• 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.

Indigenous World 2020: Namibia

The Indigenous Peoples of Namibia include the San, the Ovatue and Ovatjimba, and potentially a number of other peoples including the Damara 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 2019. 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 they are now some of the poorest and most marginalised 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. Together, they number some 26,000 in total. 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 in the Division Marginalised Communities (DMC). The Constitution of Namibia prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnic or tribal affiliation but does not specifically recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples. There is a final 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).

Namibia, one of the most arid countries in the world, experienced significant climate change impacts in 2019. Not only did the country experience its worst drought in 90 years, it was also affected by high temperatures, erratic and low rainfall, occasional floods and outbreaks of livestock and wildlife disease.1 In addition, Namibia was coping with its third year in a row of economic downturn, exacerbated by the drought. Severe socio-economic inequalities persisted albeit with a slight improvement in poverty rates.2

Freedom House ranked Namibia as  one  of  the  freest  countries in Africa politically in 2019.3 The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of Transparency International placed Namibia 56th out of 180 countries.4 The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s (MIF) Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) ranked Namibia number 4th out of 54 African countries in terms of overall governance in 20185 although their 2019 report, “African Governance Report 2019: Agendas 2063 & 2030: Is Africa on Track?”6 noted deteriorating indicators for quality of education, property rights and transparency and accountability. Documents and investigations related to corruption in Namibia’s fishing industry led by an Icelandic firm were released in November 2019, leading to the arrest of the Minister for Justice and Minister for Fisheries.7

In a national election held on 27 November 2019, Dr. Hage Geingob of the South-West African Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) was re-elected albeit with a lower majority than was the case in 2014.8 The result was challenged by an independent presidential candidate, largely on the basis of the lack of an audit paper trail accompanying electronic voting machines.9

The Division of Minorities Communities (DMC) of the Office of the Vice President continued to provide support to the San, Ovatue and Ovatjimba communities in the country. The DMC oversaw distribution of food and other goods as part of its responsibilities. At the local level, some families complained that they did not receive the full range of benefits through the government’s Social Safety Net (SSN) programmes.10 There were cutbacks in the support for marginalised students through the DMC’s bursary programme because of budget shortfalls.11

Policy issues related to Indigenous Peoples 

Namibia is one of the few countries in Africa which has worked on policy with regard to Indigenous Peoples, a draft White Paper on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Namibia having been developed over the last seven years. The final draft was considered by government and community stakeholders at a meeting in Swakopmund in December 2019, supported by the DMC and the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs. The draft was approved by the Office of the Attorney General and is now awaiting presentation to Cabinet and approval by Parliament.

Namibia took part in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ 18th annual meeting held in New York from 22 April – 3 May 2019. The Hon Kxao Royal |Ui|o|oo of the DMC, the only San person in the Namibian Parliament, attended the meeting along with Gerson Kamatuka of the DMC. A Khwe San employee of the DMC, Mr Bornface Mate, was nominated by government and accepted as a member of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from 2020 to 2022.

As a follow-up to Namibia’s Second National Land Conference in 2018, the Presidential Commission into Claims on Ancestral Land Rights and Restitution12 and related consultation processes on land issues saw visits to communities around the country, including San communities. The Commission’s report on ancestral land is expected in 2020.

Media coverage highlighted strong participation by some San communities, especially San in Omaheke complaining of being labelled as “marginalised” and with poor access to land,13 and Khwe and!Kung San within Bwabwata National Park objecting to their lack of rights and tenure.14 The Khwe continued to press for a Khwe Traditional Authority to be recognised in Kavango East Region and Bwabwata National Park. There were also questions raised about the need for additional Ovahimba and Ovatue Traditional Authorities in Kunene Region.

Legal cases 

There were three active legal cases involving San in Namibia in 2019. One of them, the Hai//om San class action legal case, involving Etosha National Park and the Mangetti area of north-central Namibia, was dismissed by a panel of High Court judges on 29 August 2019 as they did not recognise the applicants as representatives of their community.15 Shortly thereafter, an appeal of the decision was filed by the applicants in the case and the Legal Assistance Centre, which will be heard in 2020.

In the case of the illegal settlement and illegal fencing in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, there was no implementation of the court decision passed in 2016. Sizable and increasing numbers of livestock illegally grazing and illegal fences remained in the area, and the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy continued to document evidence. The case brought by the Ju/’hoan Traditional Authority and the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and Community Forest against six people accused of illegal grazing in Nyae Nyae was heard for a second time in the High Court, on 28 October 2019, revisiting eviction orders passed down by the High Court in November 2018. No final decision had been reached by the court as of the end of 2019.

The Herero-Nama legal case against Germany regarding the genocide in 1904-1907 was dismissed by the US federal court in New York. The case was appealed but no decision had been made by the end of 2019.

Climate change adaptations 

Namibia was involved in implementing climate change adaptive strategies in 2019. Non-governmental organizations such as the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia, the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, the Namibia Nature Foundation, and Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation were all involved in promoting climate-smart agriculture and conservation-oriented development programmes in various parts of the country. One aspect of these climate change strategies was the promotion of rainfed and irrigation gardens, careful soil and vegetation management, and the implementation of fire management strategies.16 Human-elephant conflict (HEC) was a major challenge to communities in many parts of northern and north-eastern Namibia and elephant predation on gardens and water points expanded considerably in 2019. Water protection facilities were constructed in N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Nyae Nyae Conservancy, and Kunene Region to keep elephants separate from community water supplies.

Tragic losses of San leaders and elders 

There were some tragic losses of Ju/’hoan and Khwe San leaders and elders in traffic accidents in 2019. In Nyae Nyae on 1 October 2019, two Ju/’hoan elders, one the wife of the Ju/’hoan Traditional Authority, Tsamkxao ≠Oma, //Uce /Ui, and another singer and musician, Nhakxa N!a’an, along with a University of Cape Town ethnomusicologist, Sonja Cato, died in a road traffic accident between Tsumkwe and Grootfontein. Two Khwe community leaders from Bwabwata National Park in Kavango West Region, Joseph Muyanbango and Boyke Munsu, were killed in a road traffic accident on 2 October 2019.

Women and youth 

San, Ovahimba and Ovatue women made some small gains in 2019. Gender-based violence (GBV) was a topic addressed at several meetings in Kunene, Kavango West and Nyae Nyae. Women’s involvement in national and local level women’s rights organizations increased in Namibia in 2019.17

Youth were active in Namibia San Council meetings held in Namibia in 2019,18 which continued to strengthen its governance and hold workshops, and which also launched a new brochure and website.19 The San Youth Network (SYNet) was active in 2019, and meetings were held on San issues in communities including from Bwabwata, N≠a Jaqna Conservancy and Windhoek. A representative from SYNet took part in the DMC-UNDESA meeting held in Swakopmund in December 2019.

San youth organised a meeting to talk to the management team at the DMC with regard to the delayed monthly stipends of the marginalised community students. There was also an event on “Dialogue with political parties” organised by the Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) with San Young Women and the San Council in November 2019. The San Council and Museums Association is currently working on a San exhibition and a booklet with San youth and elders that will be launched on 20 February 2020 in Tsumeb.

The general outlook for minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Namibia can be termed guardedly optimistic, depending in part on the country’s implementation of legal cases, the state of the Namibian economy, the actions of the government and NGOs regarding Indigenous and minority communities, and the severity of climate change in Namibia in 2020.


Robert K. Hitchcock is a member of the board of the Kalahari Peoples Fund (KPF), a non-profit organization 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 and Zimbabwe This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here


Notes and references

  1. “Namibia experiencing worst drought in 90 years, says official”. 2 October Windhoek and Beijing: Xinhua. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019- 10/02/c_138444404.htm
  2. Republic of Namibia 2019 “State of the Nation Address by His Excellency" Hage C. Geingob, President of the Public of Namibia”. 17 April 2019. Windhoek: Republic of Namibia.
  1. Freedom House Freedom in the World 2019. New York: Freedom House.
  2. Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index Report for 2019. London: Transparency International. https://www.transparency.org/cpi2019 Accessed 2 February 2020.
  3. Mo Ibrahim Foundation 2018. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). Accessed 21 January 2020: http://iiag.online/
  1. Mo Ibrahim Foundation 2019. “African Governance Report 2019: Agendas 2063 & 2030: Is Africa on Track? Accessed 21 January 2020: https://mo.ibrahim. foundation/sites/default/files/2020-02/African_Governance_Report_2019.pdf
  2. Kleinfeld, James “Exclusive: Corruption in Namibia’s fishing industry unveiled”. Al Jazeera, 1 Dec 2019 2019: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/ exclusive-corruption-namibia-fishing-industry-unveiled-191201073838635. html Accessed 15 February 2020.
  1. “Namibia’s President Hage Geingob wins re-election”. London: BBC News, 28 November 2019: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50618516
  1. “Itula throws legal challenge at ” The Namibian 2019, 3 December 2019, Accessed 12 February 2020: https://www.namibian.com.na/196006/archive- read/Itula-throws-legal-challenge-at-ECN
  2. N≠a Jaqna Conservancy Annual Report of N≠a Jaqna Management Committee, July 2019.
  1. Kahiunika, Ndanki “Govt Trims funding for marginalized students”. The Namibian, 22 August
  2. Tjitemisa, Kuzeeko “Commission of inquiry into ancestral land begins ” New Era Live, 16 May 2019: https://neweralive.na/posts/commission-of-inquiry- into-ancestral-land-begins-work
  3. “Don’t call us marginalised’... San communities claim discrimination”. The Namibian 2019, 17 June 2019: https://www.namibian.com.na/189643/archive- read/Dont-call-us-marginalised--San-communities-claim-discrimination
  1. “Kwee (sic) San community wants ownership of Bwabwata National ” Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, 7 July 2019 https://www.nbc.na/news/ kwee-san-community-wants-ownership-bwabwata-national-park.21453.
  1. Menges, Werner “Etosha Land Rights Claim Stumbles at First Hurdle.” The Namibian, 29 August 2019.
  1. See, for example, Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia NNDFN Annual Report 2019. Windhoek: NNDFN.
  2. Becker, Heike (2019) “Women in Namibia”. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Africa. Oxford: Oxford University
  3. San Youth Network SyNet Annual Report 2019. Windhoek: San Youth Network.
  4. The Namibia San Council, accessed 19 February 2020: https://www.sancouncil. com 

Tags: Women, Youth, Climate, Human rights



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