Bleak future for San youth

The San are among the most marginalised groups in southern Africa. Excluded and discriminated against at almost every turn, San youth face a host of obstacles to a brighter future:

Access to Education


Job Morris

October 15th, 2013

The San are among the most marginalised groups in southern Africa. Excluded and discriminated against at almost every turn, San youth face a host of obstacles to a brighter future:

Access to Education

San youth are often forced to leave their traditional communities and move to urban areas to pursue educational opportunities. In the new urban environment, they are often subjected to discrimination by the wider community and denied equal opportunities in employment and education. This can have devastating effects on their sense of self-worth and cultural identity and may lead to a range of serious health and social problems, such as depression and substance abuse.

Many San youth experience racism at school, either from non-San children or from teachers, or both. This often leads to suspensions or even expulsions, which have lasting negative consequences for the child. Importantly, many children leave primary school without basic literacy and numeracy, and those who do make it to secondary school are often unprepared for the higher levels of learning required and the foreign languages they are forced to speak and study in.

The world of work in developing countries is also changing from a focus on subsistence agriculture and small-scale industry to a more complex mix of formal and informal economic activities in locally and globally connected economies. Although secondary education is the level at which most San youth will enter the labour force, there is a widespread perception that the only route to decent jobs is through tertiary education. The fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals and Education for All initiatives demands that innovative mechanisms are explored in order to ensure that San youth attain equality in educational access.

San youth often have poor access to educational facilities, experience institutional racism in schools and are recorded as having low attendance rates across all levels of education. There are also low expectations of San children and what they are capable of achieving in education systems.

Education has long been at the heart of many discussions for San youth. Although, an inclusive education system that reflects San peoples’ heritage and specific needs would help to develop the capacity of San youth to think independently and generate their own opinions, modern day education does still offer some opportunities for San youth, especially as it can – with some extra effort – be harmonised with the skills and talents acquired through traditional knowledge.

Socio-economic injustices

San youth are vulnerable to a range of social and economic injustices that undermine their human rights. Throughout the world, indigenous youth are disproportionately unemployed. They may also have great difficulty coping when they are separated from their traditional communities and live in an environment that does not promote their participation in economic or social life. But indigenous youth – like everyone else – are entitled to economic and social justice as well as participation in traditional customs, values and practices.

Political Marginalisation

By nature, social policies seek to improve the social, economic, political and cultural conditions of the people. However, in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia they have had the effect of entrenching and perpetuating the marginalisation of the San, who have been relegated to a stigmatised and dependent underclass in the emergent political economy. This is because social policies in these countries are generally founded on traditional liberal capitalist values and philosophies, which underpin economic policy and promote the interests of dominant social groups and which are alien to the values, norms and customs of the San people.

As an example, the names used to refer to the San are not even names we ourselves have chosen, but are the derogatory terms that Bantu herders and white colonialists used to describe the people they cruelly marginalised. To this day, San communities fight to be treated with respect and dignity, and to participate in the economic and political processes that will determine their future.

Exploitation of San Culture and Traditional Knowledge

Modern day San in southern African communities rarely benefit from the marketing of their images, artefacts, metaphors, art, dance, riddles and music. Indeed, for the most part, they have been left out of the processes available to other previously disadvantaged groups following the advent of democracy.

Ironically, the threat of extinction has added market value to our “exotic” culture. Contrary to TV adverts and coffee table books, the people usually called San and Bushmen do not live in some idyllic past. We are contemporary people battling with extreme forms of social deterioration and economic devastation. The San are often framed as pristine hunter-gatherers, representatives of some previous human utopia, living close to nature, rejecting the concept of ownership, and needing nothing more than the land. In so doing, we are effectively removed from the economics and the politics of the present.


There is no doubt that there is an extremely high level of alcohol dependence amongst the San people as a whole and the youth in particular. Too often, these problems start at a very tender age. The lack of education – among other factors – means that the youth do not acquire knowledge about the dangers of heavy alcohol intake. This in turn often leads to uncontrolled sexual behaviour, violence and domestic abuse, early pregnancies and contracting incurable diseases.

Health and healthy living

In many cases, San youth lack adequate access to affordable and culturally sensitive health education and health care, increasing their risk of contracting unwanted diseases. Sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis are significant problems in San communities and constitutes a threat to the continued existence of San society.


San youth, who are often shamed because of their identity, often try to disguise their San identity to suit the identity of the national majority. Some are assimilated into the culture of the mainstream – resulting in the annihilation of the culture of the San. In Botswana, the failure to implement mother tongue education as the medium of instruction for San children, and the policy of providing instruction only in Setswana or English is a pure example of forced assimilation. Furthermore, only Tswana culture is promoted at school resulting in what may be called cultural genocide.


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