A network for all who care about the conservation of our world and who want to see it achieved with justice, compassion, dignity and honesty.

The Hai//om bushmen of Namibia, Etosha and resettlement

Hunter-Gatherers, Herders, Agropastorialists, And Farm Workers: Hai//Om And Ju/’Hoansi San And Their Neighbors In Namibia In The 20th And 21st Centuries

A paper prepared by Robert Hitchcock for the session entitled “Hunter-Gatherers and their Neighbours,” Kazonubu Ikeya, chair, at the Tenth Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 10), University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom, 25-28 June, 2013

In 2001, James Suzman, who helped coordinate a Southern Africa-wide study of San peoples, made the following observation:

For San in Namibia, land dispossession has been more extreme in both extent and form than for San elsewhere in southern Africa. The apportioning of the country under apartheid into freehold commercial farms, “tribal” communal lands and wildlife conservation areas meant that by 1976 fewer than 3% of the Namibian San population retained even limited de jure rights to the lands they had traditionally occupied. Close to half lived on freehold land owned by white farmers, for whom they worked and on whose employment they depended to retain basic residential rights (Suzman 2001:11).

The Hai//om are the largest San population in Namibia, numbering some 15,000 people, and they are some of the most widely distributed San people in the country. Hai//om are found primary in north-central and central regions of Namibia, stretching from the Oshikoto Region in the north south to Outjo and beyond to areas around Otjiwarango. The history of the Hai//om has been one where they experienced being removed from their ancestral lands through such processes as the creation of commercial farms, the enlisting of labourers for farm and other work, the establishment of colonial police posts, and the declaration of the game reserves in the early part of the twentieth century (Dieckman 2007). Most of the Hai//om who lost their lands ended up working on commercial farms while some were retained as trackers, scouts and labourers by the Department of Nature Conservation in the game reserves.

In 1949, the South West African administration appointed at two-person Commission for the Preservation of the Bushmen. It was chaired by a former Stellenbosch University professor, P.J. Schoeman, who had become the Chief Game Warden in Etosha, South West Africa’s most significant protected area. Schoeman, through his writings, including Hunters of the Desert Land (Jagters van die Woestylnland ) (Schoeman 1951), helped popularize stereotypes of San as pristine hunter-gatherers and as people capable of surviving in marginal environments.

Schoeman and the commission produced an interim report in September, 1951 in which two “Bushmen” reserves were recommended:  one for Khaung (!Kung) and another for the “Heikom” (Hai//om).  When the final report came out in 1953, however, there was only one Bushman reserve recommended, that of “Bushmanland” which was where the Ju/’hoansi lived (now Tsumkwe District in Otjozondjupa Region). The Hai//om, though they were the largest San population in the country, were not to be given a reserve. 

There were several reasons behind this decision, some of them relating to the labour needs of commercial farmers and to the fears of some people in Nature Conservation that Hai//om could have a significant impact on the wildlife populations in the reserve. There was also the assumption on the part of Schoeman that the Hai//om were not “real” or “authentic” Bushmen because many of them wore western clothing, kept livestock, and worked on commercial farms.

For over 40 years, Hai//om had used Etosha as a sanctuary, and they entered the area to avoid Administration and police patrols.  In the Game Reserve, their presence was tolerated by the Germans until the end of their colonial domination in 1915, and by South Africa personnel until the 1950s. The Hai//om were allowed to hunt and gather in the reserve and to possess bows and arrows and other hunting weapons.

The Department of Nature Conservation decided in the 1950s to move the estimated 400 to 500 Hai//om  living in the bush in the park to places outside the reserve.  This was necessary because, according to Nature Conservation officials, the Hai//om begged from tourists and disturbed game and visitors at water-holes.

In 1954, all but 12 Hai//om families who worked for Nature Conservation were told that they would have to leave the Etosha reserve. The Native Commissioner of Ovamboland told the Hai//om that they “had to leave the reserve for the sake of the game,” and would be allowed to return only if they were in possession of a permit.” The similarity to the discourse used by the government of Botswana in the case of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the period between 1986 and 2002 could not be more striking, as Maria Sapignoli pointed out in her dissertation (Sapignoli 2012).

