• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: 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, Cua) San found in western Zimbabwe, and the Doma (Vadema, Tembomvura) of Mbire District in north-central Zimbabwe. Population estimates indicate that there are 2,950 Tshwa and 1,450 Doma in Zimbabwe, approximately 0.032% of the country’s population of 14,546,314 in 2020. 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, though a survey was done of Tshwa in 2020. 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 social 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 2020 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 and marginalized communities.

Serious economic situation exacerbated by COVID-19

Sizable numbers of Tshwa, Doma and other Zimbabweans were seriously affected by the continuing decline in the country’s economic situation and the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic in 2020.[1] The economy of Zimbabwe was in its worst state since the serious economic downturn of 2008-2009, with inflation at over 800%.[2] Much of the hope that the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa would relieve the economic crisis dissipated in 2020 as livelihoods declined, and the abuse of anti-government demonstrators increased.[3] Zimbabweans protested against corruption and human rights abuses using social media in 2020.[4] Some Tshwa San and Doma communities are struggling with food insecurity as incomes and employment decline in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and economic stagnation.[5] The national lockdown offered limited opportunities for the informal labour opportunities that many San communities rely on and, as reported by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, government outreach during the pandemic was delayed or did not materialise.[6], [7]

National parks and World Heritage Sites

An important area of concern for Tshwa and Doma in 2020 was the interaction between their communities and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management (Zimparks). Arrests of Tshwa in Tsholothso and Doma in the Zambezi Valley for alleged violations of wildlife laws increased, particularly after the declaration of the COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe on 24 March 2020. Local people in the Zambezi Valley said that they were sometimes blamed for taking action against predators and other wild animals in response to human wildlife conflicts (HWC).[8] For ZimParks, the department was having to deal with a reduction in the number of government wildlife personnel due to financial cutbacks as a result of COVID-19.[9]

A survey of Tshwa in Tsholotsho and Bulilimamangwe Districts revealed Tshwa concerns including discrimination, marginalisation, lack of equitable treatment, poverty, and lower levels of access to social infrastructure and services than was the case for other people in Zimbabwe.[10] One of the issues raised in the interviews was their desire to have some control over culturally-significant sites that contain rock art and archaeological remains. They also wanted to have access to World Heritage Sites such as the Hwange National Park (14,651 km2 ) and the Matobo National Park (424 km2) so that they could visit sites they believe are sacred to them, such as graves and former villages and places where rituals were practised.

Community programmes

Zimbabwe Tshwa and Doma want to obtain greater benefits from CAMPFIRE, the Communal Areas Programme for Indigenous Resources. The benefits that some 800,000 people in hundreds of communities across Zimbabwe receive include employment, meat from safari hunting, and funds for local infrastructure including roads, community centres and water systems.[11] Some communities maintained that the economic returns from the community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) programmes in 2020 were lower than in the past.

Access and rights to land

Both Tshwa and Doma want rights of access to forests in Zimbabwe, where they can obtain non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as Mopane worms (Imbrasia belina), and high value timber items such as Zimbabwe teak (Baikiaea plurija) and Kiaat (Pterocarpus angolensis). Since many of these forests are in communal areas, they want to have the opportunity to visit them without being arrested for violating forest protection laws and to be able to sell products on the commercial market.[12]

Organisations such as the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust (TSDT), the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) and the Zimbabwe People’s Land Rights Movement (ZPLRM) are all arguing for greater security of land tenure for Indigenous and marginalised communities in communal and resettlement areas. A halt to forced evictions in rural areas was a major goal of the ZPLRM throughout the year.[13]

San organisation

The Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, the only San community-based organisation in Zimbabwe, continued its efforts to advocate for the rights and well-being of Tshwa communities in 2020. Some of TSDT’s activities included the provision of information to San and other communities on strategies to prevent the spread of coronavirus, assisting children and youth in education, carrying out leadership training with a Council of Elders and others, promoting the learning and use of the Tjwao language, sponsoring youth performing arts programmes involving drama, dance and music, and working with communities to address issues of climate change.[14]


