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Explore South Africa's Vibrant, Controversial Cultural Heritage

Overview of South Africa's Cultural Heritage

South Africa is located at the southernmost tip of the African continent and is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Eswatini (previously known as Swaziland), and in its entirety, surrounds Lesotho.


It is characterised by widely varying landscapes and consists of a diverse population with colourful traditions and customs. It is most probably also the only country in the world with 12 official languages.


The country is inhabited by the largest number of Coloured people of mixed European, Asian and African descent in Africa, the largest number of people of European descent in Africa, as well as the largest number of Indian people outside Asia.


In the Beginning ... South Africa's Ancient Past


The First Indigenous People of South Africa


The San


The San were the first hunter-gatherers in southern Africa and the first indigenous people to migrate to South Africa. They inhabited the country thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans, as well as the Black people.


They were given the title ‘Bushman’ by the European settlers and this term is now considered to be derogatory. Archaeological evidence of their existence can be found in most districts and it is estimated that there are at least 20 000 to 30 000 sites containing rock art in the form of paintings and engravings. 


The Khoikhoi


The Khoikhoi were the first pastoralists in southern Africa and it is believed that they arrived in the country after the San. They brought a new life to South Africa, and ultimately to the San who were hunter-gatherers.


This led to constant conflict between the two groups as the San started losing more and more territory for hunting to the Khoikhoi who used it for cattle-farming.


The Khoikhoi was given the title ‘Hottentot’ by the Europeans, and like the term Bushman, Hottentot is now considered to be derogatory.


Like the San, the Khoikhoi also occupied vast areas of South Africa as they maintained a nomadic lifestyle. Because of their Nomadic lifestyle, there were different splinter groups with different names derived from the name of the ‘chief’ of a group.


What is most interesting is that though the San and Khoikhoi groups intermarried, the two groups remained culturally distinct.


The Khoikhoi initially came into contact with European explorers and merchants approximately AD 1500 and these encounters were often violent.


The Strandlopers (Beachcombers)


The ‘Strandlopers’ (Beachcombers) are the first people with whom the European settlers came into contact with when they arrived at the Cape. They were San hunter-gatherers who occupied the coastal areas.

It is believed that they were a splinter group of the San.


The European settlers gave them the title Beachcomber, as they subsisted by hunting and food gathering along the beaches of the Cape coastal areas.


Enter the Europeans ...


After entering the land, the San, Khoikhoi and Strandloper occupied areas across South Africa for thousands of years before the Dutch arrived in the Cape in the 17th century. However, the Portuguese ‘discovered’ the country years before the Dutch, but they did not occupy the land.


Bartholomeu Dias travelled south along the west coast of Africa and arrived in what is today known as the West Coast of South Africa in 1488.


In 1497, Vasco da Gama arrived in the Cape while he was searching for a route that would lead directly from Europe to Asia.


The next person to arrive in the Cape was Antonio da Saldanha, a Portuguese admiral and explorer, in 1503. He gave the iconic Table Mountain its name (Taboa de caba – table of the Cape). However, it should be noted that the first Khoi inhabitants named it Hoeri ‘kwaggo (sea mountain). 


After this, the area somehow lost regular contact with Europeans until 1652.


In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck and other employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived in the Cape. He was commissioned to establish a halfway station to provide fresh water, vegetables and meat for passing ships travelling to and from Europe and Asia. 


When they arrived in the Cape, they first came into contact with the Strandlopers who mostly occupied the coastal areas. As they moved further inland to look for resources for the halfway station, they came into contact with the San, as this was the area that the San hunter-gatherers occupied.


The Europeans and the Slave Trade


When the Dutch landed in the Cape, they were accompanied by a small number of personal slaves who ‘belonged’ to their Batavian owners. During the first four years, the Dutch settlers in the Cape did not participate in the global slave trade.


However, since the local Khoi and San were unwilling to perform the labour required to maintain the settlement, Jan van Riebeeck, the Commander of the settlement, requested the Heeren XVII (the VOC) to help them acquire slaves.


His initial request (seven weeks after arrival at the Cape) was denied. Two years later, in 1654, van Riebeeck once again asked the Heeren VII for slave labour. He was again refused.


The settlement suffered a severe food shortage during this time and out of desperation, van Riebeeck sent two small ships, the Tulp and the Rode Vos, to Madagascar to purchase rice and slaves. The Rode Vos never made it to Madagascar but ended up in Mauritius instead. It brought back rice but no slaves. When the Tulp returned from Madagascar, they came back with rice and only two slaves.


The Tulp made a second voyage to Madagascar but the ship was beset by violent storms. The storms caused the loss of the ship’s whole crew; all in all, twenty-five slaves and a cargo of rice. This incident led to the Heeren XVII’s decision to finally consent to van Riebeeck’s request for slaves.


They sent two slave ships to the Cape and while waiting for the ships to arrive, the merchant ship, the Amersfoort, arrived at the Cape in 1658. It had a cargo of 170 or so slaves. Apparently, the Amersfoort came across a Portuguese slaving vessel off the coast of West Africa and captured the ship.


The Amersfoort took 250 of the 500 slaves and it’s unclear what happened to the rest of the slaves. By the time the ship landed in the Cape, their number had been reduced to plus minus 170, as the rest had died of disease.


Later in the year, in May 1658, one of the slave ships sent by the Heeren XVII, the Hasselt, finally arrived at the Cape. It had 228 slaves from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Guinea West Africa on board. Within the next six months, the two ships had brought a huge number of slaves, at least 400 to the Cape.


Nevertheless, the perpetual loss of slaves due to ill-health reduced the number of slaves greatly; with the result that more slaves had to be brought in. The settlement also grew when the Dutch Freeburghers migrated to the Cape with their own slaves.


By 1795, the reported slave population at the Cape was 16,839. Most of them were owned by, and, brought to the Cape by the Freeburghers. The vast majority came from Madagascar, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia. The rest were from Mozambique, the East African coast, Zanzibar, Delgoa Bay and Dahomey.


By 1782, French and Portuguese slavers had sold large shiploads of slaves to the Burghers. By the second half of the 18th century, the VOC went into rapid decline. By 1793, no more slaves were brought to the Cape, and the VOC decided to abandon the slave trade. It was during British rule in 1795 that slaves were once again brought to the colony.


The end of the slave trade started after the British successfully invaded the Cape in the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795.


Slavery was officially ended in 1807 by the implementation of the Slave Trade Act. It was enforced in 1808, ending external slave trade, but allowing slave trade within the colony. By the time the first large wave of 1820 British settlers arrived in the Cape, they were not permitted to own slaves.


Robben Island  


It is an island in Table Bay, 6,9 km west off the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape Town. The name of the island is Dutch for “seal island”.


It has been used since the end of the 17th century for the imprisonment of political prisoners. The Dutch Settlers were the first to use the island as a prison and the first prisoner was Herry die Strandloper (Autshumao) in the mid-17th century.


Among the island’s first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, and the leader of the mutiny on the slave ship, the Meermin.


The first wave of Southeast Asian slave immigration to South Africa started in 1654 when they were banished to the Cape by the Dutch Batavian High Court. The slaves were originally from Java and modern-day Indonesia. Most of them spoke Malayu, from which the name Malay has been derived.


The Malay slaves were transported to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company and after the first wave arrived, they were followed by slaves from various other Southeast Asian regions. They were political dissidents and Muslim religious leaders who opposed the Dutch presence in Indonesia.


The island was also used as a leper colony from 1845 and an animal quarantine station.


The Huguenots


The Huguenots who arrived in the Cape in 1688, were the first non-Dutch immigrants to settle in the area. They had fled from Catholic France to the Netherlands to escape anti-Protestant persecution.


The VOC in Netherlands offered the French Huguenots free passage to the Cape and included in the offer was farmland to further develop the country.


Today, South Africa is a renowned producer of the finest wines in the world, which has its roots in the expertise and knowledge that the French Huguenots brought with them and implemented on their wine farms.


The Christian and Malay Coloured People of South Africa


The Coloured people are primarily a mixed-race people who occupy all regions of South Africa, with most living in the Western Cape Province. The name ‘Coloured’ was derived from the mixed heritage of: the Khoi, the San, the Beachcombers, the Xhosa, the slaves from Asia, Mauritius, Guinea West Africa, as well as some other African countries and islands, and European settlers. Although the Malay people maintained their Malay identity, they are part of the Coloured group.   


