• Namibia


    The indigenous peoples of Namibia include the San, the Nama, the Ovahimba, the Ovazemba, the Ovatjimba, the Ovatwa, and their sub-groups.
    While the Constitution of Namibia prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnic or tribal affiliation, it does not specifically recognise the rights of indigenous peoples or minorities, and there is no national legislation dealing directly with indigenous peoples.
  • Peoples

    8 per cent of Namibia's population is indigenous peoples.
    27,000 to 34,000 persons belong to the San peoples, while 25,000 persons belong to the Ovahimba peoples, and 100,000 persons belong to the Nama peoples
  • Rights

    Namibia adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

Indigenous World 2019: Namibia

The indigenous peoples of Namibia include the San, the Ovatue and Ovatjimba, and potentially a number of other peoples including the Ovahimba and Nama. Taken together, the indigenous peoples of Namibia represent some 8% of the total population of the country which was 2,533,244 in 2018. The San (Bushmen) number between 27,000 and 34,000, and represent between 1.06% and 1.3% of the national population.

They include the Khwe, the Hai||om, the Ju|’hoansi, the !Kung, the !Xun, the Kao||Aesi, the Naro, and the !Xóõ. Each of the San groups speaks its own language and has distinct customs, traditions and histories. The San were mainly hunter-gatherers in the past but, today, many have diversified livelihoods. Over 80% of the San have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands and resources, and are now some of the poorest and most marginalszed peoples in the country.

The Ovatjimba and Ovatue (Ovatwa) are largely pastoral people, formerly also relying on hunting and gathering, residing in the semi-arid and mountainous north-west (Kunene Region) and across the border in southern Angola. The Ovatue are considered to have traditionally inhabited the more remote mountainous areas. The Ovahimba are a larger and locally dominant pastoralist group who reside over a greater area of Kunene. Closely related but separate to the Ovahimba is a smaller group called the Ovazemba. The Ovahimba, Ovatue, Ovatjimba and Ovazemba number some 26,000 in total. The Nama, a Khoe-speaking group, number over 100,000 and live mainly in central and southern Namibia and the northwest of South Africa. Related to the Nama are the Topnaars (≠Aonin) who number approximately 2,600 and who reside in the Kuiseb River Valley, in Dorob National Park, and in the area in and around Walvis Bay in the Erongo Region.

The Namibian government prefers to use the term “marginalised communities” when referring to the San, Otavue and Ovatjimba, support for whom falls under the Office of the President: Division Marginalised Communities. The Constitution of Namibia prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnic or tribal affiliation but does not specifically recognise the rights of indigenous peoples, and there is currently no national legislation dealing directly with indigenous peoples, though there is a new draft white paper on the rights of indigenous and marginalised communities that is to be brought before the Cabinet soon. Namibia voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) when it was adopted in 2007 but has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169. Namibia is a signatory to several other binding international agreements that affirm the norms represented in UNDRIP, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Namibia government office responsible for indigenous peoples and minorities is the Division for Marginalised Communities (DMC), now under the Office of the President.1 The office considers its main objective to be integrating marginalised communities into the mainstream national economy and improving their livelihoods.

Human rights and governance in Namibia

Namibia was ranked 4th out of 54 African countries by the 2018 Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG).

In 2018, Namibia had a zero on the abuse index, which meant that no journalists were arrested, jailed or killed in 2018. There were also no members of indigenous or marginalised communities killed or wounded in the context of anti-poaching operations. Mistreatment of Namibian civilians, refugees and immigrants was also low and security and safety were relatively high. Namibia ranked 4th in Africa with respect to absence of government violence against civilians. It was 2nd out of 54 countries for the absence of corruption. There was no government involvement in armed conflict against its neighbors.2

Namibia continues to be recognised for its commitment to freedom of expression, as noted in the Freedom House report for 2018, although the report indicated a slight decline in press freedom. Transparency International considers it to be one of the least corrupt nations on the African continent.3 The World Bank and the United Nations have designated Namibia as an upper middle-income country. This determination has had some negative impacts on Namibia’s ability to obtain international grants and loans at low to moderate interest rates and it has also limited international donor investment in its development programs.

Land reform

There were a number of important developments for Namibia’s indigenous peoples in 2018. The crucial issue of land reform continued to be debated, and the Second National Conference was held from 1-5 October 2018.4 Much of the discussion revolved around the complex issues of communal land reform, willing seller-willing buyer, and how freehold and urban land should be handled. Several San representatives made brief presentations at the conference regarding communal land, access to protected areas and resettlement farms.

Status of the draft white paper

Meetings supported by the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs’ (UNDESA) Division for Social Policy and Development and the Office of the Vice President were held on the Namibian draft white paper on the rights of Indigenous Peoples/Marginalised Communities in Windhoek in April, in Swakopmund in July and in Windhoek again in November. The draft white paper is expected to be finalised and submitted to the Ministry of Justice for review and Cabinet approval in early 2019.

The draft white paper was also presented to the government and San representatives from six southern African countries at a workshop held in Windhoek from 3-5 December 2018. Entitled the “Sub-Regional Workshop on Inclusive Development for San People in the Framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”, the workshop was sponsored by UNDESA and hosted by Namibia.5 Regional follow-up activities to this meeting are expected in 2019.

Government participation in indigenous rights meetings

Kxao Royal Ui/o/oo, the San Deputy Minister, and Gerson Kamatuka, director of the Division for Marginalised Communities within the Office of the Vice President, attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ (UNPFII )17 th annual session in New York from 16–27 April 2018. The Deputy Minster also attended a Food and Agriculture Organisation High-Level Expert Seminar on Indigenous Food Systems in Rome from 7-9 November 2018. Both attended the Regional Workshop on San Inclusion from 3-5 December 2018 along with other members of the Division for Marginalised Communities and representatives of Namibian San communities.

Legal cases

A hearing was held from 26-29 November 2018 by a three-judge panel of the High Court on the Hai//om collective action legal case against the government and 19 others regarding a land claim for a significant portion of both Etosha National Park and Mangetti West. Class action lawsuits have not been previously used in Namibia, and the judges postponed a decision on whether to recognize the Hai//om as a class until 28 August 2019.6 Issues that have arisen in the Etosha National Park and the Hai//om resettlement farms on its southern border include a continuing dispute over the handling of the !Gobaob concession during 2018. This relates to tourism development of a culturally significant pan in southern Etosha which has been granted to the Hai//om Concession Association, a community organisation that was set up to manage the concession under an agreement with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.7

The N≠a Jaqna Conservancy in north-eastern Namibia continued to press for government implementation of the 2016 High Court decision to remove illegal grazers and their fences. The Conservancy gathered and presented evidence during 2018 on the continued presence of most of the fences found during the time of the ruling, as well as more illegal fences erected since the ruling.

Pressure from the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy (NJC) to prevent the establishment of small-scale farms that were unlikely to directly benefit the San in the Aasvoelnes area was successful.8 The project, sponsored by the Ministry of Land Reform and KfW Development Bank (KfW Entwicklungsbank) (KfW), has now been redesigned to take into consideration the local communities’ priorities.

To the east of N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy’s case against seven illegal grazers (selected out of over 120 in the Conservancy who had brought their cattle there) was won and then appealed in 2018 by the lawyers for the pastoralists. As of the end of 2018, no decision had been made by the High Court in spite of a number of pleadings on the part of the applicants (the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and Community Forest and the Ju/’hoan Traditional Authority) that were filed by the Legal Assistance Centre in November and December 2018.

