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September 28, 2012

UN Urges More Rights for Namibia's Indigenous People

by Anita Powell

For decades, officials say, Namibia’s indigenous people -- who include the ancient San people who once populated much of southern Africa -- have been overlooked and marginalized, pushed off their land and denied services.  The United Nation's top official on indigenous issues paid the southern African nation a visit this week, and says more needs to be done.

Respect for Namibians

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, said Friday that his primary concerns for Namibia’s indigenous people are that their rights to traditional lands are respected and they get the same rights and services extended to all Namibians.

Anaya spent nine days in the mineral-rich nation on Africa’s southwest coast that has 2.3 million people. During that time, he met with government representatives and indigenous people.

An immediate concern, he says, are complaints that native peoples are pushed off their lands, some of which have become national parks.

“Issues have to do with a sense of exclusion that these peoples, or these representatives, express about their conditions, not necessarily by design of the contemporary government, but just because of the historical circumstances that have destabilized the situations within the country, and that continue to place them in disadvantaged situations and that make for their lack of effective participation in all of the decisions affecting them," Anaya said. "So, there need to be efforts to allow indigenous people to take greater control of their lives, to have greater participation in the decision-making that affects them.”

Systematic exclusion

Phil ya Nangoloh is a human rights defender and executive director of NamRights, a Namibian human rights organization.

He says indigenous Namibians are often viewed as being “subhuman.”

Ya Nangoloh says while the some 100,000 indigenous Namibians are not targets of government-led massacres, their systematic exclusion is just as dangerous.

“There is not any killing of -- I mean, any active, let me specify that -- there is not any active killing of San and other indigenous groups as such.  But they are being passively killed by being denied the means of survival, and that includes the resources that I have mentioned: access to land, access to resources, access to healthcare, access to education and access to income," Nangoloh explained. "By doing so, you are virtually killing those people.”

Ya Nangoloh says the population’s marginalization is partly a result of identity politics -- and comes at the hands of the Ovambo ethnic group which comprises much of the ruling party.

He also says the San people were seen as allying themselves to South Africa’s apartheid regime before Namibia’s independence from South African administration in 1990.

“I think it’s really relating to the politics in Namibia, that if you are not with the ruling Swapo party, then you are an enemy and treated accordingly.  So, this is what we believe is the major reason why they are so excluded," Nangoloh added. "I’m Ovambo myself and I’m very, very critical of what the Ovambo people, through government, are doing against other groups in Namibia.”

Practical solutions

The U.N.'s James Anaya says he’s not recommending that any government completely turn over all land claimed by indigenous groups.  Instead, he says, the two sides can compromise, as he has previously recommended in the United States.

First, he says, the government needs to secure people’s current land, and then seek redress where land has been removed unfairly.

“And so just as in the U.S. there are such instances, practical solutions need to be developed by which the San and other indigenous peoples in Namibia can regain some land base.  And it’s a vast country.  There’s a lot of land out there," said Anaya. "Practical solutions can be arrived at by which the San people can have a land base, so that they’re not living on the peripheries of town in really difficult socioeconomic conditions.  I saw the places where they are living without any land base whatsoever.  And there are practical solutions by which they can, I believe there are, and the government is willing to work toward those, in some ways.”

Ya Nangoloh praised Anaya’s statements and says he hopes the results will improve life for the people of Namibia.