Photograph of a Hai||om ("Namutoni Bushman") dating to 1927. http://xoms-omis.org
Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premier and most iconic tourist attraction. Comprising an area roughly the size of the Netherlands, the park is a is the crown jewel of Namibia’s lucrative tourist industry, which, together with other national parks brings in an estimated$1-$2 billion in revenues to the southern African country’s fiscus. This is in part because of the excellent game viewing opportunities the flat, barren salt pans, from which the park gets its name, provides for tourists of dozens of animal and bird species, including large endangered mammals such as the black rhinoceros.
Etosha, however is also the ancestral home of the Hai//om San, who have lived in the area for generations. The German Colonial Administration established the park in 1907 and allowed the Hai//om to remain within the park, apparently because they regarded them as being part of the wildlife. As racist and paternalistic as this was, the Hai//om, at least, were able to continue living on their territory and practising their culture. The Hai||om remained in the park for almost another half century until in 1954 when the South African administration forcefully removed them. Loaded onto trucks like livestock, this moment marked the beginning of a hard and tortuous existence for the majority of the Hai//om. As Dr. Ute Dieckman of the Land Environment and Development Unit (LEAD) of the Legal Assistance Centre has noted, consequently “ (The Hai//om) joined the legions of landless generational farm-labourers eking a living on the farms on Etosha’s borders and their labour sustained an uneconomic and heavily subsidised white owned commercial agricultural sector.”
Fast forward to 1990, and Namibians, together with much of the continent, celebrated the end of colonial rule when the nation obtained its independence from Apartheid South Africa. For the Hai//om, however, there was little to celebrate. Modern conservation strategies are often premised on the idea that the best way to conserve wild life is to exclude people, more often than not indigenous communities, who have lived side by side for generations with the animal, bird and plant life in these areas, and the new Namibian government was, initially at least, no different in this regard. The irony of this is not lost on indigenous communities whose way of life and stewardship of the resources within these areas is precisely the reason that they are so attractive to conservationists, only to find themselves relocated and resettled, evicted and excluded from their homes. Now, one of Namibia’s most marginalised and impoverished indigenous communities has decided to challenge, and seek redress, for what they see as an historic injustice.
After years of negotiation and struggle, and concerned that recent developments within the park would lead to the eviction of the last remaining Hai//om within the park’s boundaries would be evicted and “resettled” on farms on the outskirts of the park where the means to sustain themselves are virtually non-existant, the Hai//om have approached the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) of Namibia, a public interest law centre and human rights organisation, to launch an aboriginal title claim for the area today known as the Etosha National Park.
Willem Odendaal (right) consulting with their clients on Farm Six in the Otjikoto Region
Willem Odendaal, the Coordinator of LEAD explains: “They will ask the court to recognise that they have historically occupied the land in question, governed it in terms of their culture and custom, and that this amounted to ownership under indigenous law, and that such ownership was never explicitly extinguished, and therefore their rights on the land today should be recognised and respected. In essence, the community is seeking means to ensure that the government of Namibia allows them to benefit from the park and respect the little that may be left of their culture – before it disappears completely.”
Etosha, it seems, is set to make international headlines, as well as Namibian legal history, once more.