Jessica Thornton & JennaLee Goeda

South Africa has seen a movement in the revival of First Nations People’s identities, cultures and heritages as efforts are being made to restore, preserve and promote both their tangible and intangible heritage. 

However, the processes of social change, and in particular colonisation, have disrupted the transmission and practice of intangible cultural heritage. Today those who identify as Khoi still face multiple social and economic problems that have resulted in the disruption of their traditional economies and has affected their sense of self. This is further “compounded by the impact of the apartheid regime on the cultural identity” (International Labour Office 1999: iii). In an attempt to improve the socio-economic situation of First Nations People, there has been some movement as well as contributions towards capacity building to defend, restore and promote their rights and cultures. Although these initiatives are making headway in South Africa, the groups are at the same time at risk of losing their intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and ultimately cultural life (Eichler 2020). Consequently, this places pressure on (re)defining identities in new (and modern) ICH in a decolonising context with complex discursive contours where heritage production has seen controversy and contestation (Eichler 2020; Veracini & Verbuyst 2020; Rassool 2000: 1).

In Muizenberg we came across a Khoi chief, Kingsley, who spoke to us about the examination of heritage and identity formation, or rather reformation. This knowledge of self-questions which identity is considered, narrated, and visualised – past and present (Eichler 2020). He shared his story of how he traced his indigenous identity,


“I am Chief, meaning the beginning of the leaves and the flowers in English. They would say October as they said they were given slavery names according to the ship that came in and that was sold. My English name is Kingsley as I am born in religion and not culture that’s why I discovered I am African, and I have a cultural name. That made me want to search for my African Identity. And that is how I discovered my name, through another mother from Namibia… I came back, it was calling me back to the spirit. To the roots, to the spirit of the roots. That is how we learn the indigenous knowledge system. In our coat of arms, we this thing…the national emblem, a language we are not practicing that not even close to it.  So they say within our diversity we must practice unity. Because we are coming from different strengths, places and we are different… Mamma opened another spiritual realm for me without knowing that. That was creating an identity with the herbs because the herbs are the earth like we say mother earth. If the earth is the mother who is the father? Now the Khoi and the Bushman came to teach me that the sky is the father because if mother earth gives us food to eat than father sky give us breath to breathe surely something that is very real then.”


Recent events in South Africa have shown enactments of public ritual performance, protest against continued marginalisation, and the restoring of sacred heritages of the First Nations People (Jethro 2017: 349). As seen in Kingsley’s story of identity, we note ICH is at the center of indigenous identity, culture, heritage and livelihoods, and its transmission needs to be not only protected, but also preserved and encouraged as thousands of years of knowledge about agriculture, medicine, etc. are at risk of disappearing (United Nations 2019). Kingsley is a proud advocate and sharer of his cultural heritage.


Eicher, J. 2020. Intangible cultural heritage, inequalities and participation: who decides on heritage? The International Journal of Human Rights, Volume 25, Issue 5: Fulfilling the Cultural and Language Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, pp. 793-814.

International Labour Office. 1999. Indigenous peoples of South Africa: Current trends. Geneva: Project for the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

Jethro, D. 2017. Of Ruins and Revival: Heritage Formation and Khoisan Indigenous Identity in Post-apartheid South Africa. In Johnson, G. & Kraft, S.E. Brill Handbook of Indigenous Religion(s), Volume 15, pp. 349–365.

Rassool, C. 2000. The rise of heritage and the reconstitution of history in South Africa. Kronos, No. 26, pp. 1-21

United Nations. 2019. Indigenous People’s Traditional Knowledge Must Be Preserved, Valued Globally, Speakers Stress as Permanent Forum Opens Annual Session. Eighteenth session, 1st & 2nd meetings. [Online] Available at: Accessed 19/01/2023.

Veracini, L. & Verbuyst, R. 2020. South Africa’s settler-colonial present: Khoisan revivalism and the question of indigeneity. Social Dynamic: A journal of African studies, Volume 46, Issue 2, pp. 259-276.

Posted on 25 February 2024 15:26:58

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