About 30,000 people in Namibia, living mostly in the north and east of the country, are identified as San or Bushman people, 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 (data: LAC, 2006). 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.

Historical context

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 hierarchy.

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.

Current issues

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.

There are estimated to be about 30,000 San in Namibia, belonging to the Hai//om, Ju/hoansi and Khwe sub-groups - and since colonial times, they have been pushed off their traditional lands, without adequate compensation. 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 9000, the Hai//om had been expelled from the reserve in the 1960s. They are currently the only San community, without any communal lands.

A report from the United Nations Development Programme, dramatically illustrated that the San people had borne the brunt of Nambia's worsening poverty and the HIV/Aids epidemic. Not only did the San (identified as Khoisan speakers in the accompanying table), have the lowest incomes as a group, but their life-expectancy has also dropped more sharply than any of the other groups surveyed. Namibia has one of the worst rates of HIV/Aids infection in the world. The study revealed that in terms of income disparity, the country also ranked as one of the worst in the world. And the poverty experienced by the San community, was comparable to those in the world's most deprived countries.

The deep-seated prejudice faced by the San in Namibia, was highlighted by complaints over the treatment of San rape victims. A traditional leader, Michael Isung Simana, in the Omaheke region in Eastern Namibia, reportedly condemned told the New Era newspaper in October 2007, the high incidence of rape of San women by members of other communities. He attributed this to 'persistent negative stereotypes, which place a lower value on the dignity of San women, than other women'. Mr Simana also accused the police of being not treating the rape of San women seriously enough, and failing to vigorously investigate allegations or gather adequate forensic evidence (see also Botswana).

The San peoples remain the most marginalized in Namibia. Some 80 per cent lack land rights, few San children have access to schools, San have the lowest average incomes and life expectancy, are under-represented in government, and face rampant societal discrimination. The post-independence government has been reluctant to recognize Khwe land claims, but in 2006 did agree to support efforts to teach the Khwedam language in Khwe villages.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.