The Bushmen of the Kalahari

| 1st September 2003
Sandy Gall describes the genocide the Botswanan government is waging to clear the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

On the sideboard in my dining room in Kent there is a small bowl of very fine, reddish sand from the southern-most tip of the Kalahari Desert and a large, gleaming white ostrich egg with a hole drilled in the top. The two objects, so far removed from their place of origin, conjure up for me and my daughter Michaela (who bought the ostrich egg at a tourist camp in Namibia and collected the sand from a dune in a north-west Cape squatter camp called Welkom) vivid if nostalgic memories of the Kalahari and the Bushmen who still live in it. But they symbolise much more: they speak of an ancient civilisation that existed and flourished for thousands of years under the great dome of the African sky.

The Kalahari ‘sandface’, as the Bushmen call it, stretches across seven countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Zambia in the north, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia in the centre, and South Africa in the south. Unlike the Sahara and Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, it is partly covered with thick bush and trees and criss-crossed by underground rivers that support a wide variety of plant and animal life – including the ostrich. To the Bushmen the ostrich is a legendary bird – it first gave fire to man – and also the butt of many stories and jokes. They prize it as a source of protein and for its tough eggshells. The latter have both artistic and practical applications; they are used in the manufacture of jewellery and as containers to store water under the sand against times of drought.

So for the Bushmen, far from being a hostile environment, the sands of the Kalahari are a life-giving force. One day early in 1998, sitting in the shade of a big acacia tree in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve community of Molapo, I listened to elder Mathambo Sesana describing how profoundly attached he and the rest of his people were to their ancestral land – a land from which the Botswana government was trying to evict them. ‘We all want to stay,’ he began. Then, scooping up a handful of sand and letting it trickle through his fingers, he said: ‘We are made the same as the sand. So this is our land, because we were born here.’ Two and a half years later he was dead from a suspected heart attack after a violent raid on the village by Botswana wildlife officials and police (of which more later).

Another villager, Ganema – the sprightly middle-aged wife of the local shaman or medicine man, told me she and her family were also determined to stay despite government threats. ‘They say they will drop a bomb on us if we don’t move… [They say] “This is not your land, you stole this land. You are finishing the game, you have stolen the land and killed the game.” But I was born here, my mother suckled me here, so I will not move. I want to die here.’

As my daughter and I travelled through the Kalahari reserve (created by the British in 1961 as a permanent home for the Bushmen ‘to allow them the right of choice of the life they wish to follow’) we repeatedly heard both men and women say they could not leave ‘because the graves of our ancestors are here’. This was of paramount importance because the Bushmen used sand from their family graves for healing, rain-making and even, one woman said, to put on their crops if they were doing badly.

The Bushmen’s affinity with the natural world, and above all with the animals they hunted, was most strikingly expressed in two ways: through their rock art and the trance dance. The paintings and engravings go back thousands of years and are found all over the southern half of Africa – from Zimbabwe and even farther north in Tanzania to the Cape. Throughout this vast area you can find caves and overhangs decorated with still extraordinarily vivid pictures of animals, hunters and mysterious half-human half-animal hybrids. The latter are shamans: the medicine men-priests who may well have been the artists as well, and who achieved potency as healers through the trance dance – the most important of all Bushman rituals.

One of the most famous rock paintings is the Laurens van der Post panel at Tsodilo, a huge repository of Bushman art in north-western Botswana. There, high up on a rock face, gazing out across the Kalahari, is the image of a magnificent red eland bull, ‘painted,’ wrote van der Post in The Lost World of the Kalahari, ‘only as a Bushman who had a deep identification with the eland could have painted him’. Below and facing the other way stands a female giraffe, motionless as if alarmed by some predator. The rock face bears the images of several other animals and two still vivid and fresh blood-red handprints – the signature, van der Post presumed, of the unknown artist.

My first visit to Tsodilo made a deep impression on me. I discovered that a vibrant Bushman culture, producing a wealth of art, existed there at least 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, and that the Bushmen (or their ancestors) had lived there more than 30,000 years ago. This, of course, was not a civilisation of great public buildings and conquering armies, but a society of hunter-gatherers who had learned to survive and even flourish in daily osmosis with the natural world – even in the harsh confines of the Kalahari. Based on the extended family, it was perhaps the first democratic society on earth – with no kings, chiefs or even headmen. Each man considered himself as good as the next. All decisions were taken by consensus and only after discussion among all the adults in the family group – both men and women. Once the majority view was established, everyone was expected to adhere to it.

To survive as a hunter-gatherer (we were all hunter-gatherers once) you have to be pragmatic and flexible. Bushmen are sometimes incorrectly described as nomads. Nomads have flocks and herds and travel long distances in a predictable pattern of seasonal migration. Bushmen, who have no flocks or herds and only a minimum of personal possessions, travel much shorter distances in pursuit of food and water and always in their own territory. Each territory, known as ‘nyore’ in Nharo (one of the many Bushman click languages) was jealously and often fiercely guarded because it contained the resources on which the Bushmen depended for survival: water, game and the wild plants of the Kalahari.
The Bushmen know and use more than 100 plants, many of which are highly nutritious. But sadly their vast knowledge of the natural world, which is now proving so valuable to modern medicine, is rapidly being lost as they are forced by a ruthless and indeed racist Botswanan government out of their ancestral territories like the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and into resettlement camps that the Bushmen call ‘places of death’.

Years of threats and intimidation culminated in August 2000 in a raid by half a dozen wildlife officials and tribal policemen on Molapo. Thirteen Bushmen were arrested for alleged poaching, taken to a camp in the bush and held without food or water for three days. There, according to a Survival International report that was based on an on-the-spot investigation by one of the indigenous peoples’ pressure group’s senior staff, the detainees were kicked and beaten until they ‘confessed’ that they had killed giraffe and eland. One victim called Kebatseisa Thekiso said that he was ‘tied to the bush bars of [a] vehicle and beaten all over the body... with fists and kicked’, and that he was told ‘if you don’t say you killed a giraffe you will die’.

Then at the beginning of February 2002 the Botswana government cut off the water supply to the six communities in the Kalahari reserve – even emptying half-full water tanks into the sand, and evicted the remaining inhabitants. Hunting, the lifeblood of Bushman life, had already been banned. Now, if Bushmen want to revisit their old homes in their ancestral territory they have to obtain a permit. In the two drab resettlement villages of New Xade and Kauduane, on the fringes of the reserve, there is no hunting and, because there is no plant food, no gathering – only government handouts, unemployment, alcoholism and despair.

Despite all these obstacles and restrictions, about 120 Bushmen have slipped back into the reserve; they are determined to cling to their old way of life. To defy a government that has shown (at Molapo, for example) that it is more than willing to use storm-trooper tactics takes courage. But to survive the lack of water takes determination and resourcefulness. The Bushmen who have stayed on or gone back will have to re-learn to exist in the traditional way – by using the old sip wells (from which water was sucked up from deep in the sand through a hollow reed), or by storing ostrich eggshells full of water under the sand.

Shamefully, consecutive British governments (including the present one), the EU, so-called liberal MEPs like Glenys Kinnock, anthropologists (with some honourable exceptions) and (perhaps more understandably given the internal pressure) Botswanan human rights’ organisations have all turned their backs on the Bushmen.

Since Bushmen are the most studied human social group on earth, it is particularly odd that the anthropological world has either kept silent or, like the young South African anthropologist James Suzman (who has close connections with the diamond giant De Beers), argued against bestowing ancestral land rights on indigenous peoples. One outstanding exception is the US anthropologist professor Susan Kent, who has pointed out that it is only very recently that the Botswana government has started to stop the Bushmen hunting and gathering ‘with an aggressive programme of assimilation to the Botswana agro-pastoralist way of life. Only now, under an involuntary resettlement scheme, has the extinction of the [Bushman] culture become imminent’. 

Another notable exception is the British academic and member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars Dr Mark Levene, who says that the Botswana government could face charges of genocide at the International Criminal Court. Survival International, the only human rights’ organisation apart from Botswana’s First People of the Kalahari that is prepared to fight for the Bushmen’s cause, says that many Bushmen fear that the loss of their land will lead to their extinction.

One Bushman, living in the New Xade resettlement camp told Survival: ‘My children have been taken off their land. Our culture, which I wanted to teach them, is just about to die. My children are like an unknown nation. Nobody knows where they are from. They are lost. They are like dead people. We are all – me, my children and my people – in prison. It’s genocide. It’s like a big hole has been dug and all the Gana and the Gwi [Bushmen] have been tipped inside and buried.’

Recently, the Botswana president Festus Mogae (who has twice visited Britain in the past two years as a guest of the government to promote Botswanan diamonds as ‘clean’) was picketed in Oxford by Survival protesters. Asked by a student if the Bushmen would be allowed to return to their ancestral territory in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, he replied: ‘No, it is only for animals.’ In a formal statement issued to counter the Survival campaign, Mogae claimed that the resettlement programme had been carried out ‘in the most sensitive and constructive manner possible’. Tell that to the Bushmen who were tortured at Molapo.

In my book, The Bushmen of Southern Africa: slaughter of the innocent, I ask whether the Botswanan government’s campaign to remove the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is genocide ‘by stealth’. It is genocide, alright, but not by stealth. It is open, unashamed and contemptuous of world opinion.

Former ITN presenter Sandy Gall is the world affairs editor of LBC. The Bushmen of Southern Africa: slaughter of the innocent is published by Pimlico, price £12.50

World of the Bushmen

Where are they found?
The Bushmen are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years in the Kalahari desert.

How many of them are there?
How do they survive?
The Bushmen’s hunting skills are remarkable. They can tell an animal’s age by examining its droppings, and can measure how old its tracks are in the time it takes termites to rebuild a nest that the beast has trampled on. They use the nest of the penduline tit bird to keep things like tobacco or unused poison pupae dry.

What is their social structure?
Historically, they lived in groups of between 25 and 50 people who are related to each other through blood or marriage. With no specific leaders, decisions are made by discussion and consensus. Food and water are divided according to seniority, and what limited possessions they have are shared.

Central to their rituals is the trance dance, in which the women sit around a fire and clap out a rhythm, and the men dance in a circle around them. The intense concentration, hyperventilation and highly rhythmic dancing involved in the ceremony send the participants into a state of trance. During trance, they assume the character of various animals and are able to communicate with spirits – pleading with them to help perform tasks like curing the sick.
Other important tasks performed in trance include rain-making and visiting other camps in out-of-body travel. Sometimes the participants see spirit animals attracted by the dance standing out in the darkness. They direct one another’s attention to these animals, thus pooling their experiences of the spirit world. Afterwards they collapse in exhaustion until the next day, when, fully recovered, they share their trance experiences with one other.

Why are the bushmen being evicted?

Since 1997 the government of Botswana has been systematically removing the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). Keen to make sure that Botswana’s image isn’t sullied by the extinction of the world’s oldest civilisation, the government has strenuously denied that the expulsion of the Bushmen from their ancestral lands has anything to do with diamond mining. Apparently, it’s all to do with development and conservation.

The government of Botswana claims the CKGR was set up for conservation purposes, and that the Bushmen threaten the game

There are two reasons why this won’t wash. First, the CKGR was originally ceded to the Bushmen by the British in 1961 to provide them with an area where they could continue their traditional lifestyle of living sustainably off the animals there.  Second, Bushmen hunting is intelligent and controlled and has developed over thousands of years. They know better than anyone else the extent of local animal populations; they have never driven animals to extinction. Unlike most people in the ‘developed’ world, the bushmen know how best to use scarce resources.

Yet the Botswana government is committed to this fallacy. In 2001 13 bushmen were charged with over-hunting. In January this year the charges were dropped when the authorities failed to produce any witnesses.

The government also believes that the Bushmen should be ‘developed’ from their ‘primitive’ state Margaret Nasha, the minister who authorised the present removals, has said: ‘We do not want to see pictures of semi-naked prehistoric people.’ Botswana president Festus Mogae put it another way: ‘If the bushmen want to survive they must change otherwise, like the Dodo, they will perish.’
So offended is the Botswana government by the Bushmen, that on numerous occasions government officials have resorted to torturing them. In one incident a man was castrated – all in the name of development, of course. In another incident in August 2000 wildlife officials and police in the CKGR town of Rakops spent six days working over 20 men and four women as punishment for their ‘over-hunting’. The officials were so keen to develop the Bushmen that they tied them to a Land Rover for 48 hours. One of the Bushmen victims later elaborated: ‘They told us to line up naked in front of the Land Rovers. We were tied upside down and handcuffed to the Land Rovers, with our feet tied to the bushbars until 10pm. For the first two days we slept tied to the bushbars. This land belonged to out great-great-great-grandfathers. The game and wild fruits are important to us. We grow melons on this land and we hunt animals like gemsbok. This land is important to us.’

The Botswana government’s offensive attitude and actions rest on a racist premise – the notion that the Bushmen’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle is somehow inferior and should be ‘developed’. But Survival International director Stephen Corry describes the Bushmen’s lifestyle as ‘an intelligent reaction to an otherwise inhospitable climate’. Corry says: ‘In  many parts of the world, hunting and gathering allow humans to inhabit areas that would otherwise remain empty – not just deserts, but parts of the Arctic and tropical rainforest. Nor are the Bushmen living a life that is “unchanged” over hundreds of years; they adapt to changes like everyone else. But they must be allowed to choose how.’

