Who is indigenous in Africa?


Who is indigenous in Africa?

The United Nations identifies indigenous people as having the following features:

  • First peoples of a territory
  • Politically, socially and economically marginalised
  • A close relationship to the land and the sustainable use of natural resources
  • A claim to specific territory based on a genealogical and cultural descent line
  • Physically distinct from the dominant groups in some instances.

Indigenous Africans are mostly from hunting and gathering societies or from nomadic herding peoples (cattle, sheep and camel herders). Still today Africa has the largest number of peoples living as hunter-gatherers or herders.



Africa is a highly diverse continent. It has one tenth of the human population but one third of the world’s languages. It is the cradle of humanity with the oldest and greatest genetic and cultural diversity of any continent.

Before European colonisation, Africa experienced two major migrations: the expansion of Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralist peoples from West Africa down to South Africa, and the spread of Arab culture and language across North Africa and down the Eastern littoral. The claims to cultural distinctiveness and the right of self-determination by indigenous peoples today are mainly related to the current day consequences of these historic migrations and later domination.

Subsequent to the these internal migrations and transformation of power, Africa was colonised by a number of European countries, including Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, Italy and Germany. During the colonial period, European powers favoured the dominant, food producing populations. Aboriginal or indigenous peoples, notably hunter-gatherers and herding peoples became physically and economically marginalised from the colonial state.

The UN Decade on the Rights of World’s Indigenous Peoples has inspired marginalised indigenous peoples in Africa to speak out and claim their right to survival and dignity. As a result, there have been some major advances in Africa in the promotion of indigenous peoples rights. Rwanda and South Africa are both looking at formalising a policy on indigenous peoples and signing ILO Convention 169. Morocco has created a special commission to hear the needs of indigenous peoples. IPACC has contributed to each of these efforts.

In August 2000, South Africa hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The final recommendations of the WSSD included reference to ‘indigenous peoples’, without qualification, and reaffirmed their significant role in demonstrating sustainable development. This is a major breakthrough in recognising the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples in the United Nations system and the active role of indigenous peoples in protecting the Earth.


Problems facing Indigenous Peoples in Africa:

  • The presence and identity of indigenous peoples is not acknowledged by most African governments;
  • Human rights of indigenous peoples are regularly violated;
  • Ancestral territories, including forest areas, have been taken over by private ownership or activities such as agriculture, logging and infrastructure projects (roads, oil pipeline etc)
  • Indigenous peoples’ customary laws and land rights are not recognised under Bantu customary law or national legislation;
  • Indigenous peoples are being displaced from their lands, without alternative livelihoods or land compensation;
  • Traditional food and medicine is cut off and ancestral lands and forests are being destroyed;
  • Valuable traditional knowledge and culture is being lost as indigenous peoples are denied access to their lands and forests;
  • In most African countries, indigenous peoples are not represented in government or administration;
  • Indigenous peoples are vulnerable to AIDS and other diseases when their lands are opened up to outsiders.


Issues identified on the ground:

Political representation: Indigenous peoples need a greater say in how their political and administrative affairs are handled; there needs to be a practical approach to economic and cultural self-determination. Policy needs to draw on indigenous knowledge systems and be informed by the views of the communities.

Cultural survival: Indigenous culture is still seen as less important than cultures associated with agriculture and a written tradition. The history of indigenous peoples and their contribution to Africa’s sustainable development need to be promoted.

Human rights: This is a crisis in many African countries. As in other countries, the vulnerable status of indigenous peoples, particularly indigenous women and children, makes them vulnerable during times of instability. Women and girls are still at grave risk of human rights violations including traditional harmful practices such as infibulation / female genital mutilation, child marriage, being barred from education.

Natural resource management: This issue goes to the heart of the conflict between states and peoples. Indigenous people are highly reliant on natural resources for hunting / gathering or herding. African states do not see pastoralism or hunting / gathering as progressive economic practices. Overall, indigenous peoples tend to have a more sustainable approach to managing natural resources, particularly in arid and forested areas, than do urban policy makers from agricultural societies

Link : http://www.ipacc.org.za/frameme.asp?sPage=/who.asp