Three years ago when South Africa celebrated Heritage month, calls were made for the Griqua — part of the Khoisan — to be recognized as the country’s first peoples and for their language to be preserved, taught and grown. The Khoisan are South Africa’s oldest inhabitants made up of a number of related communities — the Cape Khoi, the Nama, the Koranna, the San and then the Griqua but history has not been fair to them.
The Griqua, who originated through the interracial marriages and relations between the KhoiKhoi people and the European Colonists, consider themselves as being South Africa’s first multiracial nation with people descended directly from Dutch settlers in the Cape, and local peoples.
The first generation of the Griqua lived under the chieftainship of Adam Kok I in the southern Free State in the 18th century. Numbering about 2,000, they lived in the Southern Free State for ten years before being moved to Kokstand (a town named after the third Griqua chief Adam Kok III) in the Eastern Free State in 1860.
Adam Kok I, who was a freed slave, was described as one of the most prominent freed Black men in early South African history. He bought his own freedom before establishing the Griqua society in areas that came to be known as Griqualands (east and west), a report noted. The Griqua “established their own governments, political structure and flag, and they chose a Kaptein or Captain, as a leader of their semi-independent infrastructure,” the report added.
Kok I would be their first Captain before his sons and grandsons would take over, becoming a dynasty of leaders who helped change the course of South African history. In fact, it was the British leaders of the Cape Colony who named Kok I Captain of the Griqua society after realizing the enormous significance of his rule. But when he died in 1795, and the discovery of diamonds in the natural soil of South Africa began, the group was exiled by the Colony in 1874.
Then came apartheid, which classified the Griqua as “colored” or mixed-race, a description they rejected. Oppressed under the white-minority rule, the Griqua, alongside the other related communities of Khoisan, now say they are being marginalized in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the governing African National Congress (ANC) party has been working to redistribute land. “But this process has largely excluded the Khoisan, because South Africa does not acknowledge them as the country’s first peoples, and their land was mostly taken long before the apartheid era,” activist Leonard Martins said.
The Griqua, who are among the Khoisan demanding recognition as First Nations people, also want their primary language, Xiri, to be acknowledged by the state. Currently residing in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Free State and Kwa-Zulu-Natal, most now speak Afrikaans as their first language. The Griqua, though having established their own church, which is Protestant in South Africa, still hold their cultural ceremonies dear. An example is the Inabasas, a ceremony held to celebrate the virginity of young daughters.
What still worries the Griqua is the fact that they have not been rightfully recognized, and then-Deputy President David Mabuza couldn’t agree more. He expressed the same sentiments during the unveiling of the statue of the late leader of the Griqua community, Adam Kok III, located at the entrance of the Greater Kokstad municipal offices in Southern KwaZulu-Natal in 2018.
Revered by the Griqua people of today as the greatest of the Kok chiefs, Kok III was the great-grandson of Adam Kok I. As chief of the Kok clan of the Griquas, Kok III ruled an area known as the eastern Griqua at Philippolis from 1837 until the early 1860s, when he and his people “trekked across the Drakensberg to found a new state in what became known as Griqualand East,” a report said. The Griqua would be taken under British control in 1874 after more than a decade of independence there.
The following video has more about the Griqua: