• Indigenous peoples in Botswana

    Indigenous peoples in Botswana

    The San, the Balala, the Nama, and their sub-groups are the indigenous peoples of Botswana. Although Botswana has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country's indigenous peoples are not recognised by the government. The indigenous peoples are among the most underprivileged in Botswana.
  • Peoples

    3.3 per cent of the population identifies as belonging to indigenous groups, but are not recognised 64,000 belong to the San peoples, while 1,750 belong to the Balala peoples, and 2,200 to the Nama peoples
  • Rights

    2007: Botswana adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Current state

    Although Botswana has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country's indigenous peoples are not recognised by the government. Also, they are among the most underprivileged peoples in Botswana.


The republic of Botswana – a brief history

Formerly a poor and peripheral British protectorate known as Bechuanaland, Botswana gained its independence in 1966 under the name Republic of Botswana and with Sir Seretse Khama as its first president.

Historic developments of importance to indigenous peoples

The San are believed to be among the first known people to inhabit the country. Their presence can be linked to rock art (paintings and engravings) and sites associated with Late Stone Age, believed to be from 25 to 20,000 years old. Later, from around AD 1200, well organised Tswana tribes moved into the region. But it was only in around 1800 that developments within South Africa, pressure from white settlers, and a general population explosion led to the arrival of other Bantu-speaking people and more extensive movements of Tswana tribes into the territories that now make up Botswana.

These tribes were well organised, stratified structures, each with a chief or king, and by early 20th century they were in control of most of Botswana. The most powerful ones were later to be codified as the 'eight main tribes' in the Constitution of 1966.

During the Protectorate (1884-85 to Independence), British impact was minimal, and the changing fortune of the San population was determined by their relationship to the dominant groups. The Protectorate administration created Native or Tribal Reserves (roughly corresponding to the Districts after Independence), generally assuming that land belonged to the tribe occupying an area, and the Tswana chiefs suffered relatively little interference in their internal affairs. To the extent that the colonial administration considered the rights of non-Tswana communities, they were conveniently assumed to be subject to the Tswana land use regime.

While the dry savannah expanses of western Botswana were first settled as late as the second half of the 19th century as improved borehole technologies opened up new expanses for cattle ranching, the indigenous Bushman population in the more densely populated southern and eastern parts of the country, was gradually incorporated as serfs into the stratified social structure of "Tswanadom". The relationship of the San to the Tswana was semi-feudal, bordering to slavery in some cases.

Although serfdom was abolished long time ago, and the authority of the chiefs has been considerably modified after Independence, the position of the San and the Nama has remained to this day marked by marginalisation and exclusion. Whether cattle post labourers, settlement or slum dwellers, most of the San and Nama live at or below the Poverty Datum Line (PDL). They also exhibit some of the highest rates of illiteracy, morbidity and mortality in the country.


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

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. The Indigenous World 2019.

Contact IWGIA

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

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