Indigenous peoples in Southern Africa are the San and the Khoekhoe peoples.

The San peoples are linguistically and culturally diverse. Before colonisation, the San and Khoekhoe were spread from Cape Point up into Angola and Malawi. Today the San and Khoekhoe mostly live in the Kalahari Basin – principally in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Angola, with smaller communities in western Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The San peoples include a range of language communities such as the Ju|’hoansi, !Kung, !Xun, Khwe, ||Anikhwe, Naro, !Xõó, ‡Khomani and Tyhua. There are three major language families spoken by the various San peoples: these are the Ju (northern), Khoe (central) and !Ui-Taa (southern) language clusters. The Khoekhoe include the Nama and the Griqua peoples. Khoekhoe is part of the central Khoe-San language family and is still spoken widely in southern Namibia. The old spelling of Khoe is Khoi.

Other southern African peoples making use of indigenous peoples’ rights frameworks do so on the basis of origins, current marginalisation or association with traditional cultures and economic practices. These include the pastoralist Himba of the arid regions of northern Namibia, some elements of the Baster people in South Africa and Namibia, and the revivalist Cape Khoe and Korana movements in South Africa. Venda people in South Africa, who acknowledge that the Khoe and San predate them also emphasise their adherence to their landscape and traditional culture. The Damara people of Namibia speak a Khoe language and have a hunting and gathering heritage.

San peoples are the direct descendants of the first peoples of southern Africa with ancestry going back to the earliest roots of modern humanity. They existed for tens of thousands of years in the region before the arrival of Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists from East and Central Africa. Bantu migration was predominantly through an eastern corridor with some distinct migration down through Angola to the west. Early contact seems to have included a high degree of intermarriage, particularly between Xhosa, San and Khoe people. Xhosa absorbed a substantial amount of language and culture from the indigenous peoples.

European settlers proved to be more violent, seized indigenous lands, forced Khoe people into farm labour, committed genocidal campaigns against Khoe and San on the frontiers and introduced devastating illnesses like smallpox that decimated the Khoe and San. The impact of European settlement in South Africa led to the almost complete destruction of San cultures in that country. The languages of South Africa’s indigenous peoples were mostly wiped out, while San and Khoekhoe languages remain marginalisated but more robust in other southern African countries

In colonial terms, the San peoples were referred to as ‘Bushmen’ and the Khoekhoe as ‘Hottentots’. Both terms are generally considered offensive today. There are many Bantu terms for indigenous peoples including Baroa, Basarwa, Abathwa and Batwa.

Today there are some 90,000 San living in the region and over 100 000 Khoekhoe. The San are typically marginalised economically with limited access to formal education. There are relatively few San with tertiary education; the majority live in situations of poverty and marginalization.



In Angola, current issues faced by San people include food insecurity, marginalisation from education, no recognition of their own languages, no access to clean water or healthcare, lack of official identity documents, and threats to livelihood preservation. A number of San in Angola are living in unclear tenure situations close to protected areas. 

In Southern Angola, the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) has worked with a local Christian NGO to make contact with !Xun and Khwe communities there. Many San were killed or driven into exile during the protracted civil war in Angola. They now find themselves marginalised from the political economy with little to no recognition of their identities and rights as indigenous peoples.


Botswana has a structural and constitutional bias against recognising indigenous peoples. The problem is anchored in the independence constitution of 1966 in which only certain majority ethnic agropastoralist groups and their chiefs are formally recognised in the national political system.

Discrimination was built into the original Chieftainship Act which states that the “principal tribes” are defined as the Setswana-speaking Bamangwato, Batawana, Bakgatla, Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bamalete, Barolong and Batlokwa. Sections 77, 78 and 79 of the constitution guarantee membership of the House of Chiefs to eight Setswana-speaking paramount chiefs, while minority groups are represented by three members, regarded as sub-chiefs. Indigenous peoples and other minority ethnic groups were excluded from the chieftaincy system and hence from the base of rural government. 

The Bogosi Act 9 of 2008 was due to address the issue of discriminatory practices in the chieftainship Act. The results were not satisfactory, with the Chiefs of the western Provinces not having the status of the Tswana hereditary chiefs, and thus not representing specific constituencies. The general concern is that these are political appointments. The United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) Committee has observed that the amended Constitution reproduces the discriminatory position relating to the partition of ethnic groups in the House of Chiefs.

