Reconstructing the Past - the Khoikhoi
Social Organisation
The Khoisan pages
An educational information resource
Provided by the Future Perfect Corporation

The village settlement of the Khoikhoi was relatively large, often well over one hundred persons. The basic housing structure was a round hut (matjioeshuis) made of a frame of green branches planted into the ground and bent over and tied together. This was covered with reed mats. It could be dismantled and re-erected in a new location when grazing in the area became depleted. Sometimes the mats were simply removed and rolled up. People left the frames behind if they knew they would be returning to the same site. During the warm weather, it was cool inside with the crevices between the reeds allowing the air to circulate. During winter, the inside could be lined with skins to offer extra insulation against the elements.

Each village encampment consisted of members of the same partilineal clan - a group of male descendants of a particular ancestor - with their wives and children. Villages also included some members of other clans, as well as some dependants or servants. These could be Bergdama, San or even impoverished Khoikhoi.

Each village had a headman, a hereditary position passed on to the eldest son of the founding ancestor for every generation. Headmen made decisions such as when and where to move. They also acted as mediators or judges in criminal or civil disputes.

A fairly recent picture of what the huts look like. Although these are still used in some places, there are no longer any villages in the traditional sense.

Several villages were usually united into a much larger unit, called a tribe by some and horde by others. Tribes had a kinship base, and were made up of a number of linked clans, with the seniority of one of the clans being recognised. The head of the senior clan was recognised as the chief of the tribe.

The extent of tribal land was defined less in terms of exact boundaries than with reference to land around key water-holes, and the tribal chiefs controlled outsiders' access to the local resources. The rights granted to outsiders were merely temporary usufruct (users' rights) - the willingness to share local resources in one area might be repaid in another at a later stage.

Men from one clan had to seek wives in another. Because related clans within the tribe were geographically close to one another, it is likely that most men found wives within the tribe. Marriage was a powerful social mechanism to unite different groups. The custom was that the bridegroom had to spend the first months of marriage (until the birth of the first child) living at the village of his parents-in-law. Thereafter, the bride was expected to spend the rest of her marriage in the village of her husband.

The tribal council consisted of the headmen of all the other clans and served as a body which linked the various clans together. Such links were further strengthened in those tribes where the older members of the various clans would act as clan 'representative' and live permanently at the main tribal 'headquarters', the village of the senior clan.

The Khoikhoi
Reconstructing the Past
Where did they come from?
What did they do?
Social Organisation
Stock Ownership and Management
Religion and Nature
Further reading
The reference books used for the development of this site are recommended reading of the University of Cape Town and may be purchased online at Discovering Southern African Rock Art, The Bushmen of Southern Africa, Once We Were Hunters, The Cape Herders.
About this page
Where did it come from?
Developed by: Alan Levin
Edited by: Carolyn Neville
Sponsored by: Future Perfect Corporation
Special thanks to: Becky Ackermann and and David Philip Publishers
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