• 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.

Indigenous World 2019: 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, Tsoa, Tshwao, Cuaa) San found in western Zimbabwe, and the Doma (Vadema, Tebomvura) of Mbire District in north-central Zimbabwe. Population estimates indicate that there are 2,800 Tshwa and 1,350 Doma in Zimbabwe, approximately 0.03% of the country’s population of 14,030,368 in 2018.

Many of the Tshwa and Doma live below the poverty line in Zimbabwe and, together, they form some of the poorest people in the country. Available socio-economic data is limited for both groups although baseline data was collected for the Tshwa in late 2013 and followed up on in 2018. Both the Tshwa and Doma have histories of foraging and continue to rely to a limited extent on wild plant, animal and insect resources. Most Tshwa and Doma households have diversified economies, often working for members of other groups in agriculture, pastoralism, tourism, and small-scale business enterprises. Remittances from relatives and friends working in towns, commercial farms or the mines, 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, including Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia, in search of income-generating opportunities, employment and greater security.

Though somewhat improved in recent years, 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 2018 to meet requirements. Zimbabwe also voted for the adoption of the UNDRIP. In recent years, Zimbabwe has also participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council, the most recent meeting of which was held on 2 November 2016. Like many African states, Zimbabwe has not signed the only international human rights convention addressing indigenous peoples, ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of 1989.

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.


Country-wide elections were held in Zimbabwe between 23 and 31 July 2018. The elections were won by ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front), and Emmerson Mnangagwa was elected as president. There were complaints about partisan food distribution, particularly in Matabeleland North, voter intimidation, and violence both before and after the election.1

Relatively few San voted in the elections, in part because they lacked the appropriate documents, such as identity cards. Some San said that the elections were a distant spectacle for them since they had so little opportunity to participate in them.2

Serious economic situation

Sizable numbers of Tshwa, Doma and other Zimbabweans were seriously affected by the continued decline in the country’s economic situation in 2018. There was hope on the part of indigenous and other Zimbabweans that the new government of Emmerson Mnangagwa would lead to improvements in their conditions.

Both the Doma and the Tshwa San faced ongoing discrimination, food insecurity, low employment levels, limited political participation, and a lack of broad access to social services in 2018.3

Doma, Tshwa and other farm workers in Zimbabwe were affected by changes in their conditions on commercial and smallholder resettlement farms in western and northern Zimbabwe.4 Farm workers in western and northern Zimbabwe reported that they had gone several months without pay in 2018, and some of them said they were not supplied with food by the farm owners. Fewer than 50% of the Tshwa and Doma were supplied with commodities by the Government of Zimbabwe or NGOs under various programs in 2018.5

Policy, legislation and San self-organisation

There were no new policies issued or legislation passed regarding indigenous peoples and minorities in 2018. The Zimbabwe Constitution was translated into the San language of Tjwao, as per the recognition of the “Koisan” language in the Constitution.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), which paid a visit to San communities in Tsholotsho District in June 2016, had still not produced their report on the San as of the end of 2018.6

Four Zimbabwe representatives attended a regional workshop on the San and inclusion sponsored by the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Development, held in Windhoek, Namibia from 3-5 December 2018. Two government representatives from the Ministry of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing and two representatives of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, Davy Ndlovu and Christopher Dube, attended the meeting, the first international San meeting attended by both Zimbabwean San and government officials.

The only San organisation in Zimbabwe, the Tsoo-o-tso San Development Trust (TSDT) was very active in 2018. It is a registered Trust that advocates for and facilitates the development of the Tshwao/San people of south-western Zimbabwe. TSDT has been working since 2012 to enhance the livelihoods and well-being of the marginalised San communities and, according to observers, operates effectively despite a significant lack of resources.7

With the support of the Open Society Institute for Southern Africa (OSISA), the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust held a conference entitled, “Land, Language and Identity: The story of the San in Zimbabwe” on 16 February 2018 in Bulawayo.8 It was a follow-up to the launch of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, OSISA, and Government of Zimbabwe’s report on Zimbabwe San in November 2017. One of the issues raised at the conference was that land reform has been of little benefit to the San.9 This gathering, like others involving discussions of land and human rights issues in the country, was monitored by government officials.

The San in Tsholotsho have written a letter asking the government for their own councillor and chief.10

Land, conservation and livelihoods

Both Tshwa and Doma face pressure from the Zimbabwe Republic Police and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management for suspected poaching in and around conservation areas and national parks; some of the incidents involve elephants and other animals killed with cyanide, a poisonous substance used in gold mining.

An incident involving attempted poisoning of wild animals using cyanide-laced oranges occurred in Zambezi National Park (ZNP) in August 2018. Two poachers were arrested and were found to have cyanide and illegally-obtained copper wire in their homes. They were charged for these acts, and jailed for their crimes.

Dozens of poachers have been arrested in the Hwange area, according to the Bhejane Trust, a non-profit conservation organization that monitors poaching activities in the northern sector of Hwange and engages in water development for animals and tourist facility development. The International Anti-Poaching Foundation has supported wildlife protection operations together with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management game rangers, who have been involved in shootings and arrests of suspected “poachers”.11 There is no evidence, however, that Tshwa were involved in wildlife-related crimes or trafficking of wildlife products in 2018.

Hwange National Park (HNP) is Zimbabwe’s largest protected area and a prime tourism location. Covering an area of 14,651 km2, Hwange contains the largest and most diverse population of wild animals, reptiles, amphibians and birds in the country. It has a rich archaeological history and contains sites of foragers, farmers, traders and explorers.12 Hwange, which saw the displacement of San and other people in the 1920s, is an important economic engine for western Zimbabwe. Descendants of the Tshwa who were displaced to make way for the national park, now a World Heritage site, live in Tsholotsho and Bulilima-Mangwe. They all have extensive interactions with other groups, including the Nambya, Kalanga, and Ndebele; some Tshwa work for these other groups in exchange for food, cash, and other goods.13 In November 2018, government officials told the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust that, for their own benefit, the Tshwa could develop a tourist camp inside Hwange that visitors would be able to access through a gate in the southern boundary of Hwange.

In the mid-Zambezi Valley, the Doma are also experiencing human-wildlife conflict (HWC) and facing difficulties because their fields are being invaded by elephants and antelopes and their livestock are being killed by lions and other predators. Doma lands has already been restricted by the Chewore National Park and Dande Safari Area, as well as by rural in-migration and population growth. The Doma maintain that they are seeking access to additional land over which they could obtain legal rights.14

Several Doma have been shot at and arrested because of suspected poaching activities in the Kanyemba area and the Chewore Safari Area. Relations between Doma and the game scouts of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management remain strained.15

Gender, youth and participation

Tshwa and Doma have stated in community meetings that they continue to be concerned about women and children being exposed to physical and verbal abuse, both domestic and other.

Unlike Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, Zimbabwe does not have a San Youth Network, in part because most San lack Internet access. The National Gender Policy, which focuses on women’s well-being, was presented to Tshwa in Tsholotsho in community meetings during 2018 to positive acclaim.

Increased number of Tshwa children were able to attend school in Tsholotsho District during 2018 although the dropout rate by 7th grade is still high. The Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust provides support to two Early Child Development (ECD) Centres in the sub-district areas of Wards 7 and 8, and the NGO helps cover the costs of Tshwa children attending secondary school.

