Regaining Control Over Land Through Tourism?

Experiences and perspectives of the San in Southern Africa

San Group Namibia

The San are iconic hunter-gathers, who for thousands of years inhabited the southern region of Africa, from the coastline to the arid desert of the interior. Images of San peoples circulating in film and print media that continue to depict them in traditional leather clothing and living close to nature unencumbered by the complexities of the modern world inculcate a vision that many international tourists have in mind when visiting Southern Africa. However, stereotypes of the San as being “primitive” and their lifestyles as unchanged from the past, which are perpetuated by these media, are far from reality. San cultural traditions and knowledge are exceedingly complex, such as their intimate understanding of the land used for tracking animals and foraging for wild foods. However, having lost their ancestral lands, most San are now sedentary, no longer permitted to hunt, and wear contemporary clothing.

The loss of land

Given the large number of different San communities and their varying historical experiences, it is difficult to accurately summarize the reasons why most San lost access to land. Nevertheless, three primary factors are the lasting effects of European colonization, white rule, and the establishment of modern African states. While some San peoples successfully gained control of limited areas of their traditional land in Namibia after Independence, and in South Africa through court battles once apartheid ended, the San in these countries still face difficulties gaining access to land and having authority of their traditional lands recognized. The situation is also complicated in Botswana, where tribal land boards unfairly prioritize the applications of other citizens over the San, and where San peoples were relocated to make way for mineral mining and tourism.

Without land, San peoples are resigned to a sedentary existence, which, for the most part, means government handouts or piecemeal cash jobs. Thus, most San are not only politically marginalized, but also one of the most impoverished social groups in the region. By not being able to practice their traditional livelihoods and enduring the trauma of historical discrimination, many San peoples have difficulty being able to effectively pass on cultural knowledge and practices, including language. For example, the San who live in the Central District of Botswana lost most of their traditional land to white farmers, and while many are extremely active in promoting their cultural survival, it is difficult and tiring to consistently be involved in activism when trying to get through the day-to-day struggles of living in poverty. There is better news in the San-managed conservancies in Namibia, where the communities at least have opportunities toward self-sovereignty through participatory decision-making and management of the land and the election of traditional authorities.

Tourism – a double-edged sword

Tourism is no panacea, but is also not just a frivolous feature in San lives today. Many past tourism endeavors were exploitative, whether by the tourists and tour operators not fairly compensating the San or fully informing them of their rights, or by non-San individuals managing and benefitting from the majority of tourism-related profit. Job Morris (Naro), Founder and Director of the San Youth Network observes, “tourism can be an opportunity for us to have a better living standard…but we do not enjoy the industry because tourism is often the business of the elites. Where there are resorts, lodges, or offices that are not owned by the San, images of our people are used to boost the business.” Morris wonders, “if we [the San] are part of the so-called ‘natural resources’ that can simply be used for other people’s benefit.” What is promising, however, is the number of San-owned and/or managed tourism projects expanding in the region. While San individuals may find jobs in tourism and hospitality-related industries, the benefits are more broadly shared when communities are in charge of their own tourism projects, such wildlife, nature, and heritage tour guiding; cultural performances; and through the sales of their crafts.

Regaining control of the narrative

The benefits of tourism extend beyond financial incentives, such as a means of cultural pride, education, and revivalism, but it is essential that San peoples be in charge of their commodification. They need to be in positions to determine how to portray their culture, and should not be expected to fulfill tourists’ exotic desires. Whether participation in the tourism industry can help them gain better access to land is not straightforward. Kileni A. Fernando (!Xung), Coordinator of the Namibian San Council, recognizes that a growing San tourism market not only helps to reduce poverty, but also that “opportunities can be made to educate the young San people about their history and culture, putting them in a better position to fight for their land rights, and at the same time, attracting tourists to their camp sites, craft shops, etc.” Tourists can support San sovereignty by seeking out San-owned and/or managed tourism projects for activities and accommodation. These projects may be further off the usual tourism routes, and they may not be as well advertised as those owned by non-San. Those who find them will be rewarded with authentic cultural tourism experiences in which the San have control of their narrative.

Rachel F. Giraudo (Ph.D.) is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the California State University in Northridge. Her research interests include indigeneity and identity politics in southern Africa; cultural heritage, tourism, and development; and collaborative, community-based efforts in anthropological research.