• Indigenous peoples in Zimbabwe

    Indigenous peoples in Zimbabwe

    There are two peoples that self-identify as in indigenous in Zimbabwe, the Tshawa and the Doma. However, the Government of Zimbabwe does not recognise any specific groups as indigenous to the country.
  • Peoples

    There are approximately 2,600 Tshwa and 1,050 Doma in Zimbabwe, making up 0.03% of the country’s population.
  • Recognition

    The Government of Zimbabwe does not identify any specific group as indigenous, arguing that all Zimbabweans are indigenous peoples.
  • Challenges

    Though somewhat improved in recent years, realization of core human rights in Zimbabwe continues to be challenging.

The Indigenous World 2022: Zimbabwe

While the Government of Zimbabwe does not recognise any specific groups as Indigenous to the country, two peoples self-identify as such: the Tshwa (Tjwa, Cua) San found in western Zimbabwe, and the Doma (Vadema, Tembomvura) of Mbire District in north-central Zimbabwe. Population estimates indicate that there are 3,038 Tshwa and 1,495 Doma in Zimbabwe, representing approximately 0.031% of the country’s population of 14,829,988 in 2021. The government uses the term “marginalised communities” when referring to such groups.

Many of the Tshwa and Doma live below the poverty line in Zimbabwe and together they comprise some of the poorest people in the country. Socio-economic data is limited for both groups, although a survey was done of the Doma in 2021. Both the Tshwa and Doma have histories of hunting and gathering, and their households now have diversified economies, including informal agricultural work for other groups, pastoralism, mining, small-scale business enterprises, and working in the tourism industry. Remittances from relatives and friends both inside and outside the country make up a small proportion of the total incomes of Tshwa and Doma. As is the case with other Zimbabweans, some Tshwa and Doma have emigrated to other countries in search of income-generating opportunities, employment, and greater social security.

The realisation of core human rights in Zimbabwe continues to be challenging. Zimbabwe is party to the CERD, CRC, CEDAW, ICCPR and ICESCR. Reporting on these conventions is largely overdue but there were efforts in 2021 to meet some of the conventions’ requirements. Zimbabwe also voted for the adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007. Zimbabwe has not signed the only international human rights convention addressing Indigenous Peoples: ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of 1989. The government has indicated its wish to expand its programmes and service delivery to marginalised communities but there are no specific laws on Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Zimbabwe. However, the “Koisan” language is included in Zimbabwe’s 2013 revised Constitution as one of the 16 languages recognised in the country, and there is some awareness within government of the need for more information and improved approaches to poverty alleviation and improvement of well-being among minorities and marginalised communities.

COVID-19 in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe, like other countries in southern Africa, had to cope with the impacts of COVID-19 in 2021. Lockdowns helped prevent the spread of the virus, as did the wearing of masks, social distancing, and hand washing. The vaccination rate by the end of 2021 was 50.3% but some areas, notably remote ones, had much lower rates. The spread of the Omicron variant toward the end of 2021 resulted in high hospitalisation rates in the country and the lack of access to safe and clean drinking water across the country has contributed to the negative impacts of COVID-19.

The pandemic had significant impacts on the economies and livelihoods of Indigenous and minority communities in the country. While final statistics are not available, it appears that tourism declined by as much as 60% in 2021.[1] Data from the country’s protected areas, including Hwange, Victoria Falls, and Gonarezhou, revealed a significant drop in tourist visits, which affected park employees as well as people living in the periphery of parks and who engage in tourism and sell crafts. The lack of craft sales had a particular impact on women. The COVID-19 pandemic has had both direct and indirect impacts on wildlife in protected areas, with increased numbers of animals dying from a variety of diseases because of a lack of protection by wildlife officials as well as a lack of funding.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) continued to provide human rights awareness seminars in the country, including in areas where Tshwa San and Doma (Vadema) are located. The ZHRC also provided COVID-19-related materials to prisons in Zimbabwe, which had high rates of COVID-19. There were small numbers of Tshwa and Doma in these prisons, mostly there due to wildlife related offences.

The economic and security situations in Zimbabwe

The economic situation in Zimbabwe continued to deteriorate in 2021 with high inflation, rapidly rising prices, mounting unemployment, and less access to basic commodities for the poor. On the positive side, the amendment of the Education Act in 2021 resulted in lower rates of corporal punishment of children in schools, and fewer pregnant girls required to leave school. The changes in the Education Act had a bearing on Tshwa and Doma children, whose school attendance was variable in 2021.

