• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: Namibia

The Indigenous Peoples of Namibia include the San, the Ovatjimba, Ovatue and Ovahimba, and potentially a number of other peoples, including the Damara (ǂNūkhoen) and Nama. Taken together, these Indigenous Peoples represent some 8% of the total population of the country, which was 2,630,073 in 2020. The San (Bushmen) number between 28,000 and 35,000, and they represent slightly more than 1% of the national population. They include the Khwe, the Hai||om, the Ju|’hoansi (and related ‡Kao||'aesi), the !Xun (comprising of four or more distinct populations), the Naro and the !Xóõ (and related N|oha). 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 Kunene Region, in the semi-arid and mountainous north-west of Namibia. Together, they number some 27,000, representing 1.02% of the total Namibia population.

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 for 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. The main legislation drawn up in relation to Namibian marginalised communities, a White Paper,[1] had not been approved by the Namibian Cabinet as of the end of 2020. Namibia voted in favour of the United Nations 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 set out in the 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 submitted two mid-term reports to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council. In 2020. COVID-19 led to a lockdown in Namibia on 17 March 2020, which reduced the spread of the disease but which also affected livelihoods, employment, incomes and tourism in Namibia. Namibia did not attend the 19th annual meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) in April 2020 as the meeting was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples

The COVID-19 pandemic seriously impacted Indigenous Peoples in 2020 and led to a reduction in incomes and employment for virtually all Indigenous and marginalised communities in the country.[2] The number of tourists visiting Namibia in the period between March and December 2020 declined substantially, affecting revenues for the government and incomes for Indigenous people, who benefit from tourism. Returns from tourism and safari hunting declined in 2020 in the Nyae Nyae and N⧧a Jaqna Conservancies and in Bwabwata National Park, the only national park in the country in which people are allowed to reside,[3] as did community craft sales.

The government mounted food and water assistance efforts for marginalised communities. The Kalahari Peoples Fund and One Pencil, an NGO working in Kunene, provided information on strategies to cope with the coronavirus, including mask-wearing, social distancing and hand washing, in Nyae Nyae Conservancy, among other major San communities and in Kunene Region among Ovatjimba and Ovatue communities.

Some Ovahimba and San communities complained of a lack of access to the limited state grants provided during the pandemic,[4] while administration and budget deficits in government food distribution programmes further impacted on the increased food insecurity during the pandemic.[5] In a few areas of Namibia, local government is reconsidering approaches to assisting San communities, which may lead to better long-term outcomes.[6]

Insufficient land reform discussions

Discussions on communal land reform in 2020 in the Commission of Inquiry into Claims of Ancestral Land Rights and Restitution[7] were felt by many Indigenous and minority communities to be insufficient in terms of addressing their needs equitably and fully.[8] The President received the report from the Commission of Inquiry into the Claims of Ancestral Land Rights and Restitution in July 2020, following extensive national consultations. The report was published in January 2021.

Legal cases

In terms of the various legal cases that have been filed by San communities, the Hai||om collective action case saw no action by the Namibia High Court on its appeal, due in 2021. The Nyae Nyae illegal grazing case was postponed in November to early 2021. The N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy did not see government enforcement of its successful case, which was to involve the removal of illegal grazers and fencers in 2020 and, in fact, additional fences were found in the conservancy and in the M’Kata and N⧧a Jaqna community forests.[9] Fencing off of communal land in Namibia continued to be an issue in 2020.[10]

Opposition to the Baynes Dam

Members of the Ovahimba community continued to oppose the Baynes Dam development between Angola and Namibia, which was subject to renewed agreements to proceed in 2020.[11] A community-driven attempt to remove the government-recognised Traditional Authority Chief of the Ovahimba, who supports the dam’s development, was overturned by the High Court on appeal in July 2020.[12]

Oil and gas exploration

Particular concerns were expressed by communal conservancies in the Kavango East Region and by the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resource Management Support Organisations (NACSO) regarding the oil and gas exploration activities of a Canadian oil company, Reconnaissance Energy Africa Ltd. (ReconAfrica), which surveyed in the region north of Khaudum National Park in December 2020, bringing the potential threat of fracking should reserves be located.[13] Local people in the area expressed concern at a potential decline in the water table and the loss of valuable wildlife and wild plant products as a result of the oil drilling operations. Dispersed San populations are found within the exploration area. San communities in Kavango East and West received special attention in 2020 due to their particularly acute poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to education and health issues.[14],[15]

Access and benefit sharing

Namibia made progress in developing policies on access and benefit sharing agreements relating to genetic resources under the Nagoya Protocol in 2020.[16] Indigenous plant products such as Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) are exploited by Indigenous and minority communities, generating as much as N$1 million per communal conservancy.[17] Work has been conducted at the University of Namibia and the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) on high-value plant resources that have potential for increasing funds for Indigenous and minority communities in Namibia and for the country as a whole. One sad event that occurred in Nyae Nyae was the death on 12 June 2020 of |Kunta Boo, a highly respected traditional healer (known in the Ju|’hoan language as a g!aeha) who not only performed healing acts but also mentored young people in Ju|’hoan healing practices and taught others about medicinal plants.

Bwabwata National Park (Kavango East and Zambezi regions)

Bwabwata National Park in north-eastern Namibia was established in 2007 and is the only park in Namibia where Khwe San are allowed to reside within the park. According to local people, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is eroding, in part because people are not allowed to practise many of their traditional skills due to restrictions in the park.[18] Unlike some other San groups in the country, the Khwe in Bwabwata lack a Traditional Authority (TA), which limits their ability to influence regional and national-level politics. In September 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) announced its intention to implement a Cabinet decision from 1999 to remove cattle from Bwabwata National Park. Some members of local San, Mafwe and Mbukushu communities complained bitterly about the negative effect this decision would have on their livelihoods[19] while other members of the same communities, especially the San, supported it due to the land degradation and illegal migration into the park that is caused by excessive cattle ownership.[20]

The Na Jaqna Conservancy, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and the Etosha Hai||om Concession

The two largest San conservancies in Namibia are the N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy and the Nyae Nyae Conservancy. Both have faced incursions from the outside by cattle-owning groups. Tensions continued to be felt between the !Kung Traditional Authority (KTA), Glony Arnold, the chief of the !Kung San people, and the people of the N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy over the !Kung Traditional Authority’s decisions regarding alleged encouragement of people from outside of the conservancy to bring their cattle into the area and establish cattle posts and build fences, some 62 of which were in existence at the end of 2020. There were also claims by the !Kung chief that some people living in the conservancy did not have identity cards and were thus not full citizens of Namibia, something that local people contested.[21] The M’kata Community Forest Management Committee and the N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy Forest Management Committee both took issue with plans to resettle additional farmers in the N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy as proposed by the government and supported by the !Kung TA.

Issues raised at the Annual General Meeting of the N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy in August 2020 included a desire for expanded Devil’s Claw exploitation opportunities, the problems of a decline in tourism, the lack of enforcement of their legal case, the need for additional food to offset the hunger resulting from COVID-19, and the desire for the trophy hunting company operating in the area to maintain the work force. Complaints were also made about the failure to repair the water facilities.[22]

The High Court claim by members of the Hai||om San people regarding Etosha National Park and Mangetti West made no progress in 2020, with the appeal hearing scheduled for 2021 after rejection of their collective action lawsuit by the High Court in 2019.[23] Some of them would like to see Etosha and its surrounding area become part of a Kunene People’s Park.[24] Ongava Game Reserve was selected as the preferred bidder to partner with the Hai||om for the new Etosha Community Joint Venture Concession in December 2020. This joint venture concession covers a portion of Etosha National Park and ex-commercial farm areas adjacent to the park that have been purchased by the government to resettle the Hai||om. Ongava, a private reserve and safari company with close ties to the Hai||om, will collaborate with the !Gobaōb Hai||om Community Association in the joint venture concession. The Hai||om Traditional Authority and David ||Khamuxab, the chief of the Hai||om, are supportive of these efforts, according to the Secretary of the Hai||om Traditional Authority.[25]

Role of Indigenous women and youth

Various women’s organisations in Namibia, including those in San, Himba and Ovatue areas, pressed for greater recognition of women’s rights in 2020, including the right of women to own land and for greater protection of women from exploitation and domestic abuse. The San Youth Network (SYNet) also argued for greater recognition of Indigenous and minority youth roles in decision-making in their communities, and they assisted in the COVID-19 relief efforts in Omaheke and Otjozondjupa regions. Women and youth are playing an increasingly important role in the Indigenous movement in Namibia. One of their areas of concern relates to the treatment of refugees and immigrants, including those housed in the Osire Refugee Camp south of Otjiwarongo. They were particularly worried about the lack of availability of information on COVID-19 for both refugees and host community members, and have been seeking lasting solutions for refugees and asylum seekers as well as Indigenous and minority communities in Namibia.[26] Indigenous and minority youth are also concerned about access to preschool and primary school education, and they were grateful for the Village Schools Programme in Nyae Nyae and other educational efforts that were being pursued in various parts of the country.[27]

The San, Ovahimba, Ovatue and other marginalised communities in Namibia are all hoping that the coming years will see the coronavirus pandemic brought under control, an expansion of tourism and the strengthening of the Namibian economy. They are also hoping for action from the High Court on their legal cases and for greater movement on their human rights concerns.


Ben Begbie-Clench is a consultant working on minority and Indigenous issues in Namibia, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Robert K. Hitchcock is an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who is also a Board member of the Kalahari Peoples’ Fund (KPF), This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Division of Marginalised Communities. “Draft White Paper on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Namibia.” Windhoek: Division of Marginalised Communities, Office of the President, 2020.

[2] Information from the Division of Marginalised Communities (DCM), Office of the President, 15 December 2020.

[3] Reports from the Nyae Nyae and N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy Management Committees and from the Kyaramacan Association, August-December, 2020.

[4] Jason, Loide. “Himbas, San left out of N$750 grant.” New Era Live, 12 May 2020. Accessed 8 February 2021. https://neweralive.na/posts/himbas-san-left-out-of-n750-grant

[5] Simasiku, Obrien. “Hunger stalks San community.” New Era Live, 13 October 2020. Accessed 8 February 2021. https://neweralive.na/posts/hunger-stalks-san-community

[6] Ashipala, Nuusita. “118 San learners registered for school.” New Era Live, 6 August 2020. Accessed 10 February 2021. https://neweralive.na/posts/118-san-learners-registered-for-school

[7] Republic of Namibia. “Commission of Inquiry into Claims of Ancestral Land Rights and Restitution.” Windhoek: Republic of Namibia, 24 July 2020.

[8] See, for example, Delgado, Guillermo, and Uhuru Dempers. “The Second Crossroads in Namibia’s ‘Land Question’.” Rosa Luxemburg Stitfung, 27 August 2020. https://www.rosalux.de/en/news/id/42884/the-second-crossroads-in-namibias-land-question?cHash=6b2f8fee2f8617296dbca6f3b7acd5fb; Odendaal, Willem and Wolfgang Werner. “‘Neither Here nor There’: Indigeneity, Marginalisation, and Land Rights in Post- Independence Namibia.” Windhoek: Legal Assistance Center, 2020. http://www.lac.org.na/projects/lead/Pdf/Neither_here_nor_there-2020.pdf

[9] Data from the N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy and the M’kata and N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy Forest Management Committees, September 24 2020; see also “Fighting Fences: The N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy Caught Between State Policies, Overlapping Authorities, the Judiciary, and Land Grabbers.” African Affairs, 2020.

[10] See Kashululu, Rose-Mary Popyeni, and Paul Hebinck. “The fencing question in Namibia: A case study in Omusati.” In “‘Neither here nor there’...Indigeneity, marginalisation and land rights in post-Independence Namibia,” edited by Willem Odendaal and Wolfgang Werner, 163-183. Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre, 2020.

[11] Mota, Siziwe. “With a new dam proposed on the Kunene River, the Himba people mobilize to permanently protect their lifeblood.” International Rivers, 27 February 2020. Accessed 8 February 2021. https://www.internationalrivers.org/news/blog-with-a-new-dam-proposed-on-the-kunene-river-the-himba-people-mobilize-to-permanently-protect-their-lifeblood/

[12] Menges, Werner. “Himba leader wins chief status appeal.” The Namibian, 24 July 2020. Accessed 10 February 2021 https://www.namibian.com.na/202927/archive-read/Himba-leader-wins-chief-status-appeal

[13] Tan, Jim. “Alarm as Exploratory Drilling for Oil begins in northern Namibia.” Mongabay, 28 December 2020. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/12/alarm-as-exploratory-drilling-for-oil-begins-in-northern-namibia/; see also Barbee, Jeffrey and Kerry Nash. “Mystery Surrounds Plans to start Fracking Near Namibia’s Kavango River and Botswana’s Tsodilo Hills.” Daily Maverick, 16 September 2020. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-09-16-mystery-shrouds-plans-to-start-fracking-near-namibias-kavango-river-and-botswanas-tsodilo-hills/; Barbee, Jeffrey and Laurel Neme. “Oil drilling, possible fracking planned for Okavango Oil drilling, possible fracking planned for Okavango region—elephants’ last stronghold.” National Geographic Society, 28 October 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/oil-drilling-fracking-planned-okavango-wilderness; Brown, C. Namibia Nature Foundation, December 2020.

[14] Rasmeni, Mandisa. “Ndama’s San Community Plagued by Unidentified Infectious Disease, Pleads For Government Assistance.” Namibia Economist, 7 October 2020. Accessed 10 February 2021. https://economist.com.na/56378/health/ndamas-san-community-plagued-by-unidentified-infectious-disease-community-plead-for-government-assistance/

[15] New Era Live “San in Kavango West trapped in extreme poverty.” 29 April 2020. Accessed 9 February 2021. https://neweralive.na/posts/san-in-kavango-west-trapped-in-extreme-poverty

[16] Hazam, John, and Jessica Lavelle. “Implementing Namibia’s Access to Biological and Genetic Resources and Associated Traditional Knowledge Act.” Voices for BioJustice, Policy Brief, June 2020. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ca2d827aadd343de55a408b/t/5f1df2f20e1af3503cc4af5a/1595798260053/2020_Implementing+Namibia%E2%80%99s+Access+to+Biological+and+Genetic+Resources.pdf

[17] See, for example, Bollig, Michael. “Shaping the African Savannah: From Capitalist Frontier to Arid Eden in Namibia.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 183-184, 327-328.; Wiessner, Pauline. “Traditions and Transition Fund annual report 2020.” 2020.

[18] Paksi 2020. Op.cit.; see also Thomsen, Jennifer Marie Thomsen, Selma Lendelvo, Katherine Coe, and Melanie Rispel 2021. “Community perspectives of empowerment from trophy hunting tourism in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2021. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09669582.2021.1874394

[19] Namibian Broadcasting Corporation. “Mukwe Communities oppose removal of their livestock out of Bwabwata National Park.” 6 August 2020. https://www.nbc.na/news/mukwe-communities-oppose-removal-their-livestock-out-bwabwata-national-park.34986

[20] Namibia Broadcasting Corporation. “Ministry of Environment says removal of cattle from Bwabwata will not negatively impact livelihoods.” 7 August 2020. Accessed 9 February 2021. https://www.nbc.na/news/ministry-environment-says-removal-cattle-bwabwata-will-not-negatively-impact-livelihoods.34997

[21] Chairperson and management committee of the N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy, personal communications, September 2020. See also Matthys, Donald. “N⧧a Jaqna Conservancy Sustains Itself through Enterprising by Activities.” Namibia Economist, 19 May 2020. https://economist.com.na/53039/community-and-culture/n%E2%89%A0a-jaqna-conservancy-sustains-itself-through-enterprising-activities/

[22] Mathys. Op. cit.; Smit, Ellanie. “N⧧a Jaqna Holds Best AGM yet.” Namibian Sun, 10 August, 2020. https://www.namibiansun.com/news/na-jaqna-holds-best-agm-yet2020-08-10/

[23] Harrisberg, Kim. “Indigenous Namibians Fight for Ancestral Land in National Park.” Reuters, 13 April 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-namibia-land-indigenous-idUSKCN21V0PI

[24] Statements by Hai//om interviewed in 2020.

[25] Secretary of the Hai//om Traditional Authority, personal communication, 28 December 2020.

[26] UNHCR. 2020. “South Africa Representation Office, July-September 2020.” Johannesburg: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 3 November 2020. https://reliefweb.int/report/south-africa/unhcr-fact-sheet-south-africa-representation-office-july-september-2020

[27] Reports of the Kalahari Peoples Fund and Village Schools Programme, Melissa Heckler, Bruce Parcher, Megan Biesele, Kerry Jones, personal communications 2020.



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

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