The Malay people were the first to bring Islam to the region and helped to form the foundation of the Christian and Malay Coloured communities. Today they occupy each province of South Africa. However, it should be noted that the majority of Christian and Malay Coloured people are located in the Cape Province.


Although many Coloured people today hate the term for political reasons, it was most probably a way for the Apartheid government to distinguish them from the ethnic Black peoples who entered the country later from the bordering countries.   


However, Kwa-Zulu Natal was completely incorporated into South Africa after a group of 1820 British Settlers moved to this area which at the time was part of Zululand.


Another point to remember is that the Black people also maintained customs that were very different to that of the indigenous races, as well as the slaves that were brought into the country.


The different languages of the indigenous peoples, as well as those of the slaves have evolved from their original languages, which they spoke before the arrival of the Dutch and the slave trade.


As the Coloured and Malay people were assimilated into the Dutch culture, they adopted Dutch as a language until the Dutch settlers broke ties with the Netherlands. At this point, the language gradually evolved into what is now known as Afrikaans.  


English became a secondary language for the Coloured people as time passed, but is now widely spoken by the younger generation to fit in with this age.


The San, Khoikhoi, Strandloper and slaves from countries other than Java and Indonesia were introduced to the Christian religion when the settlers started creating what was then called ‘Mission Stations’, and most non-Malay Coloureds still practice the religion today.


Since our tours are focused on the stunning Western Cape Province with the intention of introducing foreign travelers to the Coloured people, their heritage, and culture, our blog posts will revolve around these topics.  


The other reason we focus on the Western Cape is that it still has a lot of ancient historical heritage that has been well-preserved; unlike in some of the other provinces where such heritage has become an abomination to the Blacks, and is being slowly replaced by the more current history of the ‘Black Struggle’.


This is causing some controversy among other races, especially the White population. They feel that their heritage is being erased unnecessarily, when both earlier and later histories can co-exist next to each other. I tend to agree with them. If only the ‘Black Struggle’ history is being presented, it would, alas, make South Africa the youngest nation on earth!


As far as I’m concerned, a country’s history is a country’s history – with all its good and bad. It cannot be erased, and besides, how do you prove to future generations that what you claim really happened if you remove all the ‘traces’ of it, so to speak?


I am proudly Coloured, and I would prefer that whatever my slave history, whatever historical monuments and other historical landmarks related to the slave trade, and all other ancient history, including apartheid should be preserved.


Besides, how do you explain history with ‘missing parts’ to future generations; or even visitors to the country?


My great grandmother from my mother’s side was a Creole slave from Guinea, West Africa who later married an Irishman. My great grandmother from my father’s side was a Khoi slave. Both great grandmothers were taken as slaves when they were still very young, about seven years old in both cases.  


According to my great grandmother from my mother’s side, she was taken away from her family in Guinea by a French family who had a daughter her age. Apparently, to be their daughter’s companion. She accompanied them when they later moved to the Cape. She could speak French, Dutch, Afrikaans and English because of this event in her life. My great grandmother from my father’s side spoke Dutch and Afrikaans.


Two great grandfather’s spoke English, Dutch and Afrikaans (my grandmother from my mom’s side ‘re-married’ after her husband passed away, while half her kids were still of school-going age) . While in the ‘Colony’ as she called the Cape, she moved to Graaff-Reinet with her first husband, and they later decided to move to Johannesburg – so that he could seek his fortunes in the mines in the Transvaal during the Gold Rush.


My father’s side was a mixture of Khoi and San from Middleburg, Northern Cape; my dad’s father hailed from the Cape North Coast (Strandloper/Beachcomber).  Most of their relatives ended up in Johannesburg as well.


I learned about both sides of my heritage through word-of-mouth which was passed down for generations. I was also fortunate enough to grow up while both my great grandmothers were still alive. I was lucky. Unlike most of today’s youngsters who know very little about their families’ ancestral roots;

that’s sad. And I’m not talking about the history of the Coloureds in general. I'm talking about digging into your own personal Family Tree so you can really join the debate of where your ancestors come from.


