• 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 2020: 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, Tembomvura) of Mbire District in north-central Zimbabwe. Population estimates indicate that there are 2,850 Tshwa and 1,400 Doma in Zimbabwe, approximately 0.03% of the country’s population of 14,030,368 in 2019. The government uses the term “marginalised communities” when referring to such groups.

Many of the Tshwa and Doma live below the poverty line in Zimbabwe and together they comprise some of the poorest people in the country. Socio-economic data is limited for both groups. Both the Tshwa and Doma have histories of hunting and gathering and their households now have diversified economies, including informal agricultural work for other groups, pastoralism, tourism and small-scale business enterprises. Remittances from relatives and friends 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 in search of income-generating opportunities, employment and greater security.

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 2019 to meet requirements. Zimbabwe also voted for the adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007. Zimbabwe has not signed the only international human rights convention addressing Indigenous Peoples: ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of 1989. The government has indicated its wish to expand its programmes and service delivery to marginalised communities. 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.

The economic situation in Zimbabwe deteriorated in 2019 with a 12.8% reduction in GDP1 due to poor performance in mining, tourism and agriculture, the latter further impacted by drought and Cyclone Idai in March 2019, which killed over 250 people and led to heavy flooding in eastern Zimbabwe.2 The unpegging of the exchange rate to the US Dollar in February 2019 and subsequent re-introduction of the Zimbabwean Dollar led to currency shortfalls and an inflation rate rising to over 200% by the end of the year.

Zimbabwe was also dealing with a severe drought, declared by the President on 17 September 2019, which was estimated by the World Food Program to be the worst in a decade.3 Up to half of the population, 7.7 million of 14 million people, in Zimbabwe were considered food insecure at the end of Some members of the public considered the potential starvation and famine as a man-made disaster, while others saw it as the result of global and local climate change.4

The security situation in Zimbabwe continued to be problematic as security forces dealt harshly with political and economic demonstrations, including the use of violence and arrests.5, 6

San in Tsholotsho and Bulilima Mangwe districts

Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust (TSDT) continued working with language, education, culture and livelihoods issues with the Tshwa community of Tsholotsho district, north west of Bulawayo, throughout 2019. TSDT was threatened with the cancellation of its Memorandum of Understanding with the Tsholotsho Rural District Council in March 2019 due to apparent misunderstandings over the organisation’s work and financing. Nevertheless, TSDT continued its work throughout the year, collaborating with national and international research institutions such as the Ministry of Education, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and Plan International.

Plan International Zimbabwe, with the Tsholotsho Rural District Council and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, finished construction of the Mtshina Primary School in November 2019. The school was built to serve San and Kalanga children in the area who lived far from other school facilities.7

Efforts were made by TSDT to ensure children were able to get funds to attend school in collaboration with local non-government organisations in Tsholotsho in 2019. TSDT continued its recording and promoting of Tshwao (Tjwao), including holding a community “language party” in April, bringing together Tshwao, Ndebele and Kalanga speakers to share languages and stories.

Plan International assisted the Tshwa in obtaining identity documents in 2019 as a sizable proportion of Tshwa still did not have documents. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission held a consultation with San community members in Bulilima Mangwe District in December where the San complained of the continued lack of national identity documents, poor labour conditions and exploitation by neighbouring communities.8

The Tshwa in Tsholotsho and Bulilima Districts do not have their own chief and instead serve under chiefs from other ethnic groups. In 2019, the Tshwa were pushing for greater recognition of their traditional leaders who do exist in some Tshwa communities. The government is examining measures to implement this.

Cross-border interactions  between Tshwa  in  western  Zimbabwe and north eastern Botswana continued to occur. There was some out-migration from Tsholotsho to other areas, including to Bulawayo, with a small number of Tshwa seeking employment in Botswana.

There was a case of an alleged hate crime against a San youth in Tsholotsho in October 2019. The young Tshwa died as a result of blood loss or a heart attack after a beating by non-San youths, according to different sources.9

There were complaints of discrimination against Tshwa women by members of other groups. The women stated they were subjected to rude comments and exploitative economic situations. Dozens of San children were forced into working as goat herders and agricultural field hands by local non-San farmers, usually without any compensation for their labor. The Ministry of Rural Development, Promotion and Preservation of Natural Culture and Heritage met with Tshwa in Tsholotsho in November

2019 to discuss issues involving cultural heritage promotion and protection of cultural resources. The Tshwa in the meetings said that poverty alleviation and protection and promotion of the Tshwao language were among their major concerns.

Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Amai Mnangagwa, continued funding community level interventions through her Angel of Hope Foundation, focusing on education and livelihoods, which brought additional national media attention to the San in Zimbabwe.10 The First Lady has carried out similar projects with the Doma to promote education and health.11

Doma in Mbire District

There is no formal organisation representing the Doma (Vadema) in Mbire District, however they did receive assistance from Zimbabwe-based NGOs, including the Red Cross when Cyclone Idai hit the Zambezi valley in mid-March 2019. Assistance was also provided by the District Civil Protection Unit.

Food for work programmes provided income to approximately a third of the Tshwa and Doma in 2019, while the elderly and infirm received food commodities through the government’s and NGOs’ food aid programmes.

Educational support for the Doma continued in 2019 through the NGO Centre for Community Development in Zimbabwe (CCDZ). CCDZ and other sources state that out-of-school children and child marriages continued to be a serious problem for the Doma and neighbouring communities in 2019.12

Medical facilities for the Doma continued to be limited in 2019 with reports of home births and community members seeking cross-border maternal and medical care in Zambia.13

Continued hardships for the San and Doma

The benefits received from the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) continue to be limited for the Doma and San, partly due to their limited representation in local leadership structures. However, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority

recruited and trained 10 Doma community members as rangers in their area to conduct anti-poaching patrols, monitoring of hunts and problems of animal control.14

Livestock losses to predators and drought were severe in both Tsholotsho and Mbire districts. There were complaints especially in Tsholotsho that the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management (DNPWLM) personnel were slow in dealing with animal problems and payment of compensation for livestock losses was said to be inadequate in 2019.

The percentage of Tshwa and Doma planting new crops in the 2019-2020 agricultural season was lower than it was in the past three years.15 Government agricultural initiatives such as Command Agriculture have not benefitted rural small-scale producers, instead they have mainly focused on well-to-do farmers who receive seeds, subsidies and irrigation support.

Overall, the Indigenous people in Zimbabwe – the Tshwa and Doma – hope that improvements to access to basic services, representation and reduction in cultural and social discrimination will be realised in 2020.


Notes and references

  1. African Development Bank Group Zimbabwean Economic Outlook. https://www.afdb.org/en/countries/southern-africa/zimbabwe/zimbabwe- economic-outlook
  2. Reuters Cyclone Idai killed at least 259 in Zimbabwe, 217 missing: IOM https://www.reuters.com/article/us-africa-cyclone-iom/cyclone-idai-killed- at-least-259-in-zimbabwe-217-missing-iom-idUSKCN1R315H accessed 14 February 2020
  3. Latham, Brian Zimbabwe Food Security Crisis. Bloomberg. 2 December 2019.
  4. Marshall, Penny The worst drought in 40 years is driving Zimbabwe’s parched land into crisis and climate change is at the heart of it. ITV News, 2 December 2019.
  5. Times Live Scores arrested, beaten as Zimbabwe police crackdown on protests https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/africa/2019-01-17-scores-arrested- beaten-as-zimbabwe-police-crack-down-on-protests/
  6. The Guardian Chaos in Harare as Zimbabwe riot police violently disperse protesters https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/16/zimbabwe-riot- police-teargas-batons-clear-protesters accessed 12 February 2020
  7. Centre For Innovation & Technology 2019. San community in Tsholotsho celebrates launch of primary school. https://www.cite.org.zw/san-community- in-tsholotsho-celebrates-launch-of-primary-school/ accessed 11 February 2020
  8. Zimbabwe Chronicle San community cry exploitation. https://www. chronicle.co.zw/san-community-cry-exploitation/ accessed 12 February 2020
  9. Tsholotso Rural Development Council Police Report, Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe, 8 October 2019.
  10. Sunday News San Community looks up to the First Lady. https://www. sundaynews.co.zw/san-community-looks-up-to-the-first-lady/ accessed 12 February 2020
  11. Zimbabwe Herald First Lady brings cheer to marginalised communities. https://www.herald.co.zw/first-lady-brings-cheer-to-marginalised- communities/ accessed 11 February 2020
  12. Zimbabwe Herald Concern over rampant child marriages in Mbire https:// www.herald.co.zw/concern-over-rampant-child-marriages-in-mbire/ accessed 11 February 2020
  13. OSISA Death by Debt: the human cost of debt in southern Africa. http:// osisa.org/death-by-debt-the-human-cost-of-debt-in-southern-africa/ accessed 12 February 2020
  14. Zimbabwe Herald Zimparks trains Doma rangers. https://www.herald. co.zw/zimparks-trains-doma-rangers/ accessed 11 February 2020
  15. Information from Tsholotsho District and Mbire District farmers, August 2019.


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

Davy Ndlovu is the head of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust (TSDT), Tsholotsho and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Robert K. 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.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the 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 2020 in full here



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. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

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

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand