Bushmen struggle to return to Central Kalahari

Botswanan police are refusing to allow Kalahari Bushmen to return to their ancestral homelands, despite their having won a landmark high court case allowing them to do so, writes Clive Dennis

On December 13 last year the Bushmen finally succeeded in their four-year struggle for justice in the courts of Botswana, challenging their eviction from the Central Kalahari. In contradiction of the ruling, however, the police declared independently in January that the court decision applies only to those 239 Bushmen who had originally brought the case, rather than the thousand or so who had been living there until the evictions first started in 1997.

As a result families have been split in two, as many of those who were included on the court list have had to leave their wives and children behind the police lines on the edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

In 2002, the Bushmen of the Kalahari filed a claim against the Government of Botswana challenging their recent forced removal from their homelands, which was in violation not only of international law, but also of Botswana’s constitution. In what was to become the longest and most expensive court case in Botswana’s history, the Bushmen, described during the proceedings as ‘stone age creatures’ by Festus Mogae, the President of Botswana, gave evidence which cast the country’s government in a far less favourable light than it has been used to in recent years, having previously gained the reputation for being a demonstration of a successful modern democracy in the heart of Africa.

The battle dates back to 1991 when a number of Bushmen set up their own organisation, First People of the Kalahari (FPK), in order to defend their rights to their lands and to their chosen way of life. FPK began supporting Bushmen who needed legal help defending their right to hunt and carried out a mapping project in order to get Bushmen communities recognised as official residents of the CKGR. Very quickly, they became targeted by the Botswanan government in a campaign of surveillance and vilification. In 1996, it became official policy to evict the Bushmen. Officials openly declared that this was in order to make way for diamond mining.

Soon after this change in policy, the evictions began in earnest, and government trucks began rolling onto the reserve to remove the Bushmen. The Bushmen resisted, however, and kept on returning to the reserve, despite the increasing difficulty and danger of doing so. Limitations were put on what the Bushmen were allowed to hunt, and a permit system was introduced, whereby individual Bushmen were required to apply for hunting permits – a difficult task for a people who are largely unable to read, and who have no means to travel to the offices where they are issued, hundreds of miles away.

The government then removed the pump from the borehole which the Bushmen used for their water supply. But still, in the face of these hardships, many families remained. It was then decided that the Bushmen would have to be encouraged off the reserve by other means.

By February 2002, hunting and gathering were banned altogether and later, so was the keeping of domestic stock. Wildlife wardens threatened the Bushmen, tied them to vehicles for days, destroyed dwellings and shot holes in their water tanks. Forty-four cases of torture were reported. One man was castrated. Several died from beatings.

In this manner most of the Bushmen had, by 2005, been persuaded to leave, though a few still held out, their off-reserve relatives doing their best to smuggle food and water past the park officials. Many still kept on trying to return.

Once most of the inhabitants had been removed, a large part of the CKGR was staked out for diamond concessions, the primary claimants being De Beers, who work in partnership with the Botswana government, and another company, BHP Billiton.

The Bushmen were relocated to New Xade, a parched settlement on the edge of the reserve, where game was scarce and hunting no longer even a possibility. In the years that followed, the Bushmen lived on government handouts and alcohol. Some became prostitutes, and the first instances of AIDS occurred. 

In the midst of this, the Bushmen, with international support from charities such as Survival International, brought a case before the Botswanan courts, challenging the legality of the evictions.

After prevaricating, the government went as far as changing the constitution during the course of the court case, removing the section which declared the rights of the Bushmen to the CKGR. They were, however, becoming increasingly embarrassed by the international campaign supporting the Bushmen, as were De Beers, the diamond traders set to benefit most.

In December 2006, the court finally ruled in favour of the Bushmen, declaring the government’s eviction ‘unlawful and unconstitutional’, and that the Bushmen have the right to live on their land inside the CKGR, hunting and gathering, without a requirement for permits. The Bushmen were ecstatic. ‘We have waited for this moment for so many years, and now we are finally going home!’ said one Bushman, a member of a group who started preparing to return home as soon as the judgement was passed. ‘I will build some huts for my family, and teach my young children how to find food. My heart is full of joy, knowing that soon I will see my land again.’

Even in light of the High Court decision, the government has still not given up in its attempts to keep the Bushmen out of the Kalahari, and President Mogae greeted the ruling with a speech, encouraging the Bushmen not to return. Then the police barricades were erected. The FPK, on behalf of the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, is now appealing to the international community to help them secure their hard won rights. In a statement they said, “As First People of the Kalahari and residents of CKGR we appeal to the President, Cabinet and all Botswana to leave us alone to go home. The President has said that we should not go backwards but should go forward. This is good advice. So we will go forward fighting for our rights to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.”

The Bushmen have won one battle to decide the direction of their lives but, as for tribal peoples the world over, the war continues in earnest.

For regular updates on the Bushmen’s struggle, visit www.survival-international.org

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007

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