A new Indigenous Rights Programme aimed at advancing the rights of indigenous and local people in Southern Africa has attracted mixed reaction from the very people it intends to represent.
The initiative, spearheaded by the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA) is meant to advocate for the rights and position of Indigenous Peoples and communities all over Southern Africa.
Established in 1997, OSISA works in 10 southern Africa countries: Angola, Botswana, DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
OSISA is part of a network of autonomous Open Society Foundations established by the philanthropist, George Soros, and its mandate is concerned with strengthening democracy, protecting human rights and enhancing good governance in the region.
Only few African countries have so far recognized the existence of Indigenous Peoples.
It is against this backdrop that the Indigenous Rights Programme wants to push for policymakers and First Peoples to talk to each other and to support civil society in taking up the cause of Indigenous Peoples, particularly where violations of their rights have occurred.
The Programme also includes capacity building and supporting research to make good on the broader ideal of achieving equal standing for Indigenous Peoples in southern African society, which has been largely intolerant of them.
According to the International Work group for indigenous Affairs; compared to other regions of the world, the indigenous movement – and civil society as such – is still weak in Africa, and indigenous organizations are still few and burdened with low capacity. The work group provides the small and comparatively weak San organizations in Southern Africa as an example of poor capacity.
Indigenous People's Rights Programme Manager at OSISA, Delme Cupido said that the Indigenous Rights Programme is intended to bridge the “huge gap” between government and its affirmation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the region.
He said that Indigenous Peoples are typically left out of human rights programs.
“Given the history of the region and how first people's are treated and continue to be treated, it was important that we are able to make this contribution (to their lives). It became clear to us in terms of documenting the lives of indigenous people that the capacity of Indigenous Peoples to deal with global threats that they face, is lacking.”
Cupido hopes that the Programme will help Indigenous Peoples discuss their futures for themselves together with policymakers.
Jethro Louw, Khoi-San poet and member of the pioneering Indigenous People's band, the Khoi Konnexion received news of OSISA's indigenous people's program with caution and some hesitation.
“I am not seeing them working on the ground. I haven't seen them in action. It is good that some sectors are organizing, but we have to put the program on the ground first.”
Louw explained that for such a program to be effective, it has to be spearheaded by indigenous people's communities first.
“If something doesn't grow from the roots, then how can it last?” he questioned.
However, Louw's views were not shared by all Indigenous Peoples.
Pedro Dausab, one of the few remaining speakers of the Nama language (spoken by the indigenous people of Namibia and parts of South Africa) lauded the Indigenous People's Progamme as something that was “long overdue”
Dausab who works with The Pan South African Language Board in South Africa said that indigenous people, particularly those communities residing in rural areas outside of the big cities, yearned for a vehicle where their voices could be heard and taken into serious account.
He explained that literacy levels among indigenous peoples were low and that funding for proposed upliftment projects for unemployed and unskilled Indigenous Peoples was scarce. For these reasons, he supports the Indigenous People's Rights Programme and its advocacy objectives.
“The government must do more to promote the language, also the tradition and religion of Indigenous Peoples,” he explained.
In South Africa, where Dausab resides, Nama, or any of the indigenous Khoi-San languages, is not recognized as a language among the 11 official languages in multi-lingual South Africa.
What is clear is that Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa are largely a faceless people and with the steady extinction of their languages, religion and dispossession of their ancestral land; a program such as the Indigenous People’s Programme may represent the hard-to-ignore catalyst in asserting their rights.