In 2018, with the assistance of Plan International, an NGO, the Zimbabwe government opened a new primary school in Mgodimasili, Tsholotsho District, in order to cater for the San community. San school children previously had to travel more than 10 km to get to the only primary schools in the two areas of Butababili and Skente. Even though the school is closer for some of the Tshwa, the problem of school fees continues to be a problem for them.16

On 6 September 2018, it was announced that a University of Zimbabwe linguist would help to pay the school fees for 24 San students to attend Landa John Nkomo secondary school in Tsholotsho as long as the school taught the Tsjwao/Tjwao language in the school, a recommendation endorsed by the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, which has long been concerned with the need for San students to be educated in their own language.17

Hopes for the future

At the end of 2018, Zimbabwe’s indigenous peoples were continuing to press the government for equitable and fair treatment before the law and full recognition of their social, political, economic and cultural rights. Some Tshwa and Doma have said they are encouraged that there is a greater sense that their concerns may be addressed by the new government elected in July 2018. Human rights defenders and NGOs are also somewhat encouraged that they may have a greater say in the situations of indigenous and marginalized communities in Zimbabwe.

Notes and references

  1. Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) 2018. Preliminary Election Monitoring Report, 23 – 31 July, 2018. Harare: Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. zhrc.org (accessed 24 December 2018).
  2. Ndlovu, 2018. Elections a distant Spectacle for the San. Zimbabwe Independent, 24 May 2018.
  3. Ndlovu 2018a. Annual Report of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust for 2018. Tsholotso: Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust; D. Ndlovu 2018b. Socialization and re-socialization of the Tjwa in Zimbabwe: A struggle to maintain cultural identity Tsholotsho: Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust; D. Ndlovu 2018c. My Culture, My Pride: Reclaiming the Tjwa Cultural Identity. Tsholotsho: Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust. See also R.K. Hitchcock, B. Begbie Clench, D. Ndlovu, A. Murwira, and I. Mberengwa 2018. Land, Livelihoods, and Empowerment among the San of Zimbabwe. In Research and Activism Among the Kalahari San Today: Ideals, Challenges, and Debates, R. Fleming Puckett and Kazunobu Ikeya, eds. pp. 251-282. Senri Ethnological Studies 99. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.
  4. Ian Scoones, Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba and Chrispen Sukume 2018. Labour after Land Reform: The Precarious Livelihoods of Former Farmworkers in Zimbabwe. Development and Change DOI: 1111/dech.12449. Information from Tshwa and Doma community members, March, July and December 2018.
  5. Interview data from Tshwa and Doma, July, November and December
  6. Staff Writer 2018. Rights Body Delays Releasing San report. Daily News Live, 2 May 2018
  7. Information from NGOs working in Tsholotsho, including Plan International, Childline and the African Bush Camps
  8. Nkala 2018. Land, language, identity of San people conference on cards. Newsday Zimbabwe Daily, 14 February 2018.
  1. Gumpo and A. Sibanda 2018. San Community Did Not Benefit from Land Reform: Activist. Newsday, 19 February 2018
  2. Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, personal communication, 5 December 2018.
  3. Bhejane Trust, August 2018
  4. Wriston, and G. Haynes 2018. Sediments, soils, and the expansion of farmers into a forager’s world: A Geoarchaeological study of the mid-to-late Holocene in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Quaternary International 466(b):324-426; Simon Makuvaza, personal communication, 26 June 2018.
  5. M. Ncube, 2018. An Examination of the Impact of the Historical Cultural Contact Between the Kalanga and San Groups in Western Zimbabwe Since the Pre-colonial Period: The Case of Bulilima. B.A. thesis, Midlands State University, Gweru, Zimbabwe.
  6. Statements from Doma, personal communications, 18 and 20 July 2018
  7. Akwei Ismail VaDoma, the Zimbabwean Ostrich Tribe with rare ‘two-toed Condition. Face 2 Face. 7 May 2018.
  8. Gagare 2018. Living on the edge: Exploited and marginalised by the communities around them, Zimbabwe’s San fight an uphill battle for survival. Africa in Fact, 23 November 2018.
  9. Sunday News Reporter Khoisan to be Taught in Tsholotsho. Sunday News (Zimbabwe), 16 September 2018.

Davy Ndolovu is a member of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Robert Hitchcock is a member of the board of the Kalahari Peoples Fund (KPF), a non-profit organisation 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 who works with the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN), This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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