Kalahari Bushmen Fight Government Intransigence

Roy Sesane (center), the leader of the First People of Kalahari, celebrates after the final hearing and judgment of the Bushmen's case against the government of Botswana at the High Court in Lobatse on Dec. 13, 2006. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP-Getty Images)

South of the Okavango Delta, the Kalahari Desert stretches beyond Botswana's southern borders. The midriff of this vast, waterless region lies within the 20,000-square mile Central Kalahari Game Reserve set aside in 1961 for the Bushmen to pursue their hunting and gathering lifestyle.

The reserve and empty land around it supports tens of thousands of desert antelope, gembok, and sringbok that never drink, deriving their moisture from vegetation and juice tubers; lions, leopards, and cheetahs there survive on their prey.

This is the land the Basarwa (Bushmen) are fighting to get back to. Despite winning a court ruling in December 2006, the Kalahari Bushmen have yet to see their dreams realized. The Botswana government orchestrated devious plans to frustrate their return back.

"More than a year after the judgment, we still do not have that land. We have been evicted from our land and our government refuses to respect orders of the court," said Roy Sesane, the leader of the First People of Kalahari.

Sesane said the government has devised ways of frustrating the return of his people to the game reserve. "It involves district commissioners and other government employees from the council and wildlife being used against our people."

He said government employees hold night meetings with Basarwa who want to return and threaten them that when they return they will starve because of thirst.

As late as last week, the government of Botswana has denied accusations that it was preventing their return.

The San, or the Basarwa—estimated to number around 3,000 in 2000—are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Botswana and the surrounding areas. They are the second largest group of indigenous hunter-gatherers in Africa, second only to the pygmies of equatorial Africa who number some 200,000.

Their earliest history and culture is recorded in rock paintings, folk tales, and songs. The Basarwa live predominately by hunting and gathering. Basarwa communities living by hunting and gathering can be found in northern Kweneng between Kenwane and Khutse, others can be found at Tshwaane Pan between Dutlwe and Tsetseng. Some can be found near Lonetree Pan on the main road to Qhanzi or on the road from Klukuntsi to Nojowane.

The explanation given by the government of Botswana for moving the Basarwa was that it wished to ensure the park's integrity as a nature reserve, and that it wished to integrate the San into the country's social and economic life.

The removals started in 1997, and most of the community has since been relocated to settlements outside the park. In exchange for their traditional hunting and gathering existence the Botswana government said it granted them title deeds to land apportioned to them and gave them goats and cattle.

Basarwa, meaning "people without cattle," have suffered decades of discrimination at the hands of the local Setswana population. Last year's ruling reversed 20 years of a Botswana government policy to persuade the San to leave the reserve.

Before then, the authorities began deliberately cutting services such as mobile clinics in the park. Payments were offered to those who volunteered to move to resettlement camps 30 miles away.

Human rights groups in Botswana are disappointed with the government's apparent desire to make the San's return to the reserve as complicated as possible. A coalition of five local human rights groups—including Ditshwanelo and the Botswana Council of Churches—has been urging the government and the San to find a good and negotiated solution for a smooth return.

The rights groups were in particular concerned over the conflict potential regarding the ruling that the termination in 2002 of services—such as water—to the San living in the reserve "was neither unlawful nor unconstitutional." The court also decided, "The government is not obliged to restore basic and essential services."

"Recognizing that the court ruling has not dealt with fundamental developmental issues," the human rights groups said in a statement that they believed and have emphasized that "negotiation between the affected parties remains a viable option. Such negotiations will ensure participatory processes that deliver a sustainable solution. We were encouraged by the reference made by the judges to the negotiations approach to address the issue."

Recently, according to reports, at least 10 men in the Kaudwane resettlement camp have been arrested and beaten by wildlife officials for hunting.

At least one man, Motsoko Ramahoko, was tortured as officials attempted to force him to admit that he had been hunting without a permit.

Ramahoko was a witness in the landmark legal case in which the Botswana high court held that he and hundreds of other Bushmen had been evicted illegally from their land in the central Kalahari. The court also held that the government had broken the law in refusing to issue them with hunting permits.

Despite the ruling, at least 43 Bushmen have been arrested for hunting this year.

At the time of the December 2006 court judgment, Ramahoko told London-based Survival International, "I am just so happy and I am wanting to go back to my land." However, 10 months later, he and many others remain unable to return home.

Besides refusing to issue hunting permits, the government has refused to provide transport for the Bushmen to return. It has banned them from drilling for water, and will not let them take their small numbers of livestock back with them, despite the fact that the court ruling entitled them to return with their domestic animals.

The director of Survival International, Stephen Corry, said, "Beatings by wildlife scouts used to be routine. They eased off around the time of the judgment. Now they're back.

"Not a single one has ever been properly investigated by the authorities. This makes a mockery of the high court judgment, the government's vote for the U.N. indigenous peoples' declaration, and its declarations of respect for human rights. Botswana's reputation sinks yet further and the country's non-Bushman N.G.O.'s remain silent."

San-friendly groups, such as Survival International, say they have been watched by police. Most anthropologists have been denied permits to study them in the park.

While a similar case in South Africa a few years ago gave the San mineral revenue rights from their ancestral land, the Botswana case is proving to be a sterner test for them.