iiwgha-01International Indigenous Working Group on HIV & AIDS

By Trevor Stratton, Coordinator of the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV & AIDS (IIWGHA)

What is it like to be an Indigenous person living with HIV in Africa?

Good question, right? As we begin to prepare for AIDS 2016 (http://www.aids2016.org/) and the International Indigenous Pre-conference on HIV & AIDS in Durban, South Africa, we need to try to understand the answers to this question and many others.

And just what does the word “Indigenous” mean in Africa? Aren’t all black Africans Indigenous to Africa? Well…. yes and no.

The difference with Africa and other global regions’ experience with colonization is that in Africa since the 50’s and 60’s they have undertaken a decolonization process during which many Europeans packed up and left. The general view is that all Africans are Indigenous. This is obviously true that they are indigenous to the continent but the San and the Khoi are the original First Peoples of the Durban area in South Africa.

However, over time there has been a shift in people’s understanding about what Indigenous means in Africa.

The best resource to understand and explain this concept would be from the African Commission called Indigenous Peoples in Africa: The Forgotten Peoples? The African Commission’s work on indigenous peoples in Africa, which put together a team to study this question. They developed a broad sense of criteria to distinguish between Indigenous and other African people in the context of ILO Convention 169 and other internationally defining documents. Across Africa there are communities that practice ways of life such as nomadic pastoralism, etc. There is now a legal framework where we can talk about Indigenous people without denying the Africanness of the rest of Africans.

Read the document called “Indigenous Peoples in Africa: The Forgotten Peoples? The African Commission’s work on indigenous peoples in Africa” here:

Through engagement at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), Burundi and other countries are starting to recognize that their forest dwelling people are largely Indigenous. Indigenous Peoples experience similar marginalization, modes of consumption and develop their own self-identification criteria.

In South Africa there seems to be less resistance from government to Indigenous identity. President Nelson Mandela established the National Khoi/San Council, which is the body that negotiates with government on behalf of the Khoi and San. At the rhetorical level at least, the South African government accepts that they are the original people of the land.

Often it’s a question of how you talk about it. It’s always a good practice to contextualize what we’re talking about so that one does not alienate some of the other African groups in the country. It is probably easier to define what we don’t mean when using the word “Indigenous” so we can speak about it in a way that is respectful of all Africans. San and Khoi face marginalization from their ways of life, attachment to their territories and the environment, which is a value system similar to other Indigenous Peoples around the world.

Durban is in KwaZulu-Natal province and is the place of the Zulus. So Zulus would consider themselves Indigenous people. But for the work we do, we would still say that the San are the Indigenous People within the definition of the Africa Commission and UNPFII.

For the purposes of IIWGHA, we define “Indigenous” loosely as the people of the land who have no power over that land. It is IIWGHA’s objective to work with countries whether or not they recognize their Indigenous Peoples.


6th International Indigenous Pre-conference on HIV & AIDS

It is beginning to look like our Durban Indigenous Pre-conference needs to begin by helping the delegates to understand the definition of the term “Indigenous” in the Southern African context and how this contentious issue has been a barrier for an Indigenous-led HIV response.

We need to help Indigenous Peoples in Africa lead the discussion about the importance of the Indigenous connection to a traditional land base and their displacement from that land. And how the laws displacing Indigenous people result in them becoming marginalized and neglected. We must demonstrate land as a way of defining who we are and how this connection is central to the definition of Indigenous.

We would like to see the Pre-conference as a place where Indigenous Peoples standing together with their allies can begin the growth of an Indigenous-led HIV response in Africa. It is important for them to take control of any narratives on HIV and Indigenous Peoples that exist and we must assist as allies in the development of the evidence to support this.  It would be most useful to bring potential activists to the Pre-conference to meet other Indigenous people like the Leaders of IIWGHA and others to use it as a learning opportunity. They will be able to meet other people who may be in similar positions in other parts of the world and to connect with the Indigenous Peoples movement and their Indigeneity around the world.

We hope this will create a base to begin this work.

Nothing about us without us!

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