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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for San Bushmen in Namibia

View Group Chronology

Namibia Facts
Area:    825,418 sq. km.
Capital:    Windhoek
Total Population:    1,600,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The San face little risk of rebellion. Namibia is a democratic country that is making efforts at negotiating with the group. At the same time, a history of discrimination, territorial concentration and serious conflicts in the region might affect the emergence of violent activity in the long-term future. It is possible that the group will see an increase in protest, given significant group disadvantages and international support for greater reforms being made on behalf of the San. Furthermore, the San in Namibia are part of a greater network of San in Southern Africa that would provide resources and support for any protest that takes place. Given the relative newness of the Namibian regime, there might be political space for increased claims on the government.


Analytic Summary

The people collectively known as the San are some of the last nomadic hunter-gatherers on earth. They are very distinct from other ethnic groups in Namibia. They speak a variety of Khosian click languages and have a distinctive appearance (LANG = 1; RACE = 1). The group has its own customs and animist beliefs (CUSTOM = 1; BELIEF = 2).

San in Namibia live mostly around the fringes of the Kalahari in "Bushmanland" in the northeast (GROUPCON = 3). As a result of migration into traditional San land by the Bantu from the east, the Nilo-Saharan from the Sahara and Europeans, the San moved further into the Kalahari Desert to maintain their way of life. Today, San in Namibia no longer live solely by hunting and gathering. Instead, they work on farms or live as squatters around Tsumkwe, the capital of Bushmanland. For the majority of San, there is no longer enough land available for subsistence living as hunter-gatherers. Experts estimate that hunting and gathering provides only 20-30 percent of the San diet.

The San are disadvantaged from past discrimination as well as current discrimination (ECDIS06 = 3; POLDIS06 = 3). San are sometimes given farmland as part of a program to redress discrimination under the apartheid government when Namibia was part of South Africa. However, many San are untrained in farming and this remedial policy falls short of addressing the social exclusion they face. In the 1960s, South Africa set Bushmanland aside as part of their homelands policy. The San lost much of their land as a result. Currently, the San face economic social exclusion. An estimated 60 percent of San live in poverty (although it varies by region). Getting access to land in the form of conservancies (communal area land that is overseen by conservancy councils so local people can benefit from the natural resources) has not been easy. It should be noted, however, that the government has developed some remedial policies and is working on environmental tourism projects that would benefit the San. Furthermore, in 1998 there was an affirmative action in employment law passed to give preference to disadvantaged groups, including San. In 2001-2003, the government took measures to end societal discrimination against the San, including seeking their advice about proposed legislation on communally held lands and increasing their access to education. The group has very high rates of illiteracy. Many San children do not attend school, in part because of linguistic barriers.

The San have limited access to political and civil office. Group members allege that they are denied access to legal documents and national recognition. In the past, gaining recognition for tribal authorities was a major problem. However, recently Kung and Ju/'hoansi Traditional Authorities (Tsumkwe District West and East respectively) were recognized by the government.

The San also encounter demographic and ecological stress. Diseases, such as tuberculosis, and alcoholism are relatively high among the group. Furthermore, there has been a lingering drought in the Caprivi that has led to crop failure. In 2001-2003, there were some reports of starvation deaths, which the Namibian government fiercely denied. The group has been dispossessed from some of its land because of the spillover of the UNITA conflict in Angola. As a result, some San have fled to Botswana.

The San are seeking greater political rights, economic opportunities and cultural recognition. Given the high rate of illiteracy, seeking more educational facilities is also an issue of concern. The group has demanded recognition for their languages, tribes and leaders (CULGR06 = 2). The San are also securing greater protection for their land and personal security, given the conflict in the Caprivi and the San's historical association with anti-SWAPO forces.

Since 1995, the San have begun to organize on their own behalf. In addition, several umbrella organizations promote San interests, including the Working Group of Indigenous People in South Africa-Namibia, Ju/Wa Bushman Development Foundation (JBDF), Nyae Nyae Farmers Cooperative (NNFC) and the Community Based Natural Resource Management (GOJPA06 = 1). Organizational activity has mostly taken the form of education and lobbying. The San have also received international help from Survival International. In 1999, it advocated an international campaign on the San's behalf. There has also been financial support from USAID for joint San/government development projects. In 2005, the Harnas Lifeline Clinic to provide services for those San living with HIV, which has become an increasing problem among the San (NSAMATSUP05 = 1).

There has been no conflict between the San and other ethnic groups, but the relationship between the government and San is tense. Part of the cause is historical. Beginning in 1974, the South African military recruited and trained San to track and kill the SWAPO rebels who were fighting for Namibian independence. In 1990, Namibia gained independence, and SWAPO gained a majority in the newly elected government. Since then, many San have had a lingering fear of retaliation. In recent years, there has been fighting between UNITA rebels from Angola and the Namibian government in Caprivi. (Namibia supports the regime in Angola against UNITA, and there has been spillover into Namibia.) This, combined with a failed secessionist movement in Caprivi in 1999, had led to repression in the area. The San had been caught in the crossfire. The end of the UNITA conflict might alleviate this condition.

In general, there was only limited repression against the San in 2001-2003, but no additional reports of repression from 2004-2006. There were no recent reports of intergroup or intragroup conflict, nor of rebellion (INTERCON01-06 = 0; INTRACON01-06 = 0; REB01-06 = 0). In 2002, there was a small-scale protest by group members regarding treatment of refugees (PROT02 = 1; PROT01, PROT03-06 = 0).



African Research Bulletin. Various reports. 1990-1994.

Gordon, Robert J. 1992. The Bushman Myth-The Making of a Namibian Underclass. Boulder: Westview Press.

Hitchcock, Robert K. 1994. Grassroots Political Organizing Among the Kalahari Bushmen.

Lexis/Nexis. Various reports. 1990-2006

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports of Human Rights Practices: Namibia. 2000-2006.


© 2004 - 2022 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006