• Namibia


    The indigenous peoples of Namibia include the San, the Nama, the Ovahimba, the Ovazemba, the Ovatjimba, the Ovatwa, and their sub-groups.
    While the Constitution of Namibia prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnic or tribal affiliation, it does not specifically recognise the rights of indigenous peoples or minorities, and there is no national legislation dealing directly with indigenous peoples.

The Indigenous World 2024: Namibia

The Republic of Namibia celebrated its 33rd year of independence in March 2023. The Indigenous Peoples of Namibia include the San, the Ovatue, Ovahimba and Ovatjimba and, potentially, a number of other peoples including the Ovazemba, Damara, Nama, and Topnaars. Taken together, the Indigenous Peoples of Namibia represent some 8% of the total population of the country, which was 2,779,232 as of July 2023. The San (Bushmen) number between 28,000 and 35,000 and account for between 1.045% and 1.33% of the national population, although some estimates state the population as much higher.

They include the Khwe, the Hai||om, the Ju|’hoansi, the!Kung, the!Xun, the Naro, and the!Xóõ. Each of the San groups speaks its own language and has distinct customs, traditions, and histories. The San were mainly hunter-gatherers in the past but, today, many have diversified livelihoods. Over 80% of the San have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands and resources, and they are now some of the poorest and most marginalized peoples in the country. The Ovahimba, Ovatjimba and Ovatue (Ovatwa) are largely pastoral people, formerly also relying on hunting and gathering, and residing in the semi-arid and mountainous north-west of Namibia (Kunene Region). Together, the pastoralists number some 28,675, or 1.04% of the total Namibian population.

The Namibian government prefers to use the term “marginalized communities” when referring to the San, Otavue and Ovatjimba, support for whom falls under the Division of Marginalized Communities (DMC) in the Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication, and Social Welfare. The Constitution of Namibia prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnic or tribal affiliation but does not specifically recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Namibia voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) when it was adopted in 2007 but has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169. Namibia is a signatory to several other binding international agreements that affirm the norms represented in the UNDRIP, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Namibia produced a mid-term report for the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in Namibia in 2022. Namibia representatives attended the 22nd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York from 17-28 April 2023. In November 2023, the National Census was carried out and disaggregated for some different San languages for the first time.

Land rights issues

In his 16 March 2023 State of the Nation Report, His Excellency Hage Geingob (who sadly passed away in February 2024) described 2023 as the “Year of Revival”. Land issues were among those discussed in the report, including those related to the Flexible Land Tenure Act, which saw land being allocated to individuals in informal settlements.[1] Land issues also arose in Namibia as a result of a series of Ancestral Land Claims (ALCs) made before the Namibian High Court in the years leading up to 2023. Unfortunately, none of these land claims were successful although they did set important precedents.[2]

Land issues arose in Kavango West Region as a result of the oil and gas prospecting activities of ReconAfrica, a Canadian company. There were a number of impacts of the prospecting, including the construction of roads in sensitive ecological areas, the resettlement of several villages and, according to local people, the dropping of the water table in some areas, making it difficult for people to access potable water. Local communities and non-government organizations such as the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations (NACSO), the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC), and the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF) raised questions about the impacts of the ReconAfrica drilling activities, including the effect on downstream Indigenous Peoples and biodiverse areas. By the end of 2023, the ReconAfrica activities had not demonstrated the presence of oil and gas but the fracking and other activities were continuing.[3] The government announced revisions to the National Resettlement Policy in May 2023, some of which are designed to benefit Marginalized Communities and their generational farm workers in the form of land allocations and greater tenure security.

Questions about land rights arose in several areas of Namibia, including Kunene, Otjozondjupa, and the Zambezi Regions. In Tsumkwe District of Otjozondjupa, people from other areas of Namibia continued to enter the district with their cattle and graze and fence illegally. Similar problems were seen in the N/a Jaqna Conservancy to the west of Tsumkwe District. In Zambezi Region, there were land-use conflicts between Mbukushu and Khwe San in and around Bwabwata National Park and areas to the east.[4] The Legal Assistance Centre and the European Union are combining efforts to train San paralegals to assist in legal cases involving land.

Namibian media reported a wide range of stories on San communities in 2023, including various successes in livelihood and education projects, a San cultural festival in Omaheke in November, San families living in rubbish dumps and old swimming pools, undocumented residents (also including Ovahimba and Ovatjimba) and 45 San children who died of malnutrition in Omaheke in July.[5]

Small-scale fisheries and marine conservation

Topnaar (!Aonin) representatives participated in a series of workshops beginning in September 2023 on climate change and small-scale fisheries, the draft Marine Spatial Plan, and the legal and financial aspects of fishing. These were sponsored in part by One Ocean Hub in Henties Bay, Luderitz, Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, and Windhoek, culminating in a workshop in Windhoek on 2 December 2023. Issues raised at these workshops ranged from Topnaar participation in decision-making on small-scale fisheries to conservation planning for marine resources with the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.[6] Topnaar representatives sought meetings in December with the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources regarding small-scale fishing rights.

Reparations and apologies for the Herero and Nama genocide

The issue of reparations and apologies for the 1904-1907 German genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples was raised in December 2023 when Germany backed Israel in its invasion of Gaza. The Government of Namibia pointed out that the Herero and the Nama suffered the first genocide of the 20th century, descendants of the Herero and the Nama claimed that Germany had failed to provide cash compensation or a formal apology for what they suffered and, in February 2023, they filed a lawsuit against the Government of Namibia for how it had handled the negotiations with Germany.[7] Repatriation of the human remains of Herero and Nama from German museums continued in 2023 although the pace had slowed according to Prof. Mitsjinda Kitjua, Chief of the Herero.[8]

Other issues

The Division of Disability Affairs and Marginalized Communities in the Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication, and Social Welfare reported that progress had been made in 2023 in addressing poverty and the longer-term economic impacts of COVID-19.[9]

The Division of Marginalized Communities progressed in its partnership with Palms for Life Fund, including completing 10 Early Childhood Development centres and funding 1,000 San youth through their vocational training. A UNDESA-sponsored conference on marginalized communities’ youth was held by the same division and the National Youth Council in Swakopmund in May 2023, forming a representative national body. A follow-up meeting was held in November.

Also in November, the inaugural Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Conservation Congress was held in Windhoek with the aim of improving community-led governance in conservation and validating the ACHPR Study on the Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples in Africa.[10]

A cross-government meeting was held in June on the White Paper on the Rights of Indigenous Minorities in Namibia but the process remains delayed subject to further information requested by the Namibian Cabinet in 2023.



Benjamin Begbie-Clench is a freelance consultant who has worked extensively on San issues throughout Southern Africa, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Robert K. Hitchcock is an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico and a member of the Board of the Kalahari Peoples Fund, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Maria Sapignoli is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Milano, Milan, Italy. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] H.E. Hage E. Geingob, “State of the Nation Address by His Excellency Hage E. Geingob on the Republic of Namibia, 16 March 2023.” Windhoek: Government of Namibia.

[2] Odendaal, Willem (2023) “We are beggars on our own land…” An analysis of Tsumib v Government of the Republic of Namibia and its implications for ancestral land claims in Namibia. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographen.

[3] R. Sheldon, S. Esterhuyse, A. Lukas, and S. Greenwood (2023) Potential groundwater contamination from oil drilling in the Okavango. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 131, 103430, Namibia Nature Foundation, personal communication, 18 December 2023. www.nnf.org.na

[4] Kyaramacan Peoples Association and Khwe Traditional Authority, personal communications, 15 November 2023.

[5] Eino Vatilen 2023. 45 children die of malnutrition in Omaheke. The Namibian, 6 July 2023. Report from the Division of Disability Affairs and Marginalized Communities Office, Windhoek, 28 July 2023.

[6] One Ocean Hub website, Tapiwa Warinkandwa, University of Namibia, personal communication, 28 December 2023

[7] Guardian.2023 ”Descendants of Namibia’s Genocide Victimscall on Germany to ’Stop Hiding.’” Guardian, 26 February 2023.

[8] Prof. Mitsjinda Kitjua, Chief of the Herero, radio interview, 11 October 2023.

[9] The Division of Disability Affairs and Marginalized Communities Annual Report, November 2023.

[10] African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. “Press Release: Meeting for Validation of Study on the Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples in Africa 20-21 November 2023, Windhoek, Namibia.” 16 November 2023. https://achpr.au.int/en/news/press-releases/2023-11-16/press-release-meeting-validation-study-impact-covid-19

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, Conservation, International Processes



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