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Constitutional Human Rights

Tourism-related land rights conflicts in Namibia – the Etosha Case: Tsumib v. Government of the Republic of Namibia

COMMENT Lisa Strube 6 November 2020

Nowadays, it is undisputed that tourism does not only bring positive aspects. Specifically in countries of the Global South, the tourism sector often hides a high potential for conflicts. Imbalanced power relations between the individual actors are the dark side of the travel industry and often lead to human rights violations. Especially the creation of national parks is often accompanied by so-called tourism-related land rights conflicts. In the Etosha National Park for example, where tourists nowadays enjoy their safaris, not even 100 years ago the Hai||om, an ethnic group of the San people, lived in harmony with nature.[1] During the South African colonial period (1915 – 1990) they were driven out of the national park, because their way of life did not fit into the image of a nature reserve desired by tourists.[2]

The displacement from the Etosha National Park meant not only the loss of the habitat for the Hai||om people, it affected also their culture as well as the spiritual connection to the land of their ancestors. Since their displacement from the Park in 1954, the Hai||om have been one of the most marginalized ethnic groups in Namibia.[3]

To this day, the Hai||om are still trying to obtain appropriate compensation for their land in the Etosha region. Therefore, in 2018, the Hai||om filed an application for a class action suit (Tsumib v. Government of the Republic of Namibia[4]) with the help of the Namibian non-governmental organization (NGO) `Legal Assistance Centre` (LAC). The NGO supported eight representatives of Hai||om to file a suit on behalf of all Hai||om against the Namibian government. The claimants demanded adequate compensation for the land from which they were displaced during colonial times.

However, after consideration by the Supreme Court of Namibia, in November 2019, the petition for class action was rejected. The reason for the rejection was that the eight applicants were not able to represent the interests of the entire ethnic group of the Hai||om. Only the Hai||om Traditional Authority (HTA) could do so. The problematic is, that the HTA is not recognized by the Hai||om because the HTA was created during the South African colonial era and according to the Hai||om he was elected without their consent.[5] With the support of the LAC an appeal was filed against the rejection in December 2019.

It is to be hoped that the appeal will lead to a positive result and that one day the Hai||om will have their own land or at least be able to profit from the tourism in the Etosha National Park. A big step forward would also be, if the tourists in the Park could learn about the history of the Hai||om. Up to now there are hardly any references to the history and the displacement of the Hai||om in the Park. For this reason, the German professor Ute Dieckmann founded the XOMS |OMIS project[6], which is now led by the LAC. The project informs about the life of the Hai||om in the Etosha region and collects cultural knowledge of the older Hai||om who still lived in the park.

The Hai||om are only one of many indigenous groups who were displaced from their land without compensation in the course of the establishment of national parks in southern Africa. In recent years, more and more of these groups went public with their displacement and filed lawsuits with the help of international NGOs. In Namibia, the class action lawsuit is the first of its kind and, if successful, could revolutionize the prevailing inequalities of land distribution.

Lisa Strube is a former student assistant at the Chair of African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth. At the moment she is persuing her Master degree of Human Rights Studies at the University of Fulda.


[1] Dieckmann, U. (2020): From colonial land dispossession to the Etosha and Mangetti West land claim – Hai||om struggles in independent Namibia. In: Odendaal, W.; Werner, W.:“Neither here nor there” – Indigeneity, marginalisation and land rights in post-independence Namibia. Legal Assistance Centre, Windhoek, p. 95.

[2] Suzman, J. (2004): Etosha Dreams: an historical account of the Hai//om predicament. In: Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2, Cambridge University Press, p. 225.

[3] Suzman, J. (2004): Etosha Dreams: an historical account of the Hai//om predicament. In: Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2, Cambridge University Press, p. 221.

[4] Further information is available on https://www.ejustice.moj.na/High%20Court/Judgments/Civil/Forms/DispForm.aspx?ID=4983

[5] Dieckmann, U. (2020): From colonial land dispossession to the Etosha and Mangetti West land claim – Hai||om struggles in independent Namibia. In: Odendaal, W.; Werner, W.:“Neither here nor there” – Indigeneity, marginalisation and land rights in post-independence Namibia. Legal Assistance Centre, Windhoek, p. 102.

[6] More information about this project can be found here: https://www.xoms-omis.org/

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