I cannot remember that my great grandparents on either side were embittered by what they experienced, and they never let it stand in their way of living a full life after slavery was abolished.


So why would I want to carry bitterness around with me for something that I can merely sympathise with, but never experienced personally?


As the saying goes, the problem is not with what you experience, but how you react to it. I truly admire my great-grandparents – their approach to life showed me that no matter what happens in a person’s life, it’s how you live your life that counts.


I cannot speak for all Coloured people, because, like I say, many hate the name Coloured, mostly for political reasons. I don’t believe that history should be confused with politics although there happens to be a fine line between the two.


But since we are of mixed heritage, I cannot, for the life of me, think that we can go back to calling ourselves Khoi, San or Beachcomber – since there are still such peoples (without mixed heritage) occupying some areas of the Kalahari desert and neighbouring countries. I feel that if anyone has the right to still claim those tribal names, they should be the ones. Again, this is only my opinion, and I’m sure there are many who would disagree with me.


Enough of my colourful Coloured (excuse the sort of pun) heritage already!


Now that you have an idea about South Africa’s ancient history, it’s time to introduce you to the stunningly gorgeous Western Cape Province.


This is where my heart is, so all my tours are concentrated on this magnificent region. The other reason is that most of the ancient history and culture is very well-preserved in the region. All thanks to those who understand the importance of preserving a country's history as it happened, and not as we want to "imagine" it happened, because it suits us. Much like interpreting the Bible the way it suits us!


The Stunning Western Cape Province

The Western Cape Province is situated on the south-western coast of South Africa, and is known to be the top travel destination in Africa. The region consists of:


* the interior area of the Karoo and the Little Karoo which are arid/semi-arid.

* the West Coast with its pristine beaches, clear and unpolluted waters, abundant flora and fauna and is known as a popular whale-watching destination for local and overseas tourists.  

* the Garden Route on the south Coast with its extremely lush vegetation.

* Cape Town and its surrounds with its extraordinary Table Mountain as its backdrop.

* Cape Agulhas, situated at the southernmost point of the Western Cape. The coastline varies from sandy between capes, to rocky and steep mountainous places.


The region has a natural harbour at Saldanha Bay on the West Coast; the region’s main harbour was built, and is located in Table Bay in Cape Town.


Bordered by the Northern and Eastern Cape, the Western Cape Province has Cape Town as its capital. Other major cities are along the Western Cape Wine Route, and include: Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Worcester and Paarl, to name but a few.


On the Garden route, George and the Overberg are popular coastal tourism areas.


Our 14 and 18-day vacations will include the West Coast, Cape Town and the Winelands, the Garden Route, as well as two to four days on St. Helena Island where Napoleon spent his last days. Keep an eye out for related blogs in 2024!


Learn more about the Coloured history and culture to prepare you for your trip to South Africa:


Minority Rights

The website gives you a quick overview of the Coloured people’s history and background, as well as the opinion of the Coloured people about their position in the ‘New South Africa’. Although the article only focuses on how the Cape Coloureds feel regarding this, I can assure you that those in Johannesburg and most of the other provinces most probably feel exactly the same.

Coloured People - Wikipedia

Wikipedia expands on the history and culture of the Coloured people and you’ll only find it interesting if you really want to get in-depth info before visiting the Cape.

Jimmy Nevis


If you think the articles mentioned above is way too boring, I’ve included the Music Video of one of our most successful young musicians of the Coloured community in the WC, whom I’m very proud of. The video was shot at the notorious Cape Flats. By the time I updated the post, the Cape Minstrel Carnival on 2 January 2024 has come and gone. Very unfortunate for you if you did not visit the Cape during this time!


However, take heart, there are still a lot of events that you can attend in 2024! Watch out for new posts about the WC (Western Cape) which will include events that might be worth your while at the time of your visit!

Watch out for my next blog to learn more about the areas of interest for our 14 and 18-day South African luxury, personalized, authentic cultural vacations. We’ll also cover other topics of interest, so you can make educated choices when travelling to the region.


Happy travels and … Carpe Diem!


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