Khoi herders have lived in southwestern Africa for at least 2,000 years. Until recently, it was generally accepted that a distinct group of herder Khoi, originating in Central Africa, had migrated south with their herds of fat-tailed sheep, eventually displacing hunting populations in those areas where they chose to settle. Contemporary theories acknowledge that, given the close linguistic, cultural, and racial links between the Khoi and the San, the emergence of a herding lifestyle was more complex than this simple model would suggest.
Some San hunters were incorporated into Khoi populations, and some Khoi herders lost their stock and became hunters. It is also possible that some San populations acquired stock and thus adopted a herder life-style. Notwithstanding such fluidity, there is much evidence that Khoi and San saw themselves as being different. In particular, the Khoi viewed people without stock as inferior and despised those hunters who stole their stock. A system of clientship developed whereby individual San (commonly referred to as "Sonqua") were adopted as servants by the pastoralists.
European settlers were initially interested in the Khoi as trading partners. To provide fresh supplies to ships rounding the Cape, Europeans obtained stock through barter. Khoi were very careful of their breeding stock and did not ordinarily kill cattle for food; tensions arose as they became increasingly reluctant to part with their animals. When settlers themselves began to farm, the resultant struggle over land increased tensions and led to open conflict. Gradually, the Khoi herders were displaced from the area around the Cape and forced to retreat to more remote and arid regions. While it is true that their numbers were decimated by smallpox epidemics, many were also incorporated into settler society as domestic and farm workers. At the same time, some settlers moved away from the Cape, intermarried with Khoi women, and adopted a life close to that of the Khoi pastoralists. Their descendants became known as "Basters" (bastards)—people of mixed descent—who learned to speak Dutch (later Afrikaans) and were educated in Christianity.
There was significant interaction between the remaining "pure" Khoi and the Dutch-speaking Basters; gradually, therefore, no clear division could be drawn between the two. In some instances, Khoi and Basters combined into single sociopolitical groupings.
By the turn of the twentieth century, little remained of the traditional pastoral life-style of the Khoi. In many areas, however, descendants of the Khoi had managed to retain rights to land by recognizing that missionaries could offer some protection from encroaching Dutch farmers. By 1900, numerous mission stations had been established, and these areas eventually became the reserves where seminomadic pastoralism is still practiced today.