Oral history evidence suggests that Hai//om who were not workers or their families continued to visit the park quietly after their removals from the park in the mid-1950s up to recent times. They went in to the park to see relatives, to collect wild resources, to visit sacred sites, and go to the graves of relatives and friends. 

Unlike some other Namibian San such as the Khwe, the Hai//om have not yet gone to court in an effort to obtain land and resource rights. They have, however, engaged in direct action in order to raise public awareness about the situations that they faced. In January, 1997 Hai//om demonstrators blocked the entrances to two gates into Etosha National Park and 73 people were arrested. This incident brought international attention to the issue of Hai//om land rights. This land struggle is part of the Hai//om identity revitalization that is on-going.

Some of these processes are playing out on a set of farms south of Etosha National Park which were purchased by the government of Namibia beginning in 2007 for purposes of resettling Hai//om, some of them from Etosha National Park as well as elsewhere in the country.  Statements by Namibian government officials underscore the importance of humanity and compassion in the ways in which the Hai//om San issue has been addressed.  It remains to be seen, however, whether the Hai//om of Etosha will be treated the same way as other Hai//om and other historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities in Namibia.

The Government of the Republic of Namibia said that the 340-450 Etosha Hai//om would not be required to move out of the park involuntarily.  The Minister of Environment and Tourism made this promise explicitly in a phone discussion with a group of Hai//om led by Kadison Khomob in Etosha in November, 2011 that (1) any moves of Hai//om out of the park will be totally voluntary, (2) the people working currently for MET and NWR would be allowed to remain in the park should they so choose. This policy is in line with international indigenous rights declarations such as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and with the policies of international organizations such as the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the European Union, and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

However, in March, 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism announced that those Hai//om who are not employed in the park or who are directly related to a current employee will have to move out of Etosha National Park. The Ministry has said that they will support those that move out of the park by providing housing materials including corrugated iron sheets (known as “zincs” in Namibia), wood for frames, doors, and windows for construction of homes on the resettlement farms. As of July, 2013, fewer than 20 Etosha Hai//om households had made the move to the resettlement farms. 

The Hai//om of Etosha see the importance of having a choice about where they live as an issue of humanity.  From the government perspective, the allocation of commercial farms to the Hai//om for resettlement purposes is an example of a humanitarian gesture, one involving equitable treatment of Namibian citizens. Tensions remain between the office of the Hai//om Traditional Authority, David //Kamaxaub, who was appointed Hai//om TA by the Namibian government in 2004, and members of the Hai//om community, a number of whom have moved to the farms (690 in September, 2012).  Some of these tensions revolved around the membership of an association with rights to a tourism concession related to the Etosha National Park. On September 7th 2012, at the first meeting of the !Gobaub Community Association, it turned out that only one member of the Hai//om Traditional Authority was elected to the management committee of the new association. The Etosha Hai//om believe that they should have representation in the !Gobaub Community Association, something that neither government nor the TA support. Failure to allow Etosha residents to be part of the !Gobaub Association unless they move out of the park can be seen as a form of coercion on the part of the government of Namibia.

Challenges Facing The Ju/’hoansi of Nyae Nyae

The other San group which has had a long history of complex interactions with the Namibian state is the Ju/’hoansi.  While the Ju/’hoansi, who number some 9,500 in Namibia and another 2,500 across the border in Botswana, had a portion of their land (some 13%) preserved as Bushmanland under the Odendaal Commission on land in South West Africa, the tenure status of the area is still uncertain, in part because in Namibia all land is state land.

The major threat to the Ju/’hoan people and habitats of Nyae Nyae was presence of livestock owners and their herds from /Gam who had entered the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in late April, 2009 (see Hays 2009).  The Gam farmers cut the veterinary cordon fence (the Red Line) and came in to Nyae Nyae with some 1,300 head of cattle. Their numbers have increased from the original 32 to nearly 300. Though some of their cattle were confiscated by the police, they have large numbers of horses, donkeys, and small stock within the Tsumkwe Municipality, where stock is illegal. They pay no fees for water, sanitation, or electricity to the Municipality: thus the local residents are in effect subsidizing their presence.

