Khoi San language lessons revives ancient tongue

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Sounds of the Khoikhoi language fill a hall at the Castle of Good Hope where classes to teach South Africa’s first indigenous language are held every weekend.

Bradley van Sitters, who runs the classes, says this Khoikhoi Language Revitalisation Initiative is about “preserving our oldest linguistic heritage”.

Bradley van Sitters runs Khoe Khoe language classes. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Bradley van Sitters runs Khoe Khoe language classes. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Sitters is part of the Khoi and San Active Awareness Group (KSAAG) whose members have traveled to different parts of Southern Africa to research and document the language that they now teach.

Their goal is to reintroduce their language and culture in the Cape, where it was eliminated by centuries of colonial and apartheid rule. KSAAG is a non-profit and the classes are held at no cost to participants.

Sitters explains: “The Khoi-San are the most researched people on Earth. But little has really been done to safeguard our most ancient linguistic expressions known to humanity in totality.”

“The click languages of the Khoikhoi and San, or Bushman, represent one of the oldest language family groups in the world, and the cultures which they transmit have taken thousands of years to develop. This initiative falls within the scope of the Western Cape language policy to elevate the status and advance the use of indigenous language.”

He adds: “One of the most fascinating aspects of the Khoikhoi and San languages is the fact that they left an unmistakable linguistic residue in other languages spoken in Southern Africa.”

Sitters says this includes the “click sounds found in Nguni languages”. KSAAG aims to “preserve, promote and development our most ancient linguistic heritage for present and future generations”.

The first class was a mix of young, old and various races. A group of teenagers traveled from Belhar to “come learn about our heritage and culture”.

One of them, Grayton Bernadus, 15, says he connected with the language immediately. For him, learning this language is empowering.

Young people who are learning the language. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Young people who are learning the language. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

“When we sang those songs, something just came out in me,” says Bernadus.

“I’m a Khoi Khoi person and I didn’t know that. Most people look down at me because I’m coloured. They disrespect coloureds. They call us ‘hotnots’ to mock us. That’s an insult to us.”

Bernadus adds: “We are not ‘hotnots’. It’s just not right to call me that to try to bring me down. People who call me that, they don’t want to see me. But I’m stronger than that.”

Tammy-Lee Chambers, 15, says she plans to continue Khoikhoi lessons because she “learned more about my culture and that is good”.

Caleb Piekaan, 15, says he would like to some day “teach this language to others as well. I want to go to other places where they speak this language.”

Jill Williams, who works with Sitters on the project, says the young people’s comments reflect that their work is about “healing minds and bodies”.

Jill Williams works to promote Khoe Khoe language and culture. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Jill Williams works to promote Khoe Khoe language and culture. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

“Language is connected to memory and we are trying to preserve our heritage. To do that, we need to preserve this language. There is power in the language and that power is spiritual as well,” says Williams.

“Doing this work, I see myself as a dynamic agent of change. We are descendants of the Khoi-San and want to be able to speak, learn and sing in our own language. And that extends to rituals and music. When you speak it, something resonates within you.”

Williams says their classes would continue while they lobby for Khoikhoi language lessons at public schools.

“It all starts with education and the language being recognised as an official language that is part of the school curriculum so that children can learn it. For now, we will focus on community education,” says Williams.

Priscilla de Wet, an indigenous studies academic focusing on the Western Cape, says learning this language “gives people something tangible as an alternative identity”.

“It’s not just coloured. We are not a bastardised race. We are descendants from a noble people who occupied the Cape before Jan van Riebeeck (the Dutch coloniser). We need to get the language back into our minds, bodies and mouths,” says De Wet.

Chief Hennie van Wyk of the Gorachou Qua tribe, that traces it roots centuries back in the Cape region, says KSAAG was playing a role in “reviving the culture that existed here”.

Chief Hennie van Wyk encourages learning Khoe Khoe language. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Chief Hennie van Wyk encourages learning Khoe Khoe language. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

“Our language is an umbilical chord to our culture. It is a powerful tool. By using another language, we are bound to that identity. So we need to develop our language,” says Van Wyk.

“We will enlighten generations to come about their identity as Khoi or Bushmen and not coloured. By teaching our children this language, it will also bring them closer to their ancestors and release them from the traumatisation of our people that has taken place. It is a positive reinforcement for our people, to find ourselves.”


About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

6 responses to “Khoi San language lessons revives ancient tongue”

  1. riyaadtaxi says :

    The Khoisan language has a multiple dimension to its formulation and evidence has proven that many tribal groups have contributed to its constitution . One of those notable in the Khoi tribal ancestary is the Koraana and here I want to refer specifically to their language contribution before they were colonised by the Dutch . The Korana nd the Cape Malay played a pivotal role in the evolution of language formation of the Khoisan in the cape . Research shows the first book that was publish was done in Cape Malay afrikaans and the language that was use prior to Dutch influences and forced removal of our mother tongue cape town had a vibrant language structure in place and its just unfortunate the emphasis is only in one area of the Khoisan language. Let me illustrate with the following insert. ” وتر تال واس خبريك. فور دي دتج اوس خكولانس هت مت لاتن تال” if anyone can translate this for me then I will assist you people with everything I know in the development of indigenous language of the Khoisan . We are also busy with PanSALB to have our right of use of the cape language restored in our schools and communities to bring us also back to our spiritual routes. So we thank you guys for the effort you doing but collectively we can do more quicker . The translation of the above passage I will do when I get a response from the people of the Castle who promotes indeginous languages . We thank you in advance .

    • bradleyvansitters says :

      Good day Riyaad! !Gâi tsēs! Glad for your contribution to the discussion. I was recently in contact with Boeta Manie from Simonstown; he informed me about the linguistic linking between Korana and the Koran Muslim bible… Very interesting! Yes the first writings in the Afrikaans language using the Arabic alphabet shows and highlights that it wasn’t an European hand that wrote it for the first time. I was recently involved (2011) with a Korana project in Bloemfontein where we traced the last two known speakers of !Kora in that region! Sure this would be interesting information for you! As you are aware the language because of its ancestry has different regional dialects and it was widely spoken over the whole of Southern-Africa. In the SADC region, Namibia is the only country that gave this language family group official status by including it as one of their official languages. Thanks to them they have standardized the language with its different dialects and formed what is called Khoekhoegowab (Khoikhoi language). The insert you used above ” وتر تال واس خبريك. فور دي دتج اوس خكولانس هت مت لاتن تال” uses the Arabic alphabetic system, which is unfamiliar to me personally, I will admit. I would be interested to see how the clicks for instance is written in Arabic… We would do ourselves and the people around us a greater service if we work collectively. More information about us and our links in the North Cape, Botswana and Namibia will be found on For me its not really a matter of posing questions… more of educating our people and the broader communities out there about this very ancient linguistic heritage of ours! For that reason we started this initiative at the Castle and at the Library as we are not going to wait to be acknowledged by Governments…we need to start acknowledging ourselves! I would like us to work together rather then against each other, Our people are too wrapped up in self-hate. Toa tama !khams ge (the struggle continues)

      • riyaadtaxi says :

        Salaams Ashley I know you I have been in a few meetings with at the Castle. Yourself, Wendy, Mark, Gail and a few others, the insert I quoted in arabic, mean, “what language did our forefathers speak before the Dutch Colonised us “. I call it Afribeeq for simplicity?

      • riyaadtaxi says :

        I would like to improve this language and I think SanLab has a duty to allow us and assists us to develop this language. Can you keep me updated regarding developments. I would like to participate in developing language projects for our people?

  2. Jenny Ji says :

    Wow. So I live far away, but I would like to learn this original language. How can I get started from here? Will you be releasing like a basic starter training online that has video? I can help set that up if you wanted get in touch, it’s the language I want to start to learn though. I want to know how it feels to know and speak it 🙂 x great love from Ireland

  3. bradleyvansitters says :

    Visit the following blog to find out more about our learning programme. You will find links to video clips and audio clips to help you! Also you can download the handout material.

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