Khoi - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Although precolonial village encampments generally included some members of other clans, as well as some dependents or servants (San or impoverished Khoi from other clans), patrilineal descent formed the basis of social organization.

Political Organization. Each village recognized the authority of a headman, a hereditary position passed on to the eldest son of the founding ancestor and so forth for every generation. Headmen provided leadership regarding decision making within the village (e.g., determining when and where to move), as well as acting as mediator or judge in criminal or civil disputes. Although villages enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy, several villages were united to form a horde or tribe. As with clan-based villages, tribes had a kinship base. They were composed of a number of linked clans, with the seniority of one of the clans being recognized. (In one example, five of seven clans were descended from one of five brothers, with the remaining two being offshoots of these. The clan descended from the eldest brother was the senior clan.) The head of the senior clan was acknowledged as the chief of the tribe. The tribal chief controlled access to the tribal resources, but there was a clear recognition that neither the land, nor the resources left on it, could become the property of individuals (and this included the chief). Chiefs commanded a great deal of respect through their individual ability and effort (often accumulating very large herds), but they still remained dependent on the wishes of the tribal council, a group consisting of the headmen of all the other clans. Colonial governments succeeded in coopting many leaders (chiefs or headmen) by formally recognizing their position as "captains."

Social Control. Criminal and civil disputes were handled by the chief and his council (or, in some cases, by the village headmen). More recently, however, such cases have been handled by the captain (i.e., a government appointee), by management boards in the various reserves, or by state courts.

Conflict. During precolonial times, relations between Khoi and San groups were often strained. Khoi accusations that San had stolen their livestock sometimes resulted in open warfare. The pressure on land associated with European settlement gave rise to warfare not only between Khoi and the Dutch farmers, but also between different Khoi tribes. It is generally assumed that Khoi political groupings were too small and weak to offer much resistance to the settlers (who had access to firearms and horses). The Khoi did offer significant resistance, however. Various tribes could and did unite against the common enemy, the most notable episode being the Khoikhoi War of Independence (1799-1803). Although ultimately unsuccessful, it showed that the Khoi were capable of mobilizing the support of many different tribal groupings (in this particular case, they also joined forces with Bantu-speaking Xhosa) and of presenting a united force.


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