Indigeneity in Africa

The articles in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly relate to the most marginalized and aggrieved peoples in Africa. Some, such as the Batwa (Pygmy peoples) of Rwanda or the San of South Africa, are hunter-gatherers, or former hunter-gatherers who were driven from their lands and lifestyles by colonialism or development. Others, such as the Maasai of Kenya and the Tuareg of West Africa, are pastoralists whose ways of life require the ability to move freely among traditional places to pasture their animals. And yet others, such as the Mursi of Ethiopia, are characterized less by their mode of production than by their small numbers, remote locale, lack of representation in political structures, and the extreme threat to their lands and lifestyles from governmental and international interests that have failed to consult them or involve them in decisions concerning their fate.

While all Africans are indigenous in the sense that their ancestors were there before European colonists, most of them would not fit the broader definitions of the term. Those who do—the subjects of this issue—now find their ways of life at risk from corporate concessions for mining, logging, oil exploration, and dam construction, among many such activities. They risk displacement to accommodate wildlife preservation, environmental concerns, and even tourism interests that do not understand the complex interrelationships between indigenous lifeways and the protection of land and nature. And they suffer from land-use policies that favor industrialized agriculture, individual property ownership, and sedentary lifestyles over indigenous subsistence agriculture, hunter-gatherer, or pastoralist lifestyles.

The collective rights of indigenous peoples are spelled out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, but many states are reluctant to implement those rights. There is the notion that doing so unfairly singles out indigenous peoples or communities for special protections unavailable to other ethnic groups. This notion is not correct. What Africa’s indigenous peoples want is what all Africans want: full respect for their internationally recognized human rights. Many governments also assert that recognizing indigenous rights will lead to ethnic conflict. Again, this cannot be true. After all, African states espouse democratic multiculturalism that is supported by tolerance and respect for human rights. Violence may result from violations of these principles, but not from respecting them.

South Africa has gone further than any other African state in recognizing and entrenching the rights of cultural, linguistic, and religious minorities in its constitution, under which its indigenous peoples can and do seek specific protection. There is a serious need for other African states to take concrete positive steps to protect vulnerable African indigenous populations and communities. There still remain those who desire that their interaction with the modern state should not result in the denial of their existence—real indigenous populations and communities whose lifestyles and modes of survival remain distinct from the general population even though they may be unpopular.

Vincent O. Nmehielle is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Law Johannesburg. He currently is on leave, serving as the principal defender of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Professor Nmehielle is a member of Cultural Survival’s Program Council. To read more on African indigeneity, see the Report of the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities at

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