‘Come through the door, not the window’: The San Code of Research Ethics (San Code)

The San Code: A great resource for social workers

Cite the Code as:

South African San Institute (SAAI) (2017). The San Code of Research Ethics. Kimberly: South African San Institute

The San Code of Research Ethics is comprehensive, and addresses ethics in non-academic, non-technical and non-foreign terms. It details ethics from a standpoint of San people. It uses African values in its body of ethics. The Code also details what researchers have done wrongly in the past. Most of the research was led by white people, some of them coming from outside the country. They were not truthful, and did not recognise the knowledges, abilities, aspirations and leadership of the San people. The full Code can be accessed from this web location. Below we start with answering some questions readers might have, and then provide some snippets from the Code.

Questions and answers

But why was the Code necessary?

The San suffered years of research that humiliated, deceived and not benefited them.

Who created the Code?

The San people themselves.

Who are the San? Where do they live?

They are some of the indigenous people of South Africa. They lived a peaceful lifestyle before they, together with their lands were colonised by white people.

Where can I get more about the history of South Africa indigenous social services and social work?

Please use this link: https://africasocialwork.net/south-africa/

Does it apply to the San communities only?

No, it applies to all communities and all researchers, academics, practitioners, writers, publishers or students from all disciplines.

Does it apply research only?

No, it also strongly applies to social work practice, learning, teaching or publishing.

What are the main sections of the Code?

  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Justice and fairness
  • Care
  • Process

What are some ethics highlighted in the Code?

There are many, below we only provide a few.

The San Code of Research Ethics

You can access the full Code from this web location. Below we provide some snippets from the Code. Acknowledgements: South African San Institute


Respect for individuals, community and culture

“Respectful researchers engage with us in advance of carrying out research.There should be no assumption that San will automatically approve of any research projects that are brought to us.

We have encountered lack of respect in many instances in the past. In Genomics research, our leaders were avoided, and respect was not shown to them. Researchers took photographs of individuals in their homes, of breastfeeding mothers, or of underage children, whilst ignoring our social customs and norms. Bribes or other advantages were offered.”


“We require an open and clear exchange between the researchers and our leaders.The language must be clear, not academic. Complex issues must be carefully and correctly described, not simply assuming the San cannot understand. There must be a totally honest sharing of information.

We have encountered lack of honesty in many instances in the past. Researchers have deviated from the stated purpose of research, failed to honour a promise to show the San the research prior to publication, and published a biased paper based upon leading questions given to young San trainees.This lack of honesty caused much damage among the public, and harmed the trust between the collaborating organisation and the San.”

Justice and fairness

“It is important that the participants and the community might expect.These might be largely non-monetary but include co-research opportunities, sharing of skills and research capacity, and roles for translators and research assistants, to give some examples.

In extreme cases the listing and publication of unethical researchers in a “black book” might be considered.

An institution whose researchers fail to comply with the Code can be refused collaboration in future research. Hence, there will be “consequences” for researchers who fail to comply with the Code.

We have encountered lack of justice and fairness in many instances in the past.These include theft of San traditional knowledge by researchers.At the same time, many companies in South Africa and globally are benefiting from our traditional knowledge in sales of indigenous plant varieties without benefit sharing agreements, proving the need for further compliance measures to ensure fairness.”


“Research should be aligned to local needs and improve the lives of San. This means that the research process must be carried out with care for all involved, especially the San community.

We have encountered lack of care in many instances in the past. For instance, we were spoken down to, or confused with complicated scientific language, or treated as ignorant. Failing to ensure that something is left behind that improves the lives of the San also represents lack of care.”


Researcher must follow San research protocol. “This process starts with a research idea that is collectively designed, through to approval of the project, and subsequent publications.” This is coming through the door.

How can we make use of the code?

  1. Cite the Code when writing journal articles, reports of book chapters or other published works
  2. Cite the Code when writing assessments, essays, reflections and other written works.
  3. Cite the Code when writing or reviewing ethics proposals and statements.
  4. Cite the Code when writing practice policies or organizational guidelines.
  5. Use the Code when engaging with clients, families, communities and the environment.
  6. Use the Code when designing organisational mission statement, values statement, vision statement and objectives and strategic plans.
  7. Use the Code when writing funding proposals.
  8. Use the Code to design teaching or training philosophies.
  9. Use the Code to design decolonisation plans.
  10. Use the Code to address ethical challenges, dilemmas and to correct past unethical practices.

Webpage: https://africasocialwork.net/the-san-code-of-research-ethics-san-code/