African roots and heritage. They investigate where they stand today as women of colour and as descendants of the Khoi peoples of southern Africa.1

I am still wrapping my head around the stunning coincidence of encountering this performance that shared the theme of this book, not in South Africa but back at home in Belgium. Khoisan identity was permeating South African society at an exponential rate, but I never would have thought Khoisan revivalism extended beyond its borders. At the time of the recital, I had just come back from fieldwork in South Africa, but I was teleported straight back to Cape Town as Michael moved across the stage through expressive dancing against a background of flashing images and eerie music. She embodied with verve the central theme of a woman struggling to find her way out of an identity crisis.

Like Michael, increasing numbers of South Africans are seeking meaning and comfort in Khoisan identity. For the past six years I have been trying to make sense of this phenomenon. Perhaps because it was so unexpected, both in terms of timing and location, attending KhoiSwan led me to reflect on the trajectory of Khoisan revivalism but even more so on my time in Cape Town. I found myself in the most divergent of spaces and meeting the most fascinating range of people. I visited government buildings and universities. I attended book launches, protests, poetry recitals, and everything in-between. Yet more than anything else, ‘Cape Town’ conjures up fond memories of the countless hours I spent with interlocutors in the city’s townships and suburbs, chatting about all things Khoisan over coffee or rooibos tea. The more I look back, the more I realize it is a privilege and a humbling experience to write about something so close to people’s hearts, yet so poorly understood in the society they are part of. It is primarily because of their generosity and trust that this book exists.

There are too many people to thank individually. I would, however, like to single out a few; many of whom I met in the name of research but now know as friends. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to two of the most committed Khoisan revivalists I came across: Chantal Revell and her husband Julian. You made sure a clueless Belgian somehow ended up meeting the right people and attending the relevant events. I could not have come as close to an understanding of Khoisan identity had it not been for your continual guidance. I have never met a community activist as determined as Basil Coetzee. Spending time with you gave me an invaluable perspective on life in the Cape Flats. Rochey Walters: you combine a unique affection for Khoisan heritage with an unwavering entrepreneurial spirit; I appreciate you taking the time to share your insights with me. I thank the fiery Tania Kleinhans-Cedras for explaining what drives her and countless other activists like her. To Mackie: thank you for our philosophical discussions about the meaning of Khoisan identity. I am thankful for the help I have received from Joseph Little and Aaron Messelaar; it is a privilege to have met people that are so driven. I salute Zenzile Khoisan and thank him for the many conversations. Your unrivalled passion and gifted mind have in large part made Khoisan revivalism what it is today. Finally, I am grateful to Desmond Sampson, who generously shared copies of Eland Nuus. I can think of no greater compliment than to have these people find value in the pages that follow.

As Khoisan revivalism expanded, so did my sense of analytical modesty. I could not properly and sufficiently include everyone who has made their mark on Khoisan revivalism. I trust that the reader will find this to be no act of deliberate omission. I undoubtedly left out important voices, failed to detect important cues, and misunderstood various issues. I take full responsibility for my choices and for any mistakes. I welcome any criticism of my work with great enthusiasm. In fact, as Khoisan revivalism grows more prominent, it will benefit from commentary from diverse perspectives. Such contributions are all the more important in light of the fact that, despite being subjected to decades of deconstruction in academia, ‘identity’ is firmly at the core of various phenomena globally. Understanding the passion that drives ever greater numbers of people towards Khoisan identity is certainly the first step in any attempt to productively deal with their grievances. I have tried to provide such a critical understanding to the best of my abilities.

I could not have done so alone. I was a historian in training when I started my ma at Leiden University, but I graduated a fieldworker. I could not have wished for a better guide than Harry Wels. Your continuous support and encouragement bear witness not only to your fine qualities as a human being but also to your talents as an educator and academic. Generous grants and scholarships from vlir-uos, fwo and the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at Ghent University made it possible for me to carry out the PhD research on which this book is based (Verbuyst 2021). Here I was blessed once again with great supervisors and wonderful colleagues, all of whom gave me tremendously useful feedback. To my supervisor, Berber Bevernage: your confidence in my academic potential means a great deal. Your razor-sharp comments and eye for detail improved my text drastically. I thank Hanne Cottyn for her co-supervision and unwavering support, despite changing institutional homes. More than anyone else, you reminded me that my case is embedded in a global context. I also thank Felicitas Becker and Michael Meeuwis for carefully going through my text and providing invaluable input.

This project would not have been possible without my other co-supervisor, William Ellis. Your ability to think and make others think outside of the box is unparalleled. Our many conversations resonate throughout this text. Alongside many others, you have also made me feel at home at the University of the Western Cape (uwc). I thank Annelies Verdoolaege and Umesh Bawa in particular for making the joint PhD with uwc a reality. Doing this PhD in collaboration with uwc reflects more than a partnership between institutions. To me, it symbolizes a recognition of the link between uwc and Khoisan revivalism. Henry Bredekamp, the ‘father of Khoisan revivalism’, was a historian at uwc for decades. I had the honour of interviewing Prof. Bredekamp several times, which resulted in a veritable treasure trove of information. While she has left uwc for some time, Yvette Abrahams, in her own right ‘the mother of Khoisan revivalism’, continues to enrich the debate on Khoisan issues tremendously. There are not that many of us who study Khoisan revivalism in an academic setting. I therefore appreciate the thought-provoking conversations I have enjoyed over the years with colleagues with whom I share this interest: Siv Øvernes at the University of Tromsø, Itunu Bodunrin at the Univeristy of Johannesburg, and June Bam-Hutchison at the University of Cape Town.

Last, but certainly not least, I thank Francesca Pugliese for travelling this road alongside me and my family for their continuous support.


‘Same same but different: Moya Michael – Coloured Swan 1: Khoiswan.’, accessed 17 March 2021.

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Khoisan Consciousness

An Ethnography of Emic Histories and Indigenous Revivalism in Post-Apartheid Cape Town

Series:  Afrika-Studiecentrum Series, Volume: 42


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