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yvette abrahams
The Khoekhoe Free Economy
A Model for the Gift

The Khoekhoe are Indigenous South Africans. South Africa, Nairbobi, Southern Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and southern Mozambique are historical homes of Indigenous populations. The word “Khoekhoe” means “people of people” as opposed to “animal people” or “clod people,” thus the English translation would be “humans”—we are then South African human beings.

The topic of this paper is the social structure of the historical Khoekhoe as a model for the gift economy. I am writing about the historical Khoekhoe because after 350 years of colonialism, 250 years of slavery, 48 years of apartheid and ten years of structural adjustment, there is not much that has survived.

The foundation of the Khoekhoe free economy is our spirituality. Fundamen- tally we give because we are given to, and the biggest thing that we were given, of course, is creation. The sign of our creator is the circle, sign of wonders; the open hand, which is obviously a giving hand. Engravings of the circle are one of the most frequently observed in Khoekhoe rock art. What the circle means is blessedness. It symbolizes that the divine is within each of us. When I give, I am giving from the divine in me to the divine in you. We are one creator, one world. The two of us, as aspects of the creator, are sharing in a joint creation.

We give because we are created. We are all aspects of the creator. The Khoekhoe used to think of us as being part of each other, of all being aspects of one creator. The Khoekhoe tradition of rock art and cave drawings is a tradition of story-tell- ing, and storytelling is a gift. The Khoekhoe paint their stories on cave walls and rocks for all the world to see. This is the very opposite of capitalist art. The art on cave walls and rock art are out in the open; they cannot be bought, they are given, there for any passerby to enjoy. One of the most celebrated things in rock art is motherhood, and there are many paintings of mother and child, of a child suckling, which is one huge aspect of gift giving.

Only a mother can suckle her child, but other than that, mothering was not really a gendered act in Khoekhoe society. The broader aspects of mothering, taking care of children, was not considered a gendered task; it was something everybody did. Everyone watched over the children. The Khoekhoe people are non-gendered. If there is task specific to men, you will always see that it is a man in paintings about hunting, and if it is a task specific to women, like suckling, you will always be able to see a woman. But by far the majority of figures in the art rock are non-gendered, they are just human beings, the Khoekhoe.

One thing the Khoekhoe love to give as well is thanks. With a spirituality based on gifting, when the men used to hunt, they would say, “Give your life that I might live.” The taking of a life indiscriminately was just not done. It is probably one of the reasons we were so easily colonized. It took about 150 years for the Khoekhoe to get over killing one colonist. It just wasn’t part of our culture. It was only around the mid-nineteenth century that the Khoekhoe began to understand the capitalist idea of taking life, as opposed to sharing life.

In all the stories, and rock paintings, of hunting, when the hunters come home with the meat, thanks are given to the buck that gave its life so that we could live. There would be drumming and dancing, more storytelling, people changing into cats and bucks, dancing in a circle, in a double circle, the celebrated and sacred sign of spirituality.

One of the interesting aspects of the Khoekhoe gift economy is that men and women are separate but equal. While there were things that only the men did, like hunting, and there were other things that only women did, like gathering of plants, and suckling children—different spiritual tasks—this did not transform into any form of gender inequality. The reason for this is quite obvious. It is because the Khoekhoe society did not have private property, and therefore never developed a hierarchical, class society. The means of production were never privatized. The Khoekhoe put it this way: the land cannot be ours, it is God’s, it is given to us by God to take care of and pass on to the next generation. It is not something that you actually can give; it is not yours to give in the first place. If you cannot give it, then you cannot sell it, you cannot buy it, you cannot own it.

And to me, this really important when we look at modern-day versions of the gift economy. Not having private property or owning land was a basis for the Khoekhoe gift economy because if I have enough and you have enough, then the gifts take on a social symbolism. I don’t need to give you anything to eat, because you have enough to eat. You don’t need to give me anything to eat, because I have enough to eat, so we can start thinking of gifts as something that is not necessary, something that we do because we want to, not because we have to, and that’s re- ally different from today. Today, I cannot give away my labour. I have to work in order to eat. In the old days, gift giving used to symbolize social exchange. The Khoekhoe consider it very rude to refuse a gift, because what it means is, “I don’t want to know you. I don’t to accept you as part of my particular social structure.” When you give me a gift, it’s saying you want to be part of me. Me giving you a gift is saying, “Yes, I like you. Let’s be in a community together.”

Today I cannot do this. I will pass somebody in the street, a person starving, and it’s raining, and I have to give them food. It is not a choice on my part, but an imperative. At some point one might have to stop giving because they ran out of food, and this has a different social meaning in a situation of landless-ness and privatized property. In South Africa, the whites used to own 87 percent of the land. Ten years after the implementation of structural adjustment programs, they still own 85 percent of the land. The politics may have changed, but the economy has not. The power of gifting is thus diminished. It is beautiful when gifting is choice, but not when you are forced to do it. These are the kind of things we grapple with today.