Decisions have yet to be made by a New York federal court judge on the issue of a German genocide of the Herero and Nama in 1904-1908 after arguments were presented by lawyers for the Herero and Nama applicants and Germany in New York on 31 July 2018.9 The Herero and Nama are seeking an apology and reparations for the actions of the German government.10 They and their supporters are also requesting the return of the remains of Herero and Nama, victims of the 1904-1908 genocide whose bodies and skeletons were taken from Namibia to Germany and, eventually, to the United States and other countries.11

Conservancies and national parks

Sizeable numbers of indigenous peoples and other rural Namibians continued to gain some benefits from the conservation and poverty-alleviation efforts of communal conservancies in 2018. The Nyae Nyae Conservancy, for example, generated over N$5 million through its activities in 2018, while the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy generated over N$1 million.

In Nyae Nyae, the Ju/’hoan Traditional Authority (JUTA) received nearly a dozen new requests for n!oresi (territories) from Ju/’hoansi Conservancy members in 2018, some of which were granted.

The several thousand Khwe in Bwabwata National Park in the Zambezi Region faced severe restrictions in terms of accessing natural resources. In 2018, they were told again by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) that they could not gather wild plant products in the park, including Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), a root with pharmaceutical applications which is an important source of income for sizeable numbers of Khwe due to MET anti-poaching activities. There were some Khwe who were afraid to go into the bush as a result.12 Khwe in Bwabwata National Park, particularly those in Chetto and Omega 3, engaged in gardening with the assistance of Agriconnexions Africa and anthropologists. Constraints in the gardens included domestic and wild animals eating some of the crops and problems of consistency in watering.13

Education, health and gender

Education is a key topic of concern in indigenous and marginalised communities in Namibia.14 In 2018, the Division for Marginalised Communities in the Office of the President continued its support of San, Ovatue and Ovatjimba education activities. In Zambezi region, Khwe students were able to enroll on various courses at the Zambezi Vocational Training Centre (VTC); however, due to administrative and financial constraints, students did not receive any financial, transportation or food assistance. In many parts of Namibia indigenous and marginalised students prefer to have mother-tongue languages taught; Otjiherero is taught in some schools, as is the Ju/’hoan language in Nyae Nyae.15

The Namibian San Council, the ||Ana-Jeh San Trust (a Namibia San youth organisation), and the Legal Assistance Centre met several times during 2018 to discuss issues involving San men, women and youth. Issues that were highlighted in these meetings included the high drop-out rates from rural schools, low levels of participation of San, Ovatjimba, and Ovatue in the socio-political life of the country, the lack of recognition of some local leaders as traditional authorities (TAs), the high rates of rural and urban unemployment, and a lack of training and educational opportunities for some marginalized community members. The Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) has undertaken various programs of work aimed at promoting young San women in their communities and wider society.

Namibia has made some significant strides in increasing women’s representation in Parliament, with women currently holding 48 of the 104 seats in the National Assembly. This means that it is more likely that women’s interests and women’s voices are heard in the political arena. Domestic abuse and rape continue to be major sources of concern for women in Namibian indigenous and marginalised communities.

Namibia was ranked number one in Africa in terms of its efforts to cope with HIV/AIDS, and it is continuing to ramp up the availability of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) and tuberculosis medications to marginalised as well as other communities. Nutritional levels varied in remote communities in Namibia, with social safety net programs helping to fill in the gaps.16

Outlook for 2019

The draft white paper on the rights of indigenous peoples in Namibia may be adopted by Cabinet in 2019, which would influence new policy development and programmes. Following the regional workshop in December, further cross-border activities are likely. The various legal cases brought by San and their supporters on land rights may yet see implementation of the High Court orders in the coming year. The Hai//om collective action legal case is also to be decided in 2019. The US federal court in New York will likely decide whether the Herero-Nama genocide case can be heard there, and there may be new developments in requests by Namibians for the repatriation of human remains and cultural property to Namibia. There is no doubt that indigenous and marginalised communities in Namibia will continue to seek land and resource rights, equitable treatment before the law, gender equality, greater access to social services, and better social safety nets in 2019.

Notes and references

  1. sandevelopment.gov.na/aboutus.htm. Division for Marginalized Communities 2018a. Draft White Paper on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Namibia. Windhoek: Division for Marginalized Communities, Office of the President; Division for Marginalized Communities 2018b. Celebrating the Rights of Marginalised Communities in Namibia. Windhoek, Namibia: Division for Marginalized Communities, Office of the President.
  2. Mo Ibrahim Foundation 2018. The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). iaiag.online/ accessed 27 December 2018.
  3. United Nations Development Program 2018. Human Development Indices and Indicators: 2018 Statistical update. New York: United Nations Development Programme. World Bank 2018. World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work. Washington DC: World Bank
  4. Republic of Namibia 2018. Concept Paper Second Land Reform Conference. Windhoek: Republic of Namibia. See also Namibia Statistics Agency 2018. Namibia Land Statistics Booklet September 2018. Windhoek: Namibia Statistics Agency; Ministry of Land Reform 2018. Resolutions of the Second National Land Conference, 15 October 2018; Henning Melber 2018. Namibia’s Long-standing land issue remains unresolved. The Conversation 31 October 2018.
  5. Namibia Government Representative 2018. Namibia Report. Presented at the “Sub-Regional Workshop on Inclusive Development for San People in the Framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” Windhoek, Namibia, 3-5 December 2018
  6. Werner Menges 2018a. High-Stakes Etosha Land Rights Hearing Starts. The Namibian, 27 November 2018; Werner Menges 2018b Judges to Weigh Up Hai// om Quest for land rights. The Namibian 30 November 2018, p.
  7. See Ndanki Kahiurika Hai//om Chief Wants Power Over Concession. The Namibian 20 December 2018, and subsequent discussions in the Ministry, the Hai//om Traditional Authority, and the!Gobaob Hai//om Community Association, 21-31 December 2018.
  8. Theresia Tijhenuna 2018. San Reject Govt Livestock Project. The Namibian 15 June 2018.
  9. Howard Rechavia Taylor US Court Hears Case Against Germany over Namibia Genocide. Al Jazeera 31 July 2018.
  10. Ronald Niezen 2018. Speaking for the dead: the memorial politics of genocide in Namibia and Germany. International Journal of Heritage Studies 24(5):547
  11. Leonor Faber-Jonker More than just an Object: A Material analysis of the Return and Retention of Namibian Skulls from Germany. Leiden, the Netherlands: University of Leiden.
  12. Attila Paksi and Aili Pyhälä 2018. Socioeconomic Aspects of a National Park on Local Indigenous Livelihoods: The case of the Bwabwata National Park in Namibia. In Research and Activism among the Kalahari San Today: Ideals, Challenges, and Debates, R. Fleming Puckett and Kazunobu Ikeya, Pp. 251-
  13. Senri Ethnological Studies 99. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology; Khwe Custodian Committee and Kyaramacan Association (KA), personal communications, 26 July 2018.
  14. Laura Mäkelä, 2018. Gardening Opportunities as a Part of the Khwe San People’s Food Security in the East Bwabwata National Master’s thesis Department of Agriculture Sciences Agroecology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland; Anita Heim and Attila Paksi, personal communications, July, December 2018.
  15. See, for example, Melissa Heckler 2018. Nyae Nyae Village Playgroup Project. Austin: Kalahari Peoples Fund; Kileni Fernandu and Tertu Fernandu 2018. “San Culture and Identity” in terms of education in Namibia. Paper presented at the 12th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS XII), Penang, Malaysia, 27 July 2018; Velina Ninkova Post Foragers in Post-Independent Namibia: The Case of the Omaheke Ju/’hoansi. Paper presented at CHAGS XII, 24 July 2018.
  16. Information from Namibian San representatives at the 12th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS XII), Penang, Malaysia, 23-27 July 2018 and at the San inclusion workshop along with field interviews in Namibia in June and December
  17. Ute Dieckmann 2018. The Status of Food Security and Nutrition of San Communities in Southern Africa. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous

Robert Hitchcock is a member of the board of the Kalahari Peoples Fund (KPF), a non-profit organisation devoted to assisting people in southern Africa, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ben Begbie-Clench is a consultant working on San issues in Namibia who works with the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN), Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) and UNDESA This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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