Postcolonial paternalism in tourism and development among the Bushmen of southern Africa

Various Bushmen (or San)[1] groups in southern Africa have been involved in a variety of paternalist relationships throughout history, with other groups acting as ‘superior’ to them and thus regarding them as ‘inferior’. In pre-colonial days, many have been engaged as serfs in a variety of patron-client relationships with black pastoralists (see, for example, Wilmsen 1989, Gordon and Douglas 2000, Dieckmann 2007, Koot and Hitchcock 2019). In African history, paternalist relationships were widespread over the continent in different forms, as social relations between unequal partners that are interdependent on each other (Van Beek 2011). Therefore, there are numerous definitions of paternalism, but what comes up mostly is that it is a labour management method that was dominant throughout colonial history, based on the narrative of the family. Important elements are edification, protection, care, welfare and sometimes practices of coercion between the ‘father’ and his ‘children’. Paternalism is based on the assumption that the person in authority needs to govern on behalf of the governed, who are considered immature and incapable of recognising their own long-term interests (Gibbon, Daviron and Barral 2014).


The development of ‘baasskap’ at southern African white colonial farms

During colonialism, relationships developed globally in which whites were seen as naturally superior. In rural southern African settings, this view resulted in white farmers becoming patrons to client farmworkers, a phenomenon called baasskap (Plotkin 2002). Such relations moved far beyond a relation of employment, based on labour and wages; they dominated social life as well, in which the white farmer had the ultimate power of judgement and decision-making (Du Toit 1993). Although farmworkers would always negotiate and exercise agency in the relationships they had with their employers, farmers controlled most of the resources for workers, such as money, electricity, land, water and transport. As a result, farmers became the main service providers for their workers, acting as a local state without a constitution, or what Rutherford aptly termed ‘domestic government’ (2001, see also Du Toit 1994). Many examples of this system are depicted as harsh and brutal, but other examples have shown that such black worker–white farmer dynamics were not always, and definitely not only, harsh (Van Onselen 1990). In the end, paternalism cannot exist solely because of domination ‘from above’; a certain level of accommodation is required from subaltern groups (Sylvain 2001). Nevertheless, among many Namibian farmers Bushmen were regarded as a ‘child race’ that had to be disciplined because it was seen as unreliable, for example with money, drinking or leaving a job unannounced (Suzman 2000). In contrast, Bushmen themselves looked at their relationship with farmers as a class struggle: in their view they had to cope with job insecurity and were getting paid too little for work under bad circumstances (Sylvain 2005, cf. Sylvain 2001).


Post-colonial paternalism 1: The tourism private sector and development

Based on this old farm system, paternalistic relationships and dependencies can continue into post-colonial times and spread to off-farm settings (Du Toit 2004). Through the maintenance of paternalist relationships in tourism, for example, Namibian whites not only essentialise Bushmen as people of nature, but also consider themselves as their protectors since they are also in need of development, thereby continually reconstructing them as an underclass. In the end, Bushmen need to be seen as ‘un(der)developed’ to be suitable for development in the first place. But what this ‘development’ entails is fully based on the patron’s values (Koot 2015). Nevertheless, consultants, governments, donors, the private tourism sector and NGOs hardly ever mention baasskap or paternalism, almost as if it does not exist anymore post-apartheid, while since the end of colonial oppression many examples of this phenomenon have been found in the white-dominated tourism sector.


1930s German advertising poster by Ludwig Hohlwein (1874-1949)

In the mid-1990s, for instance, about 200 kilometres north of Cape Town, the owners of the Kagga Kamma Nature Reserve offered a group of Bushmen board and lodging in return for tourist activities. According to the white owners, these Bushmen should not engage with money and consumer goods if they truly wished to live ‘traditionally’ (White 1995). Although it would be easy to criticise this, ‘[t]he Kagga Kamma owners were former sheep farmers, now businesspeople, not social or development workers; they could not […] have been expected to understand the finer points of […] ethics of tourism or development theory’ (Tomaselli 2012, 26). Of course, in contemporary ‘tourism for development’ discourses, this raises the question whether this can still be accepted today, when private tourism operators increasingly show themselves as important do-gooders to develop local communities.