What do we do today to manage to exist, now that we are divorced from the gifting economy on which our society was based? What still survives of the old traditions? The first thing we give each other is respect and recognition. And people in many parts of the world do not do this. We say, “Hello, how are you?” meaning, I see you, I recognize you, and I care how you are. If we are in the rural areas, then people will go on forever, “how’s your mother, how’s your father, how’s your grandmother, how’s your uncle, how’s your aunt?” We give each other that recognition. When we ask, “how are you?” we speak to the divine in the other person. We care.

We have many rituals around food that have survived quite well, even through the years when we were slaves and we didn’t have much food. Still today, the Khoekhoe will never dish out the last portion of food in the pot. They always leave a little bit of food in the pot. And this may seem strange, as many people today do not have enough food. But that remnant in the pot symbolizes leaving some food for God, and if a stranger knocks on the door and needs food, you will be able to feed that stranger. When you share food for the family, and leave some for whoever might need it, a gift giving social system is reinforced. There may be some of our people sleeping on street corners, but they have got certain families that they can regularly go to for food: one on a Monday, another on a Tuesday, and so on. That last portion of food in the pot, the last piece for God, you’re giving it to God in this other person.

Sharing food is fundamental. Many people do this all over the world. I am not suggesting it’s specific to the Khoekhoe, but just sharing with you how we do things. When you visit a Khoekhoe house, you cannot leave without eating a dish of something. It would be rude to not offer a guest, a visitor, or even a stranger something, even if there is nothing but water in house. Water is also a precious resource. I was brought up this way. When you walk into my house, you will not be able to leave without having had some tea or coffee and something to eat. It was quite surprising to me when I visited in Europe and I discovered that some people do not do this, as we do.

There are also all kinds of ceremonial giving. Giving is a symbol of relatedness. There are many ceremonial gifts around courtship and marriage. To share your karosse (shawl) with somebody is a symbol of engagement. You might ask, “are you cold?” and then lay the shawl over the other person’s shoulder. You are sharing warmth, but you are also making a statement, “do you want to share my karosse?” Gifting between the two families involved in courtship and marriage has survived. In the nineteenth century families would each exchange a cow or a sheep; it was a symbol of the joining of bloodlines. Today we cannot afford cows or sheep. Today we exchange DVDs or TVs. But the symbolism is still there.

Storytelling continues. We will give you poetry at the drop of hat, and in fact we will continue to read poetry after everybody falls asleep.

Women give a huge amount of free labour. Male responsibility for childrearing remains, in some cases. There should be social recognition of male mothering, though in practice, the more the men are colonized, the less and less they do of it. But if we studied the gift givers, we would see that they are all women. I raise this because Genevieve Vaughan (1997) talks about ways in which the exchange economy still uses the gift economy, and in many ways could not survive without it. If women’s free labour is 40 percent of the economy, then it is certain that the market economy could not survive without it.

Also in Africa, it is the women who farm the land. About 66 percent of the food that feeds the continent comes off this land, it comes from women’s subsistence farming, yet this food production never makes it into Africa’s economic figures. This is because this food is not bought, is not sold, it is given. But we could not survive without this. Women’s non-waged labour provides two-thirds of all the food that Africans eat each year. In a way, it leads to greater independence, but in another way, it is a huge subsidy of the globalized capitalist economy. Imagine if African wages went up by two-thirds. It would do all kinds of interesting things to the economy.

We also have a compassion economy. During colonialism and during slavery, we would not have been able to survive without a compassion economy, meaning that when somebody gets into trouble, everybody chips in, we all help. This has been under a lot of strain now because of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. We’ve seen it breaking down in various parts of the country. This gift, this compassion economy survived slavery, it survived colonialism, but it’s not surviving HIV/AIDs.

The compassion economy is about the self. I give because I am human, because I am Khoekhoe, it’s not because I want to impress you, it’s not because I want you to love me, and I know there may be heaps of psychological studies on the gift demanding attention, but in our culture it’s not like that. Giving is about me, it’s about who I am. I is the way I was brought up. I do it not for you, but for me, and for the sake of the divine in me.

But gift giving is based on access to land and on a certain level of self-sufficiency. Access to land means I can give. What we are working on inside Africa primarily is simply access to land. Compulsory heterosexuality and the bearing of sons is necessary for African women to have access to land. If you are not married to a man, if you are barren, if you have only given birth to girls, you are barred from accessing land. In Africa, it is not so much that women want to have all these children that they have to look after, so they don’t have time to spend on the struggle, it’s that they must. If they don’t, they, and their children, are not going to eat. So, that’s what we’re looking at for the next ten years or so, is just getting some of that 85 percent of land back and feeding ourselves.

Yvette Abrahams was born in 1963, in Crawford, Cape Town, South Africa. She grew up mostly in exile, in Scandinavia. She is a historian and spends most of her working hours researching gender in different forms. She dreams of laying a pathway that will lead young Black women securely towards freedom in the new millennium. From January to December 2002, she was a visiting scholar at the African Gender Institute. Her articles have published in a number of edited anthologies, including Black Women in White Institutional Cultures (Indiana University Press, 2003) and Discourses on Difference, Discourse on Oppression (Centre for Advanced South African Studies, 2001).


Vaughan, Genevieve. 1997. For-Giving: A Feminist Critique of Exchange. Austin, TX: Plainview/Anomaly Press.

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