"All we need is for governments in SADC to recognise our existence and to protect our way of life without discrimination and exploitation." This was the heart of the message that was delivered by Moses //Khumub and the San from Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe to the Southern African Development Community Civil Society Forum (SADC CSF), which was held recently in Malawi.
While the election of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as the Deputy Chairperson of SADC, thus ensuring that he will succeed as Chair in 2014, grabbed most of the headlines at the time, it was a truly historic event for the region's indigenous groups - and one that people will look back on in future as a critical step in their long fight to secure their basic rights.
Under the auspices of the Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), Moses //Khumub led the first official San delegation to the civil society forum, which runs alongside the annual SADC Heads of State and Government summit, to ensure that their voices were heard and to put an end to the systematic exclusion of southern Africa's oldest and most oppressed indigenous peoples from the halls of power.
For it is in fora such as these where politicians and bureaucrats in suits and ties decide their fates, often without so much as an acknowledgment that their decisions could, and often do, have disastrous consequences for indigenous communities already living on the very edge of survival.
In a ground-breaking collaboration between the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Terra Des Hommes, Norwegian Church AID and WIMSA, the San began their journey to Malawi back in mid-July in the small town of Upington in South Africa's Northern Cape Province.
Designed as both a capacity building meeting, where the delegates could engage with international norms and standards on their rights as indigenous peoples, and a strategy planning session, the meeting helped to focus their minds and ensure that their participation would be more meaningful and effective.
With the assistance of WIMSA and advocate Gabriel Shumba of the Johannesburg Bar and the African Commission, the participants at the Upington meeting issued a position paper, which encapsulated their concerns and set out a clear and unprecedented vision for what an inclusive SADC would look like for indigenous peoples:
"Because of the discrimination and exclusion that we suffer as a result of acts of commission or omission by both pre-colonial and post-colonial states, we urgently call upon SADC member states to put in place policies and legislation that recognises us as distinct people, taking into account our cultures, traditional knowledge systems, languages and our traditional leadership systems.
These values should underpin any purported development policy for us, with us, and should be the fundamental basis of any development in our traditional communities."
In Malawi, the San were represented on the official programme for the first time, including a side event hosted by WIMSA during which the delegates made an emotional appeal to members of civil society and government ministers from SADC countries.
Describing the event, Shumba noted that the San "made their plea for solidarity and assistance from discrimination in their own countries a touching theme that resonated with delegates attending the SADC meetings. Their plea is simple: to be regarded as human beings, created in the image of God and with rights to dignity and many other rights enjoyed by the dominant society."
And all the preparation for, and hard work of lobbying and advocacy at, the SADC CSF certainly paid off.
For the first time ever, the final communique from the forum contained a substantial section dealing with the issues and concerns of indigenous peoples as formulated by indigenous peoples themselves. The communique, which was shared with the Heads of State, reads:
On Indigenous Peoples:
5.48. Noting that there are approximately 370 million indigenous people spanning 70 countries, worldwide. Historically they have often been dispossessed of their lands, or in the center of conflict for access to valuable resources because of where they live;
5.49. Recognizing that IPs are not asking for special rights, but equality at all levels;
5.50. Indigenous people fought for the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) for more than 25 years, which, was adopted 13 September 2007, by the United Nations General Assembly;
5.51. The UNDRIP is guiding principle for governments on how to deal with the indigenous people by considering the principle of free, prior and informed consent when doing developmental activities in their communities for them to make informed decisions;
5.52. Resolve to support the Gobabis Declaration of the San Peoples;
5.53. Demand that policies and laws, which govern access to benefit sharing agreements under the Convention on Biological Diversity be expeditiously implemented;
5.5.4. Urge SADC Member States to ensure that indigenous people benefit from their traditional knowledge systems;
5.55. Call on Member States in SADC to ensure that the first people of the region are provided with the necessary support in order to realise their development;
5.56. Urge SADC Member States to recognize the San Traditional leadership systems as crucial for development;
5.57. Demand the representation and effective and meaningful participation at political, social, economic platforms in SADC Countries of indigenous people as an integral part of any development process;
And in yet another milestone, Keikabile Mogodu, the Director of the Khwedom Council - a San advocacy group from Botswana - was appointed to the steering committee of the SADC-Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (CNGO), and the San will now have an important role to play in shaping the future agenda of this body.
A number of truly notable achievements emanated from the historic engagement of the San at the SADC CSF, but, the totality of their achievement is perhaps best summed up by Sarah Cossa of tdh, who noted in her reflections on the process that "our partnership contributed to a Milestone achievement, breaking the silence within civil society, demanding a safe space for minorities and ultimately, raising their voices towards the SADC they also want as minorities."
"Looking back, since 2002 when SADC-CNGO started the Forum," she added, "there has never been a discussion on minorities and indeed this was a breakthrough. The message was heard, very loud and clear that, the presence of minorities within southern Africa needs to be acknowledged on issues that affect them."