Thousands of San in Namibia, including many members of the Ju/’hoansi society, continue to survive in conditions that are as bad, or worse, than when the country gained its independence in 1990. According to Clement Daniels, chair of the Namibian Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), “it is a disgrace that 17 years after independence, one group remains extremely marginalized and still lives in extreme poverty.”
His organization, a public interest law center, legal aid, and humanitarian group in Windhoek, has just released a 60 page report, “Our Land They Took—San Land Rights Under Threat in Namibia.” It analyzes government policies toward the 30,000 or so San peoples and describes how they have lost their lands due to encroachments by non-San groups. According to news reports on Monday about the report, it apparently gives a gloomy outlook for their prospects.
The authors of the report, Willem Odendaal from the LAC and Sidney Harring from the City University of New York, review the land legislation that Namibia has passed since 1990. They discuss a Namibian land policy act of 1998 which should have fostered land reform for the Ju/’hoansi. It was unsuccessful.
The Namibian legislature did pass a Communal Land Reform Act in 2003, but that law did not give rights to the San to occupy their own lands, even in their communal areas. The new LAC report indicates that “the stance of government that all communal land belongs to the state, and people need to turn to land boards and recognised traditional authorities for the right to occupy areas, complicates the land rights in Namibia, especially for the San.”
The report singles out the problems at the N#a Jacna Conservancy in northeastern Namibia. It is located in the Tsumkwe District to the west of Nyae Nyae, the area where the Marshall family did their field work, and is inhabited by the Ju/’hoansi and other San people. The people in that conservancy submitted a conservation plan, as required, in 2003, and they are still waiting for government approval. Because of this vacuum, non-San, cattle-herding people, have moved their animals into the conservancy lands and encroached on San property. “The local San chief is powerless to halt the cattle herders,” according to the report.
The report criticizes the laws as worthless since the Namibian government does not enforce the rights of the San to their lands. “The Traditional Authority under the officially recognized San chief [in the N#a Jaqna Conservancy] is weak, and the chief powerless to prevent further encroachments of cattle herders. It is ineffective in negotiating San land rights issues,” the report says. It indicates that the existing structure of land tribunals doesn’t work: “Because the San are both a minority and marginalised people, they are pushed aside in the struggle for scarce land resources in Namibia.”
The report warns that legal and political chaos may develop unless the government acts promptly to establish a legal framework for administering San communal lands. It recommends that an ombudsman position should be established to help the landless San. A spokesperson for the government of Namibia’s Ministry of Lands, Crispin Matongela, said that officials were studying the report and would reply later.