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The article is framed by South African president Thabo Mbeki's speeches on the relevance of French eighteenth-century thought to South Africa. French travellers who visited the Cape Colony between 1648 and 1792 are then discussed in relation to two questions: How did they represent the Cape "Hottentots"? And how did they conceptualize France's colonial expansion? The writings disclose a shift in the discursive representations of the "Hottentots" from "beasts," "brutes" and "slothful servants" in the seventeenth century to their representations in the eighteenth century as "children of nature," "docile servants" and "useful citizens." This discursive shift was accompanied by military defeats, political violence and economic impoverishment. In conclusion, the relation of the post-apartheid Khoisan to their eighteenth-century predecessors is considered.