Promoting the Rights, Voices and Visions of Indigenous Peoples

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Text of the U.N. Special Rapporteur Reports on South Africa, New Zealand.

By Jenn Goodman, June 15, 2006, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Issue 30.2 – The governments of South Africa and New Zealand must do more, more quickly, to address the inequalities between their indigenous and nonindigenous populations, according to two recently released reports by U.N. Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen. Although Stavenhagen was “encouraged,” and in the case of South Africa, “tremendously impressed,” by each government’s declared commitment to improving the situation of indigenous rights, his reports conclude that the governments of both nations still need to make substantial changes to their current policies.

Rodolfo Stavenhagen’s primary concern about South Africa is the government’s failure to constitutionally recognize the country’s six self-identified indigenous groups. His report recommends that South Africa’s indigenous communities be recognized on par with the speakers of the 11 nationally recognized languages, and further suggests the establishment of a national registry for officially recognized indigenous groups.

Stavenhagen’s report also focuses on South Africa’s need to accelerate its land restitution process. Specifically, he recommends that indigenous peoples who had been dispossessed of their lands prior to the Native Land Act of 1913 be allowed, and given aid, to reclaim their land. To that end, he recommends the establishment of visiting circuit courts in rural areas to improve indigenous peoples’ and communities’ access to the justice system.

The report says that “high-priority attention” should be given to the grievances of the Khomani San, and recommends that an independent, nongovernmental development agency should be established to help them manage the farms they received in their successful land claim of 1999. The out-of-court settlement returned about 250 square miles of land to the Khomani San in the Kalahari and gave them extensive land-use rights to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park—so far the sole successful land claim by an indigenous group in southern Africa—but did not provide the resources and support the San need to convert their farms into successful enterprises.

While South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution theoretically provides equal access for all indigenous peoples to public and social services such as education and health care, Stavenhagen’s report notes that the combined factors of geographical isolation, extreme poverty, and disenfranchisement still leave many groups—the Khoi and Khomani San, in particular—severely underserved. The Khoi San have repeatedly voiced their dissatisfaction over lengthy delays in the provision of services to their communities, exposing the need for greater coordination between the government and indigenous peoples.

Land dispossession, constitutional reform, and bureaucratic backlog similarly emerge as themes in Stavenhagen’s report on the state of the Maori. The Special Rapporteur’s visit to New Zealand was prompted by Maori leaders’ complaints about the recent passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, which stripped the Maori of their traditional rights to coastal land (see the Spring 2006 Cultural Survival Quarterly to read more about the act). Stavenhagen finds the act to be an egregious breach of the Treaty of Waitaingi, and recommends that it be repealed or amended to “recognize the inherent rights of the Maori in the foreshore and seabed,” including allowing for “free and full access by the general public to the country’s beaches and coastal area without discrimination of any kind.”

Other key recommendations in the report focus on instituting a process for constitutional reform that would honor the Treaty of Waitaingi in its entirety—thus fully recognizing the rights of the Maori—as well as increasing the Maori’s representation in Parliament. The government’s current procedures, which allow Parliament to pass legislation by simple majority, leave the Maori, with their minority representation, little to no political recourse for discriminatory policies such as the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Stavenhagen likewise finds disproportionate gaps between Maori and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent) in the areas of employment, income, health, housing, education, and criminal justice, and emphasizes that the government must increase its efforts to bridge these gaps. Stavenhagen concluded both countries’ reports with the recommendation that each nation should immediately ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention No.169, the current international standard for indigenous rights.

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