• 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.

Update 2011 - Namibia

The indigenous peoples of Namibia represent some 8% of the national population. It is generally accepted that the San (Bushmen), who number between 32,000 and 38,000,1 are indigenous to the country. There are six different San groups in Namibia, each speaking their own language and with distinct customs, traditions and histories. They include, among others, the Khwe, 4,400 people mainly in Caprivi and Kavango Regions, the Hai||om in the Etosha area of north-central Namibia (9-12,000), and the Ju|’hoansi (7,000), who live mainly in Tsumkwe District East in the Otjozondjupa and the Omaheke Regions.2 The San were, in the past, mainly hunter-gatherers but, today, many have diversified livelihoods, working as domestic servants or farm labourers, growing crops and raising livestock, doing odd jobs in rural and urban areas and engaging in small-scale businesses and services. Over 80% of the San have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands and resources, and today they are some of the poorest and most marginalized peoples in the country.3

Other indigenous peoples are the Himba, who number some 25,000 and who reside mainly in the semi-arid north-west (Kunene Region) and the Nama, a Khoe-speaking group who number some 70,000. The Himba are pastoral peoples who have close ties to the Herero, also pastoralists who live in central and eastern Namibia. The Nama include the Topnaars of the Kuiseb River valley and the Walvis Bay area in west-central Namibia, a group of some 1,800 people who live in a dozen small settlements and depend on small-scale livestock production, use of !nara melons (Acanthosicyos horrida), and tourism.

Namibia voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but has no national legislation dealing directly with indigenous peoples nor are they mentioned in the Constitution. In 2010, the Namibian cabinet approved a Division for San Development under the Office of the Prime Minister,4 which is an important milestone in promoting the rights of indigenous peoples/marginalised communities in Namibia.5


Land and natural resource management

and in Namibia consists of two agricultural sub-sectors, namely communal and commercial agriculture. Commercial areas (approx. 44% of the country’s surface of 824,000 sq km) consist of the lands which were allocated to white commercial agriculture during colonial times, and the communal areas (approx. 41%)6 are the former homelands that were allocated to the various Namibian groups under the Apartheid system. A breakdown of the distribution of San according to the 1991 Namibia census indicated that there were 12,921 San on commercial farms (47.5%), 14,024 in communal areas (51.5%) and 284 in urban areas (1%).7

The living conditions differ significantly in commercial and communal areas. While the majority of San on commercial land have no right to the land and have to make a living as farm labourers, domestic workers or urban squatters, San, Himba and Nama on communal areas have – albeit limited – access to land and its resources.

Rural communities have the option of establishing conservancies and community forests on communal land.8 The San living in the conservancies are fortunate in comparison to most other San in Namibia in that they have access to land, are managing the natural resources of the land and are able to practise, to varying degrees, their traditional lifestyles.

In 2011, the Namibian government continued its land reform programme aimed at giving the historically disadvantaged majority access to some of the commercial land. Until 2011, under the government’s San Development Programme, six farms were bought for the resettlement of the Hai||om San on the southern border of the Etosha National Park (the ancestral land of the Hai||om) and one farm in the Otjozondjupa Region for other San groups.9 Many Hai||om from the surrounding commercial land area and the towns in the vicinity moved to these farms. However, as on other resettlement farms in Namibia, establishing sustainable livelihoods independent of government food aid and massive external support is difficult, if not impossible, at the moment.


Tourism and other income-generating activities

Tourism represents one of Namibia’s most important sources of income. In 2011, indigenous communities throughout Namibia were attempting to cash in on tourism-related projects. At least ten indigenous communities in conservancies are involved in joint venture tourism agreements with lodges and other tourism companies.10 Additionally, in the conservancies and on San resettlement farms, a number of other projects addressing issues of poverty and hunger are taking place, including village gardens, the harvesting and marketing of indigenous plants (e.g. Devil’s Claw) and craft production. For example on the three San resettlement farms in Omaheke supported by Desert Research Foundation of Namibia and HABITAFRICA Foundation in 2011, 104 producers were active in craft production and the total annual income was N$149,178 with an average annual income per producer of N$ 1,750 (approx. US$ 223).11


Towards human resource development and training

As part of the San Development Programme, the Office of the Prime Minister established the “Back to School and Stay at School Campaign” in 2010 with its main objective of encouraging learners from marginalised communities to attend school and remain in school, and receive a good education like other citizens in Namibia. In 2011, the campaign toured several Ovatue and Ovatjimba community settlements in Kunene Region.

The Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) continued its special education programme for the San, which specifically supports Early Childhood Development but also helps with bursaries for San students in different fields. Various craft production training projects took place in different regions throughout the year in order to enable San women and men to produce high quality products for the national and international market.

In 2011, three San students from Namibia took part in a nine-month training course at the San cultural and education centre, !Khwa ttu, located 70 km northwest of Cape Town in South Africa, in which they developed their skills in community-based tourism and hospitality. Additionally, they learned about life skills, San issues, rock art, botany and environmental issues. The trainees had the opportunity to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills during on-the-job training at the weekends. The training also offered the opportunity to meet San students from other parts of the sub-continent and to share experiences and common issues.

The field of indigenous education and capacity building, however, requires far more support than it currently receives in Namibia.


The indigenous peoples’ organisations and support organisations

In Namibia, there are many community-based organisations (CBOs), some of them initiated and managed by indigenous peoples. However, a strong grass-roots indigenous peoples’ movement is still lacking. On a regional level, the San are represented by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), which comprises the national San Councils of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are assisting indigenous peoples in Namibia in various aspects (e.g. education, human rights, and livelihoods). Most of these NGOs are part of the San Support Organisations’ Forum (SSOF), which was established in 2009 as a platform of stakeholders working with San in Namibia. This platform offers the opportunity to present ongoing activities in the various regions, to discuss and negotiate matters with government agencies, to share ideas, lessons learnt and best practices and to improve the coordination of the various San support initiatives. Moreover, the SSOF - where possible - intends to contribute to policy development on the development of San communities. The platform further gives the opportunity to align the work of the different stakeholders with international standards, such as the UNDRIP.


Threats to indigenous peoples’ rights in 2011

Several issues are of concern with regard to the rights of the San:

The Nyae Nyae Conservancy is seeking ways to limit the number of outside Herero farmers settling in Tsumkwe (the central town in the area is excluded from conservancy land). These farmers are illegally using conservancy resources for grazing, firewood etc.12 There are two strategies being used at the moment: (1) enforcing a Council by-law which forbids livestock within the township area where the Herero are keeping their cattle at night; and (2) applying a new Veterinary Law which enables stray livestock (i.e., Herero livestock which daily leave the township and illegally graze in the Conservancy area) to be impounded. Both of these strategies are aimed at encouraging the Herero to leave the area under threat of legal fines and possible loss of livestock.

Unauthorized fencing of land within the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy is threatening conservancy development and excluding San individuals from their usufruct rights to the land. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism has agreed to help by obtaining the GPS coordinates of these unauthorised fences. These fences, with coordinates, can then be reported to the Communal Land Board, which has the mandate to investigate and determine their legitimacy, and the powers to have them removed if they are unauthorized.

The Government of Namibia wants the approximately 350 Hai||om San still living in Etosha National Park to reallocate to resettlement farms south of the park. The Hai||om still living in the park are of the opinion that they have not been properly consulted or involved in the planning of the relocation. They prefer to stay and be employed in the National Park. They are also concerned that the government will not provide enough post-resettlement support on the farms. Additionally, there is the fear that they will lose access to their ancestral land.

Another concern for, particularly, the Himba in Kunene Region, is the plan by the governments of Angola and Namibia to build the N$7 billion (US$ 1 billion) Baynes Dam, 50 km west of the Epupa falls on the Kunene River. There is a great deal of opposition from most of the Himba community against the building of the dam. The Himba are concerned that the anticipated influx of outsiders will force them to abandon their tradition and culture. The potential removal or destruction of ancestral graves located along the Kunene River is another major concern.13 A meeting with all Himba Chiefs from Angola and Namibia was held in October 2011, organised by the feasibility study team under the direction of Urban Dynamics, based in Windhoek, to discuss the way forward regarding construction of the dam. The Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia continues to advise the community on what steps to take. The construction has not yet started and no agreed plan has been finalized.


