Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Between 27,000 and 36,000 people in Namibia, living mostly in the north and east of the country, are identified as San people, also Bushmen, the etymologically pejorative, but widely used terms describing the Hai//om, Ju/’Hoansi, !Xu (or Vasekele), Kwe (or Khwe), //Khau-/eisi, Naro, !Xo, /Auni and /Nu-//en ethno-linguistic groups. Few people have been subjected to such intensive myth-making as the San. Their status as the descendants of the original inhabitants of much of Southern and Eastern Africa serves to reinforce persistent ideas of their living isolated lives as hunter-gatherers unaltered since prehistory. In fact San people face a situation resulting from centuries, if not millennia, of interaction with their neighbours, a relationship which has generally been at best highly exploitative and at worst genocidal. Such interaction has all but overwhelmed traditional hunting and gathering culture. European myths of Bushmen leading blameless, idyllic lives untouched by history may be marginally preferable to earlier perspectives of San as less than human, but are an equally effective barrier to understanding.
Hunting and gathering San communities traditionally coexisted but also competed with pastoralists and sometimes cultivators. While this competition was often unequal, the expansion of settlers (and firearms) from the Cape was probably decisive in their dispossession. The influx of German colonists into north-east Namibia, particularly from 1907 following the suppression of the Herero and Nama rebellions, was especially devastating. Loss of land led to conflict which the German authorities pursued murderously against ‘wild Bushmen’ who raided livestock as an alternative to retreating to more arid regions or accepting a life of degradation and servitude on the farms. Settlers had virtual carte blanche to shoot any San suspected of stock theft and often did so, a situation improving only slightly following the South African take-over in 1915. As San people gradually became less of a threat to the settler economy the severity of their persecution declined, but they were still perceived by the authorities as people with even fewer rights and needs than other Africans.
To make way for settler farms Herero pastoralists had also been pushed eastwards off their land into traditional San territory, where Herero ‘native reserves’ were first declared in the 1920s. San were widely employed by Hereros, who often fostered San children, developing a relationship of authoritarian paternalism, by no means free of conflict, which continues today. Herero ‘homelands’ were expanded following the imposition of full-blown apartheid structures in 1964. In 1970 a largely waterless San ‘homeland’ was delineated in north-east Namibia from what was left of traditional San territory. By this time a large proportion of San people were living on farms or in townships, working as labourers or craftsworkers or eking out a living from state pensions. Many others, along with San from Angola, had been recruited into the South African army whose San bases dominated western Bushmanland and West Caprivi. In eastern Bushmanland some independent initiatives helped a few communities to restore an existence based on stock-rearing as well as foraging and small-scale agriculture. Conditions on the farms where most San lived generally fell somewhere between serfdom and slavery, a situation which has changed only slowly. In the townships conditions of degradation and dependency generated social problems, including alcoholism. Lack of access to education, in particular, has reinforced the position of San at the bottom of the social heirarchy.
Despite scepticism over ‘group rights’ the post-independence Namibian government gave a degree of recognition to the specific needs and status of San people. In 1991 land rights in the Otjozondjupa region (former Bushmanland) based on the n!ore (hunting territory) system were acknowledged, though inadequately defined, and government support was forthcoming in the subsequent peaceful persuasion of Herero pastoralists who had moved into the region to leave – though some subsequently returned. In West Caprivi Kwe and !Xu communities have been moving out of the former military bases and are attempting to establish new settlements. (Others were taken by the South African army to South Africa following Namibian independence). Hai//om groups have petitioned for land rights after being pushed out of the area occupied by the huge Etosha National Park – but thus far, remain the only San group to not have access to communal lands. Although the Agricultural Land Reform Act of 1995, which authorized government purchasing of land for resettlement of the landless rural poor, prioritized assistance to the San, by 2000 few San had benefited. The ranks of landless San squatting on the margins of towns continued to grow.
The land rights of the San also came under scrutiny in Namibia in 2007 in a highly-critical report compiled by the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), based in Windhoek. The LAC pointed out that the government land policy unveiled in 1998, had prioritised the needs of the San, but thus far, little had failed to deliver. The Hai//om in particular complained that the 2007 centenary celebrations to mark the establishment of Namibia’s premier Etosha National Park, ignored the bitter experience of their people. Now thought to number 9,000, the Hai//om had been expelled from the reserve in the 1960s.
The San people have borne the brunt of Nambia’s worsening poverty and the HIV/Aids epidemic. They remain the most marginalized community in Namibia. Most San lack land rights and face rampant societal discrimination. The legacy of apartheid, when San were disposed of their ancestral land, remains to this day with high levels of unemployment, social marginalization and poverty. San also suffer from markedly poor health outcomes due to ongoing discrimination in service provision, geographic isolation and language barriers. In particular, tuberculosis levels are very high, and HIV and malaria are also significant problems in many San communities.
Official estimates suggest that more than half (55.6 per cent) of San have never accessed formal education and so are illiterate. There have been some tentative steps forward. Previously, for example, few San were able to complete secondary education: The government implemented free secondary education in 2016, though it remains to be seen whether this will facilitate access for San.
While San have traditionally lived in rural areas, poverty and lack of opportunities have driven growing numbers to settle in urban areas, where they typically are forced to live on the margins. Targeted strategies, such as livelihood diversification and training opportunities for San agricultural workers on commercial farms, are needed to provide them with a broader set of skills that allow them either to remain in their community or integrate with greater ease into urban labour markets.
In general gender inequality is a growing problem among the San community. One reason for this is that the community has been increasingly influenced by the hierarchical structures within wider Namibian society, where men are typically placed above women. Feminist organizations such as the Women’s Leadership Centre, founded by Elizabeth Khaxas, aim to build feminist politics based on indigenous cultures in Namibia. The group works with women from the Khwe community in north-eastern Namibia to support their leadership and to educate them on their rights as both women and indigenous people.
Hai//om San were forcibly removed from Etosha National Park six decades ago and have not benefited economically from the tourist activities now taking place there. In 2015, the community launched a legal claim to access the park and control operations within it, as well as to receive a share of its revenue; eight members applied to the High Court to have their class action suit heard. After two postponements, the first hearing took place in November 2018 before the Windhoek High Court. The first stage concerns whether the eight applicants can represent their community and pursue the legal claim on their behalf. At stake are the Hai//om San’s customary land title to Etosha National Park and an area called Mangetti West, ownership over the natural resources, access to the National Park as well as compensation. Nearly 2,500 members of the community had registered their support for the applicants and their claim, by the time of the hearing. At the end of the hearing, three judges reserved judgement, postponing delivery of their decision until August 2019.