The same Bushmen from Kagga Kamma, for example, would later be involved at the !Xaus Lodge joint venture initiative inside the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Northern Cape Province, South Africa), after a land claim, to collaborate with the private sector owner Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD) in making the lodge a community development project (a project heavily defended by Tomaselli, see Koot 2016a, Tomaselli 2017, Koot 2017). However, the appropriate skills training is decided top-down by !Xaus’ (white) management, instead of through participatory methods (Grant 2011). Furthermore, most Bushmen whom I spoke to did not see much difference in comparison to ‘the old days’; an elderly man explained about working at !Xaus: ‘you are just under the boss, as in the old days. […] Forever he will stay a boy’ (interview 14 July 2010). And a young woman explained that ‘many work there [!Xaus] for a while and then they come back and they do not want to go there anymore’ (interview 8 July 2010). Some Bushmen (ex-)employees explained that they see no other possibilities for work and that they are afraid to speak to the manager directly. A young and educated woman explained that she ‘could not work together with him [the white manager]. The manner, it’s the boss attitude and the power, all have to listen to him and that’s it’ (8 July 2010). Ironically, the young and educated Bushmen that could truly make a difference by being able to run the lodge at a certain moment were also the ones who explained that they preferred not to work at !Xaus for this very reason. And at another tourist lodge (Molopo) in the Northern Cape Province, the white owner explained that the Bushmen live at a lower level when compared to ‘us’ and that ‘they need a custodian that can […] lead them in the right way’ (interview 30 June 2010), which he explained he himself would be perfectly suited for. Clearly, this man positioned himself far superior (as a father or a baas) in his relation with the Bushmen (his ‘children’).


Tourism in the Northern Cape, South Africa, 2010

Most Bushmen consider the Molopo Lodge and !Xaus Lodge places where baasskap continues, regardless of the good intentions to support community development. In rural South Africa, there has been a period of over 200 years in which social identities and power relations have been shaped based on ownership and paternalist discourses that have been ceaselessly re-invented according to changes in society (Du Toit 1994). It then becomes unlikely that such social relations will simply evaporate in new rural tourism development initiatives. And it is also not restricted to South Africa: in 2010, Ju/’hoansi Bushmen employees of the Tsumkwe Country Lodge in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, northern Namibia, had become very dissatisfied with a new (white, male) manager and some had left their jobs. Still, the manager explained that he should make ‘good people’ of the Bushmen by limiting their drinking and teaching them the rules of a big company. Additionally, he even said ‘I call them my children, the Bushmen’ (interview 20 April 2010).


Post-colonial paternalism 2: The (tourism) development sector

It thus seems as if managers with skills and expertise in (private) tourism are not necessarily qualified as development field workers. But even if one is ‘qualified’, this at times can lead to similar social relations. For example, in 1994, Elisabeth Garland (1999) arrived in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy for a three-month consultancy on tourism. She noticed how the ‘local’ NGO the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia (NNDFN) consisted mainly of white foreigners with the intention of turning over the control of development programmes and funds to the CBO the Nyae Nyae Farmers’ Cooperative, while most of the Ju/’hoansi were hardly interested in tourism. Instead, they complained about a lack of control over revenue from the projects and access to vehicles, whereas the expatriates, rather paternalistically, often mentioned the irresponsibility of the Ju/’hoansi (Garland 1999).


A critique by me on the role of paternalism in tourism and development would be incomplete without my most important example, which is based on my years working as a development field worker (between 2002 and 2007) for the community-based tourism project Treesleeper Camp at the resettlement farm Tsintsabis, northern Namibia (Koot 2016b). When I started the project in 2002 together with the local trust, people did not necessarily distinguish me, a white male European, from local white Namibians. Although most people remembered me from my MA fieldwork (in 1999) and I arrived with a story about ‘development’ based on the principle of community participation, most of the elders also associated my being there with land theft, colonialism and apartheid. And I admit my influence on this community project was rather big. An ex-employee and trustee said about me that she did ‘not think it is a community project, but it is Stasja’s […] project. […] he takes most of the decisions and he can lay his opinion on the members of the trust and the personnel of Treesleeper’ (cited in Troost 2007, 58).


Camp management & Stasja

A training trip by myself with Treesleeper staff, 2007

Moreover, due to my contacts with NGOs and donors, I began to be seen as a milk cow who could be approached for funding for many different projects, and I was also asked for managerial and organisational support to start these projects, as the local Bushmen did not consider themselves able to start them. Much of this could be attributed to their inexperience but it also betrayed a belief in ‘white superiority from below’. Some people even stated directly that it was impossible to start anything without a white man (something I of course disagree with). I had thus become a key figure on the Tsintsabis resettlement farm, not unlike the baas on a commercial farm. Despite the bottom-up principles of community-based organisations, it seems as if external NGOs often inadvertently create top-down structures because they take many of the decisions relating to the projects they run. However, such paternalism is not restricted to whites, the private sector, or development workers only: in 1999, for example, a black farmer from the area of Tsintsabis explained to me that ‘Bushmen […] are my kids. […] I bring them up’ (interview 15 May, 1999). And in 2006, when I worked for Treesleeper, another black farmer asked me if I could send ‘some guys’ over to his farm so that they could also build a campsite for him, assuming automatically that I (a white man) decided these things for them. This shows how paternalism is a phenomenon in the Bushmen’s social environment that is not anymore restricted to the (white) farms only, and, as I explain underneath, today has been integrated in Bushmen relations with the contemporary Namibian state too.


Post-colonial paternalism 3: The state and tourism development

After my involvement with Treesleeper Camp, a N$ 1,2 million grant from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) was successfully applied for by the camp manager, aimed to upgrade the camp to a lodge, with construction starting in 2011. However, so far none of the buildings was ever completed, leading to a severe reduction in the number of tourists (due to the camp looking as an unattractive construction site). The local Tsintsabis Trust (responsible for Treesleeper Camp) was under the impression that the grant would be paid into their account, but it turned out that MET controlled the process and finances, despite the government’s own policies which aim to support small and medium enterprises. Although MET awarded the grant, the mandate for the construction lay with the Ministry of Works and Transport (MWT). The MWT appointed and selected the technical expertise and Treesleeper became the ‘user client’ and MET the client, which meant that the construction team dealt with MET directly. As the architect (who was also the project manager) explained, ‘we hardly actually worked with the user client. All our instructions came from the client’ (interview 26 April 2016). According to the construction experts, due to many inconsistencies, several works had to be redone. In terms of ownership, the buildings are government property until they are handed over to Treesleeper, so an MET official explained that ‘they will just have to follow our channels, we [government] will have to guide the process’ (interview 21 April 2016). The government thus states that they will stay in control, clearly positioning themselves as the superior party. In fact, at the end of 2017 the Tsintsabis Trust wanted to get written permission from MET to continue construction of the unfinished buildings if funds were raised without government aid, but they never received this and MET continued to wait for MWT’s assessment (Koot, Ingram and Bijsterbosch 2019), leading to a deadlock until today. Many development programmes, it seems, are these days planned without the participation of the Bushmen themselves, providing for new forms of domination from external parties.



Treesleeper Camp as a construction site (photo by Mariska Bijsterbosch, 2016)

Today, most people working at the Namibian ministries are derived from non-Bushmen groups that historically (as in ‘pre-colonial’) also viewed Bushmen as ‘inferior’. It is then hardly surprising that the Bushmen are considered inferior and incapable in their contemporary relations with the state. Many Bushmen groups thus consider their current governments very similar to the colonial authorities, as externally imposed authorities executing power over them (Barnard 2002). However, state paternalism provides for a different type of paternalism than, for example, colonial settlers, in which the farmer was highly dependent on his labourers; the government is not directly dependent on the Bushmen, but the marginalised status of the Bushmen is something that government actors can use to attract donor funds. As Hohmann (2003) explained, pre-colonial states were superseded by colonial rulers, but features of the pre-colonial political states have survived up until post-colonial days.


Conclusion: paternalism perpetuates

In southern Africa, governments have focused on development strategies that focus on welfare and infrastructure, leaving out important elements such as empowerment, education, political structures, access to natural resources and securing land tenure (Hohmann 2003). The tight control that the Namibian state executed over the grant for Treesleeper Camp shows strong similarities with historical paternalism, something that is also very noticeable by workers from the private tourism industry and development workers, in their different relation with various Bushmen groups. It is thus important to acknowledge this as an important social phenomenon that highly affects development, instead of ignoring it as something from ‘earlier times in an Afrikaner nationalist ethnic apartheid economy when this form of boss-labour behaviour did indeed occur’ (Tomaselli 2017, 1189). This would bear the danger that we do not take seriously important social structures that may seem ‘old’, ‘colonial’ or ‘pre-colonial’ at first, but thrive today in development and tourism. As Suzman (2000) explained, it is not so much in culture and a past of hunting and gathering where the marginalised class of Bushmen finds its identity, but in their relation with others, often their more dominant neighbours.



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[1] Both terms ‘Bushmen’ and ‘San’ are contentious. I prefer the use of ‘Bushmen’ instead of ‘San’, because most of the people whom I worked with in southern Africa—practical and as a researcher—told me they preferred this term. I am aware, however, of the colonial, patronising and derogatory connotations that the term ‘Bushmen’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘San’ too) can have (Gordon and Douglas 2000).

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