The government says the Bushmen must be ‘brought to where the services are’… The most important ‘service’ for the Bushmen is water. They had a perfectly good borehole in the CKGR until government officials dismantled its pump. When the New Xade resettlement camp was founded, Bushmen were taken from a community where many services existed and dumped on a site outside the CKGR where there were no services; water had to be piped in at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Furthermore, investigations of the CKGR’s Gope diamond mine for De Beers uncovered a vast underground lake from which 9,000 cubic metres of water could be sustainably extracted every day. And that figure allows for the diamond mine using 12,000 cubic metres of the water a day.

…it says it’s too expensive to provide ‘services’ to the Bushmen in the CKGR
According to the authorities’ own figures, it was costing just 20 pula ($3) per person per week to provide such services. The government resettlement camps, on the other hand, have cost millions. But anyway, Botswana had a budget surplus of 2.58 billion pula in the financial year 2000/2001.

But the truth is that Botswana is more interested in developing its Diamond industry. Dr Akolang Russia Tombale is the permanent secretary of the Botswana ministry of minerals, energy and water affairs. He’s also deputy chairman of Debswana – the mining company that is half owned by De Beers and half by the Botswana government.

In a recent court case concerning the Bushmen’s right to return to their ancestral lands, Tombale assured the court that the evictions had nothing to do with diamonds. This was strange, because the bushmen’s lawyers had never mentioned diamonds. They were just defending the Gana and Gwi Bushmen’s right to live on lands they had occupied for thousands of years.

And yet when Margaret Nasha said in February 2002 that the relocation of the Gana and Gwi was not unprecedented she cited an example of people being relocated ‘to give way for projects of national interest’ in Jwaneng. They were, in fact, relocated to make way for a diamond mine.

As Botswana’s foreign minister Mompati Merafhe has explained: ‘Many Bushmen have been removed because of economic interests. In Orapa, my area, a great chunk of people were removed because of the mine. Botswana is where it is today because of this facilitation. These people are no exception.’

And Eric Molale, an official in Botswana’s ministry of local government, has said: ‘Government has always encouraged and persuaded its citizens to give way for developments of national importance.’ (This was the same Molale who told the BBC last year that nobody was being forced to move.)

Meanwhile, back in the Kalahari the Botswana government has been parcelling up the CKGR into diamond concessions and sharing them out between De Beers, the Australian-based company BHP Billiton and the Canadian outfit Motapa Diamonds Inc. And by November last year virtually the entire game reserve, bar a small bite-sized chunk in the northwest, had been dished out.
So either the government has pulled off a fat scam by selling dud concessions to three unsuspecting multinationals – or it’s lying.


Hunting regulations introduced. Bushmen are given special game licences restricting the numbers and species of game they can hunt.

Diamond deposits discovered at Gope (Bushman community in CKGR).

De Beers launches a joint venture with Canadian mining firm Falconbridge to evaluate the Gope deposits.
15 July 1986
Botswanan government white paper on Bushman communities in CKGR makes clear relocation is official policy.

12 October 1986
Botswana’s minister of commerce and industry announces decision to move the communities.

March 1997
Botswana’s minister of local government, lands and housing requests that the Botswana parliament approves funding for the resettlement of the Bushmen outside of the CKGR.

May-June 1997
The government resettles the people of New Xade, the largest Bushman community in the CKGR, and others from the south-central part of the reserve in Kweneng District. Some 1,500 people are evicted, but about 700 refuse to move.

March 2000   
New regulations state Bushmen must apply in writing for hunting permits and permission to collect veld foods in CKGR. Permission will be issued at the reserve’s director of wildlife's discretion.

August 2000
Wildlife department officials descend on the community of Molapo, forcing their way into several Bushman homes, bullying and later torturing at least two dozen men and women. Bushman Mathambo Sesana dies a few days later.

13 August 2001
The government announces that water and other essential services will be cut off in the CKGR at the end of January 2002.

February 2002
Bushmen told they need permits to enter their own land. Community radios confiscated by police.  Most of the remaining 700 Bushmen evicted by force from their homes in CKGR to resettlement camps. Dozens refuse to move.

March 2002
Bushmen prevented from taking food and water to those resisting eviction in CKGR.

November 2002
Post-evictions, virtually all the CKGR is carved up into diamond-exploration concessions.

16 June 2003      
Group of Bushmen who had returned to Molapo issued with courts summons, charging them with entering a game reserve without a permit.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2003


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