The security situation in Zimbabwe continued to be problematic in 2021, as State-sponsored security forces dealt harshly with demonstrators, sizeable numbers of whom were beaten, arrested and jailed, sometimes for extensive periods of time. At least 70 anti-government demonstrators and journalists were arrested in 2021. The number of Indigenous people arrested for illegal exploitation of wildlife declined in 2021, in part because there were fewer Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management personnel on patrol due to budget restrictions.[2]

In Tsholotsho District in Matabeleland North Province, where the largest population of Tshwa resides, Zimbabwe police launched an investigation into elephant sales by councillors and other regional government representatives, who were allegedly under-pricing elephant licence sales and, as a result, depriving the Tsholotsho community of tens of thousands of Zimbabwean dollars.[3] Under Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) Programme, Tshwa and other community members were supposed to receive some of the funds from the sale of elephant licences in 2021.

Community activities

The Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust (TSDT) met with Tshwa community members in Tsholotsho and Bulalima Mangwe Districts in 2021 regarding issues involving education, mother-tongue language documentation, health, leadership, and land access.[4] TSDT continued to work with international and local non-government organisations and research institutions on educational and language documentation issues. While some analysts see the Tsholotsho San as having failed to make the transition to modernisation,[5] the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust argues that modernisation has affected Tshwa livelihoods in a variety of ways. Dozens of Tshwa had jobs in the modern industrial economy, and several Tshwa youth were attending university, in 2021.

A government delegation visited Tsholotsho in July 2021, on behalf of the Cabinet. This high-level mission aimed to examine the right to equality and non-discrimination, particularly with regard to the Tshwa. The delegation noted a lack of identity documents, high levels of teenage pregnancies, poor education rates and food insecurity among the San.

The Cabinet instructed that every Ministry should identify and take up a developmental role in areas inhabited by the Tshwa and that two or three more primary and secondary schools be established in the area, along with health clinics, access to informal and formal employment, and improvements to the CAMPFIRE programme[6] and local land trust, plus greater access to birth and identity documents. The Cabinet also instructed that San headmen and chiefs be appointed. This has been followed up on, and implementation has started.

Until 2021, the Tshwa had no formally recognised leaders of their own. On 2 November 2021, the Tshwa thus finally had the opportunity to select their own chief and headman. This was due to the above-mentioned directive from the Cabinet. Christopher Dube is now the Chief designate and Zeckius Tshuma the Headman designate for all of the Tshwa in Zimbabwe. It was hoped that their appointments would be confirmed officially by the Zimbabwe government by the end of December 2021. The Doma in the Zambezi Valley have yet to go through the process of electing their own chief and other local authorities.

Cross-border interactions between Tshwa in western Zimbabwe and north-eastern Botswana continued to take place. There was some out-migration from Tsholotsho to other areas, including to Bulawayo, with a small number of Tshwa seeking employment in Botswana, South
Africa and Zambia. At least half a dozen Tshwa were involved in informal mining activities in western Zimbabwe in 2021.

Role of Indigenous women and youth

Zimbabwean women’s organisations and the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust noted that the rates of rape and spouse and child abuse increased in 2021, possibly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of Indigenous girls going to school increased to a limited extent, although some of them dropped out in order to help their parents cope with the economic pressures brought about by COVID-19. Unemployment rates for Indigenous women in the tourism industry increased considerably but Tshwa and Doma women were able to cope in part through greater dependence on food handouts from the Zimbabwe government and NGOs. Some moved into towns to seek work or sell crafts to urban customers. There were indications that Indigenous women’s health declined during 2021, partly due to COVID-19. Tshwa and Doma women were experimenting more with traditional medicines and seeking assistance from traditional healers in order to cope with the illnesses they and their families were suffering from. Calls were made by Indigenous people in Zimbabwe for more emphasis to be placed on their health and well-being, echoing calls from the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe and Women’s Action Group. COVID-19, while a huge threat to Zimbabwe, at least brought greater attention to the serious complex social, economic and political issues faced by Indigenous, minority and vulnerable members of Zimbabwe’s population.

Davy Ndlovu is the Director of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust in Bulawayo. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ben Begbie-Clench is a consultant working on San and Doma issues in Zimbabwe who is based in Namibia. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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


This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Zimbabwe Tourism Statistics 2021, Zimstat.

[2] Ndlovu, M., G. Matipano and R. Miliyasi (2021): An analysis of the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on wildlife protection in protected areas of Zimbabwe in 2020. Scientific African 14 (November 2021), e01031. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S246822762100332X

[3] Bulawayo 24 (2021) Zimbabwe: Police probe Tsholotsho elephant sales. Bulawayo 24, 14 December 2021

[4] Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust Annual Report for 2021. Bulawayo: TSDT.

[5] Dube, T., C Ncube, P Moyo, K Phiri and N Moyo (2021): Marginal communities and livelihoods: San communities’ failed transition to a modern economy in Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe, Development Southern Africa, Volume 38, 2021 - Issue 6. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0376835X.2021.1955660

[6] The CAMPFIRE Programme (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) is a programme established in Zimbabwe in 1986 which stipulates that communities should receive some of the benefits from tourism and safari hunting activities.



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