Promoting indigenous peoples’ rights in Namibia in 2011

The project “Promoting & Implementing the Rights of the San Peoples of the Republic of Namibia”14 continued its activities in 2011. For instance, within the programme, a Guide to Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Namibia, a booklet on child labour amongst San communities and a mobile exhibition on marginalised communities in Namibia were developed.15 Furthermore, the website of the Division for San Development of the Office of the Prime Minister was launched within the project16 and a policy framework for marginalised communities in Namibia is in the process of being developed, with its finalisation planned for 2012.17

The Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA) and Natural Justice: Lawyers for Communities and the Environment (a South African non-profit organization) held a workshop with indigenous community representatives and other stakeholders in August 2011 on bio-cultural protocols (“community protocols” or BCPs), which are instruments that facilitate culturally-rooted, participatory decision-making processes within communities with the aim of asserting rights over their communally managed lands and traditional knowledge. The workshop has led to proposals for them to initiate bio-cultural protocols in Namibia’s indigenous communities. The initiative will start in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in 2012.


Notes and references

1   Suzman, James, 2001b: An Introduction to the Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa. Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre. Report Series. April 2001.

2    Available figures on the number of San mostly date back to censuses in the 1990s. A new comprehensive census is still outstanding.

3    The extent of San marginalisation is clearly evident in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) socio-economic indicators of human development, where the situation of the San is consistently worse than for other groups in Namibia – see uNdP, 2007: Trends in Human Development and Human Poverty in Namibia: Background paper to the Namibia Human Development Report. Windhoek: UNDP.

4    http://www.sandevelopment.gov.na/index.htm.

5    The author would like to thank Mr Aaron Clase from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Friedrich Alpers from IRDNC, Ms Lara Diez from NNDF, Mr Willem Odendaal and Mr John Hazam from the LAC for updates on 2010 and 2011 from their respective organizations and other useful information and comments.

6    Werner, Wolfang and Willem odendaal, 2010: Livelihoods after land reform. Namibia country report. Windhoek: LEAD, Legal Assistance Centre: 18.

7 Suzman, James, 2001a: An Assessment of the Status of the San in Namibia. Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre: 6. REPORT SERIES. January 2001.

8    In Namibia, conservancies are locally-planned and managed multi-purpose areas on communal land, where land users have pooled their resources for wildlife conservation, tourism and wildlife utilization. All in all, there are now 65 registered conservancies in Namibia.

9    office of the deputy Prime Minister, 2008: The San Development Programme Report 2007/2008. Windhoek: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. office of the deputy Prime Minister, 2011: Draft Annual Report for the Year 2009/2010. Draft report. http://www.sandevelopment.gov.na/index.htm.

10  Namibian association of CBNRM support organisations, 2010: Namibia’s communal conservancies: a review of progress and challenges in 2009. Windhoek: NACSO.

11  This is minimal compared to the estimates of per capita GDP (US$6,900). However, the high per capita GDP hides one of the world’s most unequal income distributions, as shown by Namibia’s 70.7 GINI coefficient. (see https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world- factbook/geos/wa. html). For San, however, every source of cash income is needed in order to make a living.

12 See iWGia, 2010: The Indigenous World 2010. Copenhagen: IWGIA. P. 550. Also personal communication with John Hazam, 3.1.2012

13 See Muranga, Elvis, 2011: Epupa Déjà Vue. In Insight Namibia. December 2010, January 2011: 37

14  The Namibia component of the Indigenous Peoples’ Programme under the 2008/12 partnership programme of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation and the International Labour Organisation, in cooperation with the Office of the Prime Minister.

15  Unpublished list of deliverables 2010 & 2011: “Promoting & Implementing the Rights of the San Peoples of the Republic of Namibia”.

16  http://www.sandevelopment.gov.na/index.htm.

17  Unpublished list of deliverables 2010 & 2011: “Promoting & Implementing the Rights of the San Peoples of the Republic of Namibia”.


Ute Dieckmann is research coordinator at the Land Environment and Development Project of the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia. Her research over the last decade has focused on San and land reform in Namibia.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

 instagram social icon facebook_social_icon.png   youtuble_logo_icon.png  linkedin_social_icon.png twitter-x-icon.png 

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand