The Indigenous World 2023: Namibia
The Indigenous Peoples of Namibia include the San, the Ovatue and Ovatjimba, and potentially a number of other peoples including the Damara, Nama, and Topnaars. Taken together, the Indigenous Peoples of Namibia represent some 8% of the total population of the country, which was 2,727,409 as of July 2022. The San (Bushmen) number between 28,000 and 35,000 and account for between 1.045% and 1.33% of the national population.
They include the Khwe, the Hai||om, the Ju|’hoansi, the!Kung, the!Xun, 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 (Ovatuwa) are largely pastoral people, formerly also relying on hunting and gathering, residing in the semi-arid and mountainous north-west of Namibia (Kunene Region). Together, the pastoralists number some 28,675, or 1.04% of the total Namibian 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 Division of Marginalised Communities (DMC) in the Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication, and Social Welfare. The Constitution of Namibia prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnic or tribal affiliation but does not specifically recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples. 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 produced a mid-term report for the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in Namibia in 2022. Namibia representatives attended the 21st session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York from 25 April-6 May 2022.
Namibia, a multiparty democracy, is considered a high middle-income country by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. The country celebrated the 32nd anniversary of its independence on 21 March 2022. Like many Sub-Saharan African countries, Namibia faced a number of major challenges in 2022. These challenges included the impacts of COVID-19 on the health and well-being of Namibians, the effects of the Ukraine-Russia war, which began on 24 February 2022 and led to increased food prices, higher energy costs, greater unemployment, and a general lowering of incomes, particularly among those people who self-identify as Indigenous and Marginalised Communities in the country.
As reported by President Hage Geingob in his State of the Nation Address to Parliament on 6 April 2022:
Government’s social safety nets, including the Food Bank, Drought Relief, Old Age Social Grants and Grants to Marginalised Communities, People with Disability, Orphans and Vulnerable Children, as well as the School Feeding Programme, have gone a long way to mitigate hunger and poverty among many vulnerable households.
His Excellency President Geingob went on to say that the Government of Namibia spends in excess of N$412 million per month on Social Safety Nets and an additional N$160 million on Drought Relief per annum. He noted that some 20% of the country’s population was receiving a government grant in one form or another in 2022.
Reports by various non-government organisations working with Marginalised communities indicated an increase in hunger in places ranging from Zambezi Region to Kunene Region and from Otjozondjupa Region to Erongo Region where the Topnaars are located. The Namibian government attempted to circumvent the hunger problem by ensuring commodity distribution along with clean water, soap, and other goods. Information on dealing with COVID-19 was provided by NGOs in mother-tongue languages, as seen, for example, in Kunene and Otjozondjupa.
In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions, in 2022 Namibia’s tourist numbers increased by 32,962 from the previous year, to 265,718.
Conservation, community-based natural resource management and Indigenous Peoples in Namibia
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Namibia is considered a world leader in biodiversity conservation and programmes that involve community-based natural resource management. In line with the Namibian government’s community-based natural resource management policy, local institutions known as conservancies can be established in communal areas of the country. A conservancy consists of a group of people who have pooled their resources for the purpose of conserving and utilising wildlife in its broadest sense (taken here to include mammals, birds, fish, vertebrates, invertebrates, and other lifeforms). Conservancies must be constituted legally, have clearly defined physical boundaries acceptable to neighbouring communities, have a council that consists of elected or appointed community representatives, and have a management plan that is acceptable to the Namibian government. Members of each conservancy have the right to utilise wildlife resources within its boundaries for the benefit of the community. In some cases, the conservancy leases out the right to oversee the resources to a private company, in exchange for which it receives benefits such as meat, employment and, in some cases, goods such as medicines and blankets. Overseeing the communal conservancies is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism (MEFT). MEFT sets wildlife quotas, ensures that the activities of the conservancies are consistent with regional and national resource policies, and provides technical assistance and advice. Ultimately, the conservancy system is a partnership venture between the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism and rural people on communal land in Namibia, which covers some 298,200 km2 or 36.07% of the country’s total area of 826,680 km2.
According to the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations (NASCO), as of the end of 2022 there were 86 communal conservancies in the country covering a total of 166,045 km2 and comprising 238,701 people. Communal Conservancies are found among Indigenous communities such as the Ju/’hoansi San in Nyae Nyae,!Kung and Khwe San in N≠a Jaqna, Khwe in Bwabwata National Park and in the Kunene Region among Ovahimba, Ovatjimba, Ovazemba and Ovatue communities. Some of these conservancies are more successful than others, with the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, for example, paying out some N$7 million (US$470,000) to its members in 2022. There were also some conservancies that were struggling, such as those in the Omaheke and Kavango West Regions. Some of the more successful conservancies were the ones that also included community forests, of which there were 43 in Namibia in 2022.
Advantages of the communal conservancies included increased biodiversity conservation, with wildlife populations including megafauna (e.g., elephants), predators (e.g., lions) and antelopes, with giraffes and elands showing increases in numbers in 2022. Anti-poaching activities on the part of the government, NGOs, and communities helped to reduce the losses of wildlife in many parts of the country. Some of the conservancies engaged in translocation of wildlife, which helped to restore the numbers of animals in their areas.
Legal cases and struggle for recognition
In terms of the various legal cases that have been filed by San communities against the government, the appeal of the Hai//om collective action case was dismissed by the Court of Appeals in March 2022. The appeal on the Nyae Nyae illegal grazing civil case continued to await hearing as of the end of 2022, and no ruling had as yet been issued on the long-standing parallel case in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy (NJC), where illegal fencing and the introduction of cattle and other domestic animals continued in spite of previous High Court rulings.
The Khwe of Bwabwata National Park in Zambezi Region continued to try and seek recognition whereby a Khwe Traditional Authority (TA) would be appointed but their efforts were stymied by the Namibian government and the Mbukushu Traditional Authority. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs (PSCCLA) undertook a fact-finding visit to Bwabwata National Park in Kavango East from 14 to 16 March 2022. The report of the Standing Committee did not endorse the request of the Khwe for a Traditional Authority. As it stands, the Mbukushu continue to control much of the Kavango East Region and portions of Bwabwata National Park. Currently, the Khwe can only be involved in decision-making through the Kyaramacan Association as the primary body through which Khwe People can engage in negotiations and discussions over the management of resources and benefit-sharing from activities such as trophy hunting and resource collection within Bwabwata National Park. The problem, however, is that Kyaramacan Association is not an exclusively Khwe body and therefore cannot fully represent the unique needs and interests of the Khwe People as a whole. The Mbukushu, for their part, continue to see the Khwe as a sub-tribe and therefore subsidiary to the Mbukushu.
Among the Ovahimba, land issues and traditional authority representation continued to be raised in 2022. The Ovahimba currently have some 35 Traditional Authorities but several of the Ovatjimba sub-groups would like to receive Traditional Authority status, which has yet to be granted. One of the concerns of the Ovatjimba related to the plans for a new dam on the Kunene River. Ancestral Land Claims were made by Ovahimba, Ovatue, Hai//om,!Kung, and Khwe in 2022.
Oil and gas exploration and threats to the Kavango Region of Namibia
Concerns about oil and gas exploration by a Canadian oil company, Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica) continued to be raised in 2022. In spite of claims on its website, the company has been employing fracking (hydraulic fracturing) techniques in the region north of Khaudum National Park in the Kavango West and East Regions. One of two wells has been test-drilled but proved to have insufficient evidence of oil, raising serious questions as to the claims of ReconAfrica. In addition, according to residents of the Kavango East Region, the employment promises of the company have been overstated, and only a small number of Kavango and no San have been able to obtain jobs from the company. Kavango and Khwe villagers in Kavango East Region reported that some of their wells were drying up due, they assumed, to the fracking activities of the company. They also said that some villagers had been dispossessed, contravening Namibian government statements that no resettlement would take place as a result of ReconAfrica activities. By the end of 2022, the ReconAfrica stock price on the Canadian stock exchange had fallen by 78% and investors were taking legal action against the company.
Challenges facing Indigenous women and youth
Various women’s organisations in Namibia, including the Namibian Women’s Association (NAWA) and the Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare (MGEPESW) have been pressing for greater recognition of women’s rights, including the rights of women to land and to protection from exploitation and domestic abuse. Gender-based violence (GBV) was on the increase in 2022, in part due to the social transformations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was true in the Indigenous communities in Namibia in 2022. The Combating of Rape Amendment Bill 2022 was tabled in the Namibian Parliament on 22 February 2022. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) congratulated Namibia for its adoption of its First National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (17 June 2022). CEDAW also noted that Namibia had one of the highest percentages of women in its national parliament.
Unfortunately, there were no Indigenous women in Parliament but there were Indigenous women in the management committees of communal conservancies and village-level organisations such as water committees and Parent-Teacher Associations.
According to President Hage Geingob and reports from the Namibian Parliament, Namibia was on the rebound economically in 2022. The country had resolved some of its economic problems and had sought to diversify its economy. Namibian representatives played a leading role in discussions about climate change at the meetings of COP 27 related to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Egypt from 6-16 November 2022. Namibian Indigenous representatives attended this meeting and held discussions with Indigenous representatives from other countries, including Botswana. Namibia also had substantive talks about world economic issues at the United Nations and other forums in 2022. Indigenous Peoples and Marginalised Communities in Namibia were hopeful that their status would improve in the coming years.
This article is part of the 37th 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 2023 in full here.
Notes and references
 Ibid, p. 32.
 These NGOs included the Legal Assistance Centre, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, the Nyae Nyae Foundation of Namibia, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society of Namibia.
 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) website, www.iucn.org, accessed 15 December 2022. See, in particular, a side event, 7 December 2022 entitled: Inclusive and effective implementation of draft target 3: Lessons learnt from past country experiences. www.iiucn/org/events
 Information from the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia, 29 December 2022.
 Menges, Werner. “San group appeal in Etosha rights case fails.” The Namibian, 19 March 2022.
 Van Wyk, Corinna. “Bwabwata National Park – The Khwe must be heard.” Windhoek: Legal Assistance Center, 5 April 2022.
 Fisch, Maria. The Hambukushu of Namibia's Kavango Region: A Comprehensive History. Windhoek: Namibia Scientific Society/Kuiseb Publishers. 2022.
 Miyamoto, Kana.Traditional authorities, legal power and land disputes in north-west Namibia, Anthropology Southern Africa, 45(1):16-29, 2022.
 Odendaal, Willem. The Tsumib Judgments and their Implications for Asserting Ancestral Land Rights in Namibia. Namibian Journal of Social Justice, 2:210-215, 2022.
 Information from the Namibia Nature Foundation and the Namibian parliamentary standing committee on natural resources, 18 October 2022.
 Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Geneva, 17 June 2022. https://www.ohchr.org/en/news/2022/06/experts-committee-elimination-discrimination-against-women-congratulate-namibia
Tags: Global governance