In 2006, there was a landmark court victory in Botswana entitling some San to return to their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The government had removed people from their traditional territory, some with compensation, others being forced to relocate. The resettlement process left the communities highly vulnerable, with improved infrastructure but without means of subsistence or adequate water. The court ruled that forced displacement of indigenous peoples threatened both their rights and their continued existence.

A major area of dissatisfaction and alleged discrimination in San territories is the behaviour of the Land Boards, which determine how communities may use lands under a temporary tenurial system. Traditional San practices of hunting, fishing and gathering wild food are either illegal or not possibly the bases of tenure rights. Contemporary land use for conservation purposes is also difficult to achieve when competing with politically and economically more powerful Bantu groups.

Subsequently, most of the San who were displaced from the CKGR have not been allowed to return. There are still problems concerning the entrance of former residents to the reserve. In 2014, some of the San inside the protected area were not provided with medicines such as those for HIV or tuberculosis, and were allegedly subject to harassment at the gates of the reserve while attempting to return to the CKGR.

The government’s view is that it is treating all citizens equally, providing housing, water and schools to remote rural areas, while trying to pressure communities out of protected areas and into new villages with centralised amenities.

Indigenous rights and UNESCO World Heritage Site Conservation

The 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention is an important mechanism for recognising and conserving iconic sites of natural and cultural Outstanding Universal Value. Botswana has successfully had the Okavango Delta inscribed as the 1000th World Heritage Site in 2014. The inscription was unique in that it recognised the various minority ethnic groups of the territory, including specific recognition of the San peoples (Khwe and ||Anikhwe) as indigenous to the territory and having important cultural heritage landscapes inside the core zone of the natural World Heritage Site. 
The inscription and the progressive approach by the Botswana government attracted the attention of international agencies and actors, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Culture, Fareeda Shaheed, who conducted an official mission to Botswana in 2014.

In 2013, IPACC organised a workshop on the World Heritage inscription with San leaders from Botswana and Namibia. The Botswana San chose to endorse the inscription but raised certain concerns with the IUCN, one of the official Advisory Bodies.

In March 2015, IPACC cooperated with the Trust for Okavango Culture and Development Initiative (TOCADI) and the Kuru Family of Organisations (KFO) to conduct a post-inscription workshop in Maun. The meeting considered the governance and human rights issues related to the Tsodilo Hills and Okavango Delta, the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Botswana. (Report available).


The indigenous peoples of Namibia include the San, the Nama, the Himba, Zemba and Twa. Some elements of the Baster community also assert indigeneity. The Damara are Khoekhoe speaking people with a hunter-gatherer heritage but have not made a major issue about indigeneity. The current State President is the first Damara to serve in this position.

There are between 27,000 and 34,000 San who represent between 1.3% and 1.6% of the national population. San communities have little access to state services and resources. They are some of the poorest communities in Namibia. Some San languages are part of the official national curriculum while others, such as Khwedam are not recognised. There is a similar situation with traditional authorities. 
Nama (Khoekhoen) people number over 100,000 and have some representation in government. Some Nama communities live by subsistence sheep herding. Climate change impacts have been extreme in the south of the country, where Nama communities remain concerned that they are politically and economically marginalised, though their language and traditional authorities are formally recognised by the State.

Though the San are still in a vulnerable and under-represented situation compared to their Bantu-speaking neighbours and the white minority, there are signs of changing attitudes in Windhoek.

The new Cabinet under His Excellency, President Hage Geingob has established a Ministry of Veterans Affairs and Marginalised People. The Ministry is directly responsible for working with indigenous peoples and the Deputy Minister is Royal |UI |O|oo, the first San man serving at such a high level in national government.

NGOs are also doing their part, and the national framework for Community Conservancies provides an important framework for tenure and equitable natural resource governance. The Integrated Rural Development Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Namibia have both played a significant role in support San and Himba communities, amongst others. WWF is supporting capacity building and eco-tourism opportunities linked to traditional and commercial sustainable use of natural resources with San communities in several parts of Namibia.

IPACC has two programmes running in Namibia. The principal project is to help the San, Nama and Himba establish a Namibian National Indigenous Peoples’ Platform to engage in rights advocacy and dialogue with the national government. IPACC has also worked with its members and NGO partners to promote the recognition, assessment and certification of the traditional knowledge of biodiversity, most notably the capacity to track wild animals. Most recently, IPACC has initiated work with indigenous peoples on national climate change policy and rights issues.

IPACC worked with the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) and the Namibian Ombudsman’s office to launch the print report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples (UNSR). The Namibian government has responded positively to the findings of the report and IPACC plans to work with member organisations and partners to strengthen a national campaign of advocacy, drawing on the key findings of the report.

In 2014, IPACC organized a consultative meeting in Namibia in which delegates from the Nama, Himba and San communities successfully established a framework for an advocacy platform. The steering committee met again in July 2015 and concluded that Namibian indigenous peoples’ engagement with government representatives and other stakeholders are necessary to address the issues stated on the Special Rapporteur’s report. IPACC is proposing to develop a toolkit for strengthening of national platforms for indigenous advocacy in DRC, South Africa, Chad, and Kenya based on the Namibian model.

South Africa

The indigenous peoples of South Africa are the three San peoples (!Xun, Khwe and ‡Khomani) and the Khoekhoe, including Nama and Griqua. There is also mobilisation by a revivalist movement of Khoe descended people reclaiming identities that were extinguished during the colonial and apartheid periods of South African history. The Venda people also make certain claims to indigeneity based on their adherence to their traditional culture.

The total population of South Africa is estimated to be around 50 million people, with indigenous peoples comprising just over 1%. South Africa’s constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world. It is based on universal suffrage, human rights, non-discrimination, the right of self-determination and mechanisms for redressing past racial injustices. South Africa has constitutionally embraced the idea of restorative justice, though in practice the implementation has been mixed, with poverty differentials increasing rather than decreasing under democratic rule.

The heart of the tension between indigenous peoples and the Republic of South Africa relates to the colonial legislative processes that disenfranchised the indigenous peoples differently from the Black majority. Key amongst these was the 1903 Native Land Act that removed lands from Black peoples, whereas must of the Khoe and San lands had been annexed prior to 1903. The democratic regime set the date for the limits to land restitution at 1903, effectively condemning indigenous peoples to exclusion from land restitution and constitutional redress.

Under Apartheid, all indigenous identities were removed from public reference, legislation and administration, causing all indigenous peoples to “disappear”, lose all rights and forcibly be registered as other population groups, the opposite of the experience of Black South Africans who were forced to carry identity books with ethnic / linguistics segregated identities.

South Africa initiated a policy review in 1997 to consider the rights of indigenous peoples. It created a national negotiating forum and was the first African state to speak up in favour of indigenous rights during the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. However, after Nelson Mandela left the Presidency, the process of acknowledging indigenous peoples’ rights has laboured and stagnated. The national government has backtracked, refusing to consider international norms and standards on the rights of indigenous peoples. There have been tensions and rivalries between the two line function ministries, the Department for International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

The most significant development has been the 2015 promulgation of the new version of the Act on Traditional Leadership and Institutions. Khoe and San peoples will be recognised under the revised act for the first time in South African history. The new version will recognised Khoe and San leadership as a stand-alone structure, not equivalent to the historic colonial and post-colonial system of Bantu chiefs (Note South Africa is the only country in the region where the term ‘Bantu’ has negative colonial and racist connotations).

The Khoi and San peoples in South Africa are still working to gain full recognition and land rights from the government. They have been able to make progress thanks to the enabling legislative environment in South Africa. Despite the fact that there is not a national legislation that formally recognizes the San and Khoekhoe peoples, the government has taken action to implement the Nagoya Protocol under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). In 2013 and in 2014, the National Khoi & San Council (NKC) and the San Council signed agreements with commercial companies to negotiate benefit-sharing arrangements.

In 2014, the government met with 900 Khoi and San to discuss their historical land claims and the process of land restitution. Article 6 of the South African Constitution mentions the Khoi and San indigenous languages but in practice the government has abandoned any efforts to stop the languages from going extinct. Khoekhoegowab is spoken by thousands of people in the Northern Cape Province but the National Department of Education has no curriculum support for the embattled language.

Long term goals of San communities in South Africa include income generation projects in areas such as traditional crafts and eco-tourism, as well as training for employment in the mainstream economy, and increased opportunity and access to government jobs.

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Indigenous Environment Defenders.

Africa’s hunter-gatherer and nomadic pastoralist peoples have lived symbiotically and sustainably within Africa’s ecosystems for millenia. Their Traditional Knowledge Systems are treasure houses of indigenous knowledge.

Under colonialism, African hunters and nomads suffered land dispossession and cultural oppression. In the post-colonial era, they’ve advocated for their land, cultural and human rights.

Now, in this Age of Climate Change, Africa’s hunter-gatherer and nomadic pastoralist peoples are recognised as frontline guardians and managers of African biodiversity, and provide early warning for climate change trends.

We appeal to African governments to formally recognise the Traditional Knowledge Systems and practices of hunters and nomads.


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