The settlers are putting pressure on water and sanitation in an already overtaxed and struggling small town, and it appears there may even be a public health danger. The Red Cross, regarding the Gam settlers as “refugees,” has provided them with substantial tarpaulins to cover the houses they have built in Tsumkwe, thus making their houses much better protected than those of the majority of Ju/’hoan inhabitants. Ju/’hoansi in both the municipal area and the surrounding Conservancy have had their resources decimated, and have been intimidated by theft and violence, including in at least one case having their huts burnt down.

The current approach of the settlers is that the Herero are poor people too, and they are asking the Ju/’hoansi to “please share what you have. Anyone can make a mistake (cutting the fence illegally)—next time it could be you…”  In July, 2010 alone, the fence was cut at least three more times according to the Veterinary Department.  In July, 2010 the Namibian government had announced the Gam farmers would be recompensed for the loss of their cattle. The farmers requested that this recompense be paid in Tsumkwe itself. The response of Tsamkxao =Oma as the Ju/’hoan Traditional Authority, as well as of the NNC leadership, was that the recompense must only be paid after the settlers returned to Gam. The settlers also requested that their drought relief rations be given to them in Tsumkwe, but Tsamkxao and the NNC were also concerned about the kind of precedent this would set.

While efforts were made to get government support to remove the herders from the area, and some of them were jailed and subsequently released, there were still sizable numbers of livestock in the Nyae Nyae area in 2013, around 2,500 head.  The NNC and the Ju/’hoan Traditional Authority, along with the Nyae Nyae Foundation, sought legal assistance and support to require the livestock owners and their herds to vacate the Nyae Nyae conservancy area. They were  encouraged by the Namibian Police’s decision to back San land rights in nearby N/a Jaqna last week (June 11th, 2013) which would well set an important precedent for the removal of illegal settlers and the stopping of illegal grazing, fencing, and borehole drilling in communal areas of Namibia.

In May 2012 two members of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy were among four San who attended the meetings of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York.  One of them was Leon Tsamkxao, the son of the Ju/’hoan Traditional Authority, Tsamkxao =Oma. The other was Kxao Ghauz, the former head of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy who now is operating as an informal advisor to Tsamkxao. Meanwhile, in addition to its activism in regard to the Gam settlers, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy continues its work of looking after the resources and water security of the Conservancy area.  Under Namibian law, the Traditional Authority does not have the authority to allocate land but the pressure on Tsamkxao continues nonetheless.

John Arnold, the !Kung Traditional Authority, died July 13th, 2012 from injuries due to a car accident. Not long afterwards, on August 21st, 2012,  Kxao Moses =Oma, the Member of Parliament from Otjozondjupa and a party whip for SWAPO, and the brother of Tsamkxao died suddenly.  An election was held in the Otjozondjupa Region for Kxao’s replacement, which was also won by a Herero.  The complex situation in Nyae Nyae was discussed during a visit to Namibia by Special Rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, James Anaya from 20-28 September, 2012.

Problems can be avoided if the government of Namibia were to adopt a strong human rights and humanitarian stance, one aimed at equity.  The Hai//om and the Ju/hoansi their supporters, such as the Legal Assistance Center, believe that the Namibian government should follow international declarations and protocols on the rights of rights of indigenous peoples to land and to free, prior, and informed consent regarding resettlement policies and programs. It would be beneficial if both the government of Namibia, the Hai//om Traditional Authority, and the Otjozondjupa Regional Administration employed an approach to decision-making based more on consultation and consensus building, and less on top-down directives.  This is in the spirit of democratic governance and will help ensure that the goals of building a strong, peaceful and successful society in Namibia will succeed.

References Cited

Dieckmann, Ute (2007) Hai//om in the Etosha Region:  A History of Colonial Settlement, Ethnicity, and Nature Conservation. Basel:  Basler Afrika Bibliographien.

Gordon, Robert J. (2007) Covering the Tracks with Sand: P. J.Schoeman and Public Anthropology. Historia52:98-126.

Gordon, R. J. (2009) Hiding in Full View:  The “Forgotten” Bushman Genocides in Namibia. Genocide Studies and Prevention 4(1): 29-57. 

Suzman, James (2001) An Assessment of the Status of San in Namibia.  Windhoek, Namibia: Legal Assistance Center.