Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: OshiWambo, OtjiHerero, Nama/Damara, Afrikaans, German, English (official)
Main religions: Christianity (mainly Protestantism, some Roman Catholicism), traditional beliefs
Namibia is a country of great diversity. Ovambos comprise about half of the population.
San hunter-gatherers and Nama pastoralists have lived in Namibia since prehistoric times, joined at an early but unknown date by the Damara, also originally hunter-gatherers. All speak distinctive languages featuring click sounds. The Topnaars or !Gaonin are a few hundred surviving members of the Nama-speaking Hurinin and !Naranin tribes who originally inhabited parts of coastal Namibia.
Namibia’s whites are predominantly Afrikaans-speaking but include English-, Portuguese-and German-speakers, the last-named being the only significant such community in Africa and retaining a strong sense of identity. As in South Africa, whites retain a highly privileged position following their loss of political power.
The collection of ethnically disaggregated data is prohibited, so exact figures on community size are unavailable and are not included in the 2011 national census. However, the government does collect data on language and reported that its sample in the 2011 census consisted of speakers of Oshiwambo languages (48.8 per cent), Nama/Damara (11.4 per cent), Afrikaans (10.5 per cent), Otjiherero languages (8.5 per cent), Kavango languages (8.4 per cent), Caprivi languages (4.8 per cent), English (3.5 per cent), German (0.9 per cent), San languages (0.8 per cent), Setswana (0.3 per cent) and others. However, the census stresses that this is a limited sample and cannot be used to extrapolate trends across the country as a whole. Nevertheless, independent assessments of the indigenous population have been undertaken and include Nama (between 80,000 and 100,000), San (between 27,000 – 36,000), Himba (25,000; plural: Ovahimba), Ovazemba, Ovatjimba and Ovatwa. They together comprise around 8 per cent of the national population.
The government does not include an official count of indigenous populations in the census. The Namibian government has not officially recognized the rights of indigenous peoples or other minorities within the constitution or state legislation: it does not include an official count of indigenous populations in the census. The government also has not recognized the individual identities of these communities, instead referring to San, Himba, Ovatue, Ovatjimba and Ovazemba collectively as ‘marginalized communities’.
Updated May 2020
Namibia’s minority and indigenous communities continue to struggle with the legacy of colonialism, including genocide, land loss and decades of apartheid rule. When Namibia gained independence, the new government refrained from large-scale land reform: as a result, ancestral territory remains unrecognized to this day. Instead, it aimed to help marginalised communities acquire any land they needed. The Namibian government has attempted to address land rights issues through the purchasing of resettlement farms by the Division for Marginalized Communities. However, indigenous peoples often wait years before they are able to move onto this land; it is often in remote locations, making it difficult to access public services. In the meantime, many indigenous communities face challenging conditions in resettlement camps where basic infrastructure such as water and sanitation are frequently limited or non-existent – making it impossible for residents there to sustain themselves.
As a result, land rights remain a contested issue for the country’s indigenous communities today in the face of development programmes, such as the construction of a controversial hydroelectric power station and a dam in the Kunene River. Initially intended to block the beautiful Epupa Falls, the dam project led to massive protests; the current proposal is for a smaller structure situated further downstream at Baynes. Himba pastoralists in the region have condemned the lack of prior consultation over the development and claim it will lead to the loss of irreplaceable cultural heritage as ancestral graves will have to be exhumed to make way for the scheme. It will also deny them and their livestock access to important grazing land vital to the continuation of their traditional livelihoods.
The UN Human Rights Committee has expressed concern that all ancestral lands that formerly belonged to indigenous peoples currently remain under State ownership. The situation of Hai//om, the only San community with no access to communal lands, is especially precarious. In 2015, community representatives filed a case with the Namibian High Court in an attempt to gain recognition of their rights to ancestral territory in northern Namibia, including Etosha National Park – the first of its kind in the country. The case, however, is complex and is likely to last for years before a decision is reached. At the end of hearings in the Windhoek High Court in November 2018 concerning the eight applicants’ right to represent the community, three judges reserved judgement, postponing delivery of their decision until August 2019.
The specific needs of minorities and indigenous peoples are not always catered for in Namibia, despite a number of government initiatives. Physical, social and legal constraints also mean state development programmes do not benefit all Namibians to the same degree, and rural-urban inequalities could further exacerbate these disparities. As many minority and indigenous communities still live in conservation areas, forests and national parks, they typically gain less from government initiatives to combat poverty and improve access to health care, as these tend to be focused on the urban poor.