Primary and secondary education efforts for San and Doma children and youth were an important focus of concern in 2020. Surveys revealed that Tshwa faced constraints in terms of access to education in Tsholotsho.[15] The closure of schools in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic resulted in children not being able to get the face-to-face education they required, and many Tshwa children ended up either working for their parents or other people or roaming the land searching for food and medicinal plants.[16] Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust continued to provide support to two Early Child Development (ECD) centres in Wards 7 and 8 in Tsholotsho. Discussions with these centres and other schools in Tsholotsho and Bulilimamangwe revealed that the students were in need of curricular materials, notebooks, pencils and other supplies.[17] Work continued on the development of a Tshwa language dictionary and grammar in 2020 with assistance from Zimbabwean and international linguists.[18]

The First Lady of Zimbabwe, Auxillia Mnangagwa, continued to provide some support for education, health and livelihoods to San and Vadoma communities through her foundation, Angel of Hope. The foundation has recently encouraged the opening of local primary schools targeted at both groups, and it has carried out COVID-19 awareness campaigns.[19]

Violations of women’s and children’s rights

Tshwa and Doma stated in community meetings that they continued to be concerned about issues of women and children being exposed to domestic abuse and physical and verbal mistreatment both at home and outside, sometimes at the hands of members of other groups. Over half of all women in Zimbabwe, including members of Indigenous and minority groups, were forced to exchange sexual favours for jobs, medical attention, and school placements for their children in 2020.[20] Some San community members said they wanted the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission to look into these problems of abuse and mistreatment.[21] Access to healthcare for Indigenous peoples in Zimbabwe, particularly women, remained a concern in 2020.[22]

Equal treatment urged

The ZHRC highlighted the need for urgent action for marginalised groups, including the Indigenous San and Vadoma, in terms of accessing identity documents and therefore removing barriers to their rights and freedoms.[23]

By the end of 2020, Indigenous and marginalised communities in Zimbabwe were continuing to pressure the government for equitable and fair treatment before the law and for full recognition of their social, political, economic and cultural rights. They were also calling for access to coronavirus vaccines and for programmes aimed at addressing their loss of livelihoods, incomes and employment due to the coronavirus pandemic.



Davy Ndlovu 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 and Doma issues in Zimbabwe who is based in Namibia, 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] Koro, Emmanuel. “COVID-19 Plunges Zimbabwe into Wildlife Management Crisis.” Chronicle, 9 July 2020. https://www.chronicle.co.zw/covid-19-plunges-zimbabwe-into-wildlife-management-crisis/; Ndlovu, Davy. 2020a “Annual Report of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust for 2020.” Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, Tsholotso.

[2] Economist. “For a Few Dollars More: Zimbabwe’s worst economic crisis in more than a decade.” The Economist, 11 July 2020. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/07/09/zimbabwes-worst-economic-crisis-in-more-than-a-decade; Mutsaka, Farai. “Zimbabwe’s ‘keyboard warriors’ hold protests off the Streets.” AP News, 29 August 2020. https://apnews.com/article/c1661acb128a3b27faf73be747bc8d6e

[3] Kingsley, Patrick, and Jeffrey Moyo. “Zimbabwe Locks Down Capital, Thwarting Planned Protests.” New York Times, 31 July 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/world/africa/zimbabwe-coronavirus-protest.html; Mutsaka, Farai. “Scores of Zimbabwean Protestors arrested, military in streets.” Washington Post, 31 July 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/empty-streets-in-zimbabwe-as-security-forces-thwart-protest/2020/07/31/cda13416-d309-11ea-826b-cc394d824e35_story.html

[4] Patrick, Anita. “Zimbabweans stage solo social media protests against human rights abuse in the country.” CNN, 10 August 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/10/africa/zimbabwe-solo-protest-intl/index.html

[5] Ndlovu, Davy. 2020b. “Research Report: Decades of Land Dispossession and Loss of Ancestral Land, Cultural Assets and Livelihoods: A Case for the San in Zimbabwe.” Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, Bulawayo; data on Doma obtained during surveys done for a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project entitled “Strengthening Biodiversity and Ecosystems Management and Climate-Smart Landscapes in the Mid to Lower Zambezi Region of Zimbabwe” Harare, Zimbabwe, 2020.

[6] Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. “Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) Statement on the Human Rights Situation in the Extended Phase of the National Lockdown in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic.” 22 April 2020. Accessed 27 January 2021, http://www.zhrc.org.zw/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ZIMBABWE-HUMAN-RIGHTS-COMMISSION-ZHRC-STATEMENT-ON-THE-HUMAN-RIGHTS-SITUATION-IN-THE-EXTENDED-PHASE-OF-THE-NATIONAL-LOCKDOWN-IN-RESPONSE-TO-THE-COVID-19-PANDEMIC.pdf

[7] Muvundusi, Jeffrey. “San Community Goes Hungry as Govt Dithers.” Daily News, 7 June 2020. Accessed 27 January 2021, https://dailynews.co.zw/san-community-goes-hungry-as-govt-dithers/

[8] Data from Doma in Mbire District, 2020; see also De Wit, Anton H., Vincent Jani, and Nigel L. Webb. “Disputes, relationships, and identity: a ‘levels of conflict’ analysis of human-wildlife conflict as human-human conflict in the mid-Zambezi valley, Northern Zimbabwe.” South African Geographical Journal 102, 1 (2020): 59-76.

[9] Data from ZimParks, the Bhejane Trust and personnel in Hwange National Park and the Chewore Safari Area in the Zambezi Valley.

[10] Ndlovu, Davy. 2020b. “Research Report: Decades of Land Dispossession and Loss of Ancestral Land, Cultural Assets and Livelihoods: A Case for the San in Zimbabwe.” Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, Bulawayo.

[11] See the CAMPFIRE Association website, www.campfirezimbabwe.org, accessed 28 December 2020: Saarinen, Jarkko, and Ngoni Courage Shereni.. “Community perceptions on the benefits and challenges of community-based natural resources management in Zimbabwe.” Development Southern Africa, 2020.; Mashapa, Clayton, et al. “An Assessment of Women Participation in Community-Based Natural Resource Conservation in Southeast Zimbabwe.” Open Journal of Ecology 10 (2020):189-199.

[12] Mudombi-Rusinamhodzi, Grace, and Andreas Thiel. “Property rights and the conservation of forests in communal areas in Zimbabwe.” Forest Policy and Economics 121 (2020).

[13] Zhou, Hillary. “Zimbabwe People’s Land Rights Movement: Land Food, and Shelter Now.” Progressive International, 27 October 2020. https://progressive.international/wire/2020-10-27-zimbabwe-peoples-land-rights-movement-zplrm-land-food-and-shelter-now/en; Ndlovu, Davy. 2020a. Op.cit.

[14] Tsoro-o-tso. http://tsorotso.org/, Accessed 15 January 2021; Ndlovu, Davy. 2020a. Op.cit.

[15] Dube, Thulani, et al. “Access to formal education for the San community in Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe: challenges and prospects.” Heliyon 6, 7 (2020).

[16] Ndlovu, Davy. 2020c. “A case study on how COVID-19 lockdown is impacting continued access to education for Indigenous Minority San Students in Tsholotsho.” Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, Bulawayo.

[17] Ndlovu, Davy. Field observations, September-December 2020.

[18] Some of these linguists included Admire Phiri, Anne-Maria Fehn, and Jeffrey Wills.

[19] Rupapa, Tendai. “First Lady takes campaign to Binga.” The Herald, 10 June 2020. Accessed 27 January 2021, https://www.herald.co.zw/first-lady-takes-campaign-to-binga/

18 Chingono, Nyasha. “More than half of women in Zimbabwe have faced sextortion, finds survey.” The Guardian, 8 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/feb/08/more-than-half-of-women-in-zimbabwe-have-faced-sextortion-finds-survey; Transparency International Zimbabwe. “Gender & Corruption in Zimbabwe 2019.”, Transparency International Zimbabwe. 2020, Harare. http://www.tizim.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Gender-and-Corruption-in-Zimbabwe-2019.pdf

19 Statements made in community meetings in Tsholotsho and Bulilimamangwe Districts in Matabeleland North and South, and Mbire District in the Zambezi Valley, July-December 2020.

[22] Moyo, Providence. “Tsholotsho’s Phelandaba residents bemoan lack of access to healthcare.” Community Voices Zimbabwe. Accessed 27 January 2021 http://cvz.org.zw/Tsholotsho.php

[23] Ntali, Elia. “Zimbabwe: Urgent Attention to Acquisition of Identity Documents Needed – ZHRC.” allAfrica, 30 September 2020. Accessed 27 January 2021, https://allafrica.com/stories/202010010339.html



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.

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