However, according to Namibia’s Fifth National Development Plan, running to 2022, the government aims to ‘integrate marginalized communities’ (some 2 per cent of the population, made of predominantly of San, Ovatue and Ovatjimba) and address a range of social challenges within these groups through better access to education and other opportunities. At present, however, San remain Namibia’s most disadvantaged group, ranking far lower than the rest of the population with regard to almost all development indicators due to decades of discrimination. As the collection of data by ethnicity is prohibited, disaggregated information is difficult to come by. Nevertheless, official figures suggest that more than half (55.6 per cent) of San have never had any formal education and so are unable to read or write; only 7 per cent have completed primary education.
While the creation of a new Ministry of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare in 2015 was promising, it is important that its initiatives are appropriately designed to also reach the most marginalized communities, such as San, who face exploitation, hunger and poverty due to their physical isolation and persistent discrimination against them. Women and children are especially vulnerable due to sexual abuse and lack of access to essential services such as health or schooling; those engaged in domestic work and farm labour are particularly at risk. It is hoped that the Child Care and Protection Act, passed in 2015, will strengthen educational access for indigenous children, many of whom are unable to attend schools due to their remote locations.
The challenges facing Namibia’s indigenous peoples extend beyond their traditional geographic locations and are typically replicated elsewhere. For instance, in recent decades, having previously lived almost exclusively in rural areas, a significant proportion of San have resettled in camps or on the edge of townships due to their lack of access to land and the decline in available employment on commercial farms. With few resources or skills applicable to the urban labour market, their situation is especially vulnerable. Many urban San face serious food insecurity and limited prospects of formal employment, with most engaging in odd jobs to survive. Even among other low-income residents, previous research has suggested that San are still far poorer than other squatters.
Namibian women achieved a victory in 2014 with the Namibian Supreme Court condemning the forced sterilization of three HIV-positive women and acknowledging their lack of consent. Their case is considered a precedent for many more HIV-positive women who have been forcibly sterilized. The ruling could have particular relevance for minority and indigenous women, as the HIV infection risk is higher among minority and indigenous communities due to a lack of public health campaigns in local languages and insufficient outreach in remote areas.
The legacy of the German colonial period, specifically the genocide beginning in 1904 against the Herero and Nama peoples, continues to be felt. In 2017, Herero and Nama representatives launched a lawsuit in the United States in order to pursue their claim against Germany through the US federal court, under the country’s Alien Tort Claims Act. In July 2018, the lawyer for the German government submitted a motion to dismiss the claim, citing Germany’s status as a sovereign nation. The judge concluded the session by stating that she would not rule immediately on the matter. The communities have also been pressing the German government to organise the return of human remains from German museums. There are estimated to be hundreds of human skulls, gathered from genocide victims for the purpose to prove spurious racial superiority claims. At a church service in Berlin in August 2018, the remains of over 25 people were handed over to Namibian government representatives – the third such ceremony. Herero and Nama spokespeople call for an official apology from the German government as well as compensation, but have complained that they remain excluded from negotiations between Namibian and German government representatives.
Updated May 2020
Namibia lies on the Atlantic coast of south-western Africa, just to the north of South Africa, west of Botswana, and south of Angola. A thin stretch of the country, the Zambezi Region, extends along the Zambezi River to the northeast, along the border with Zambia, and all the way to Zimbabwe. Namibia’s central highlands fall to the Kalahari desert to the east and the Namib Desert to the west. The country is rich in mineral resources, including alluvial diamonds, uranium, lead, tin, silver, zinc, tungsten and silver.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or possibly earlier, Bantu-speaking Herero pastoralists moved into central and north-western Namibia, and Ovambo agriculturalists into the far north of the country. The Kavango region and the Caprivi Strip in the north-east of the country are also primarily inhabited by Bantu-speaking peoples.
In the early nineteenth century displaced Afrikaans-speaking communities trekked to Namibia from the Cape in search of land. The introduction of firearms exacerbated conflicts over land and livestock, notably between the Nama and Herero. German colonialism from the 1880s led in 1904 to Herero then Nama rebellions which were crushed with ferocious brutality in what is now recognized by Germany as an act of genocide. In central and southern Namibia an estimated 60 per cent of the African population were killed, including over three-quarters of all Hereros and half of the Nama community. Most of the land was allocated for European settlement. In 1915 German colonial forces surrendered to South African troops. South Africa ruled the territory, under a League of Nations mandate until the United Nations revoked it in 1961, but South Africa continued to control Namibia illegally until independence in 1990. The latter period saw a protracted war between the South African army and the guerrilla forces of the Southwest Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the principal liberation movement, as well as South African imposition of a comprehensive version of apartheid, complete with ‘homelands’ for Namibia’s different African ethno-linguistic communities.
Namibia gained independence in 1990 as the apartheid system in South Africa was nearing its end. SWAPO and its leader, Sam Nujoma, swept to power. Although peace had come to Namibia, war continued in Angola to the north and Angolan UNITA rebels made use of Namibia’s Caprivi strip, where they maintained good relationships with the mostly Bantu-speaking population, itself alienated from the new government in Windhoek. In 1998 there was brief secessionist fighting in Caprivi, and the following year, Windhoek entered into a mutual defence agreement with Luanda, whereby they could each pursue the other’s rebels across the common frontier. Fighting in 1999 led some 2,000 Caprivian refugees to flee to Botswana, and the government quickly gained the upper hand. In 2003 it brought 120 separatists to trial.
President Nujoma was re-elected in 1994 and again in 1999 after pushing through a constitutional amendment allowing him a third term. Elections in November 2004 saw SWAPO maintain its large majority in the National Assembly, as well as victory for Nujoma’s favoured successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba. Although opposition parties complained of election irregularities, most international observers deemed the vote to have been free and fair. Nonetheless, a full recount was conducted, which confirmed the results in both the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Hereros have sought reparations from Germany for the atrocities committed against their ancestors in the early twentieth century. In 2004 Germany repeated its refusal to compensate the Herero people, noting that while it expressed deep regret for the ‘unfortunate past’, the German government would continue to provide aid to all Namibians, and not target assistance to one group.
As in South Africa, the legacy of apartheid has led to scepticism over notions of ‘minorities’ and ‘minority rights’. For more than a century the principal political conflict was over white colonial domination, and, though unity against ‘divide and rule’ policies was often limited, there remains a strong official commitment against politics conducted along ethnic lines. However, historical and demographic factors make it difficult to outlaw ethnic politics.
Ovambos, who bore the brunt of the liberation war, traditionally support the ruling party, SWAPO. Despite government efforts at ethnic balance in the administration, fears of Ovambo domination have remained significant. However, few of the many minorities have suffered significant active discrimination on ethnic or linguistic grounds.
Property rights in the Constitution, the result of a compromise between the South African government and SWAPO, mean that nearly half of the arable land in Namibia has remained in the hands of whites. Namibia gained credit for the peace and stability that followed its exceptionally long and bitter liberation war, as well as for a democratic Constitution that gives adequate weight to the protection of individual human rights.
The new government undertook land reform on a ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ basis. The process proceeded slowly, and the government came under increasing pressure to accelerate land reform. In 2004 it broadened the categories of farms subject to compensated expropriation.
In 2002 the government passed the Communal Land Reform Act 5 of 2002, creating 12 regional Land Boards to monitor land use in the former ‘homelands’ (which comprised about 15 per cent of the land area of Namibia). In 2016, a Land Bill was introduced in the National Assembly to consolidate and revise the provisions of this legislation: however, the bill was withdrawn after two weeks following significant criticism around the lack of consultation prior to its release. The Land Boards are comprised of traditional authorities and representatives of conservancies, as well as the ministries of Local Government, Agriculture, and Environment and Tourism. Forty traditional authorities have been recognized by the national government and participate in the Land Boards. Some remain unrecognized, and their local decisions have no government backing and can conflict with actions of the regional Land Board.
Despite the concerns previously raised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, in 2013, there has been no significant improvement in the political representation of Himba and San, as a third of their leaders have still not been recognized as official traditional leaders and remain excluded from decision–making processes at local and national levels. Nevertheless, there have been some positive steps from within the community, as formalized in 2015 along with the National San Council (NSC). The NSC has been active at an informal level since 2004 and is made up of different San communities with the shared aim of supporting San social and economic development.
President Hage Geingob was elected in November 2014 and sworn in on 21 March 2015. President Geingob has instituted a series of policies that, if implemented effectively, would greatly benefit indigenous peoples. This includes restructuring the former Division of San Development into the Division for Marginalized Communities and the appointment of a San to the position of Deputy Minister for the Division. Representing San, Himba, Tjimba, Zemba and Twa, the Division has been actively engaged in international indigenous forums.
In addition to a limited government representation, some minority and indigenous communities still face discrimination due to apartheid era laws that have yet to be repealed, such as laws on intestate succession.
Updated May 2020
Human Rights and Documentation Centre
Legal Assistance Centre
National Society for Human Rights
Legal Assistance Centre (LAC)
Women’s Leadership Centre
Desert Research Foundation of Namibia
Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia
Updated May 2020