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BOTSWANA: Culture under threat - Special Report on the San Bushmen (I)

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


The San have lived in Southern Africa for 30,000 years, but the fate of a unique lifestyle is in the balance

MOLAPO, 5 Mar 2004 (IRIN) - Drinking cool water in an ostrich egg shell after a long hot trek. Praying with the parents by the ancestors' graves. Sharing water pans with lions. These are Jumanda Gakelebone's memories of his life as a San resident in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

The fate of this lifestyle hinges on a court ruling later this year on the legality of the government's controversial eviction of the San people from their ancestral land in the reserve.

"The CKGR case has a symbolic importance, because its communities are the last among us San to have this special connection with the land," says Mothambo Ngakaeaja, coordinator of the Botswana section of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA).

The resettlement of roughly 2,500 CKGR residents, first mooted in 1986, has sparked local and international protest, and tarnished the image of Botswana, one of Africa's longest-running democracies.

The relocation began in 1997, when, according to government figures, 1,740 people moved out of the CKGR into the settlements of New Xade, three hours west in a 4x4, and Kaudwane, 8 hours to the south over rough, lion infested terrain. Another 530 reluctantly moved out when the government cut off water, food rations, health and social services to the reserve in early 2002. Those who moved received a measure of compensation in money and cattle.

But about 50 die-hards refused to leave. Today, perhaps another 100, unhappy with life in New Xade, have trekked back into the reserve, rebuilt their branch-and-thatch huts, and live off the land. Many others in New Xade also want to return.

Their hopes are pinned on the court case.


The hunter-gatherer San have lived in Southern Africa for 30,000 years. About four thousand years ago, waves of cattle-raising Bantu people from Central Africa moved south and pushed the San into dry areas like the Kalahari, the vast sheet of sand that spreads over parts of three countries in the heart of the region. The arrival of white settlers in the 1600s brought dispossession, enslavement and slaughter of the San.

Also known as Bushmen, the San are not one people but several groups, speaking languages that belong to seven linguistic families. Today the San number roughly 100,000 across Southern Africa: 48,000 in Botswana, 32,000 in Namibia, 4,300 in South Africa, 2,500 in Zimbabwe and 300 in Zambia. Last year, 3,500 San were located in southern Angola; more may live in Western Angola.

Like first peoples elsewhere, from the Native Americans to the Maoris, the San have a history of discrimination, poverty, social exclusion, erosion of cultural identity and denial of rights as a group. In Botswana they are called Basarwa (those who don't raise cattle), a term the San find demeaning.

Yet the San have also captured the attention of anthropologists and the media with their extraordinary survival skills, wealth of indigenous knowledge, rich traditions and oneness with the environment.

Recognising the uniqueness of San culture, the British colonial government set up the CKGR in 1961 to protect the habitat, the wildlife and the lifestyle of its residents. This comprised the G/wi and the G//ana San and a few hundred Bakgalagadi - Bantu people who moved into the reserve some 400 years ago and mixed with the San.

Larger than Denmark, at 52,600 sq km the CKGR is one of Africa's most remote, unspoiled wildernesses, an open savannah of gold-red sand, silky grasses, thorny scrub, a few tall acacias, camel thorn trees and underground rivers, but no surface water. Herds of gemsbok, eland, kudu, wildebeest and hartebeest gather at the salt pans. So do the predators - lions, cheetahs, hyenas and jackals.

The environment holds few secrets for the San. In a few square metres they can find a pantry, a pharmacy and a well: water in fat tuber roots, edible berries, medicinal leaves, nutritious beetles. Even the scorpion's deadly poison is useful as a dip for hunting arrows.


But some San mixed traditional hunting - on foot with bow and arrow - with modern methods, using horses and, says the government, the occasional suspected use of firearms. The authorities argue that these practices, along with owning small herds of goats and donkeys in the reserve, are incompatible with wildlife conservation.

However, documents from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks state that between 1986 and 1996, "wildlife biomass more than doubled" in the CKGR.

The government's key point is an insistence that the San are better off in settlements with health and education facilities and that to provide social services in the CKGR is too expensive.

"People have been encouraged to move out to give themselves and their children the benefits of development," says Clifford Maribe, press secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The UK-based activist group, Survival International, who defends the rights of tribal peoples worldwide, believes that the real reason is the government's plan for diamond mining in the reserve. The government denies this because, it says, mining the CKGR diamond deposits is not economically worthwhile.

WIMSA sees other powerful interests at play. "Cattle-ranchers and conservation are the two bulls fighting the San, with minerals in a third place," says Ngakaeaja.

Ditshwanelo, the Centre for Human Rights in Botswana, looks at the broader context. The government's one-size-fits-all model of development does not cater for minorities with a different lifestyle. The Tswana (the majority ethnic group) model of social organisation is based on cattle-raising, agriculture, and villages organised hierarchically under a headman. The
hunter-gatherer San, with their loose and egalitarian social organisation, and extensive land use, do not fit the majority model.

"The tragedy is that we are replaying the colonisation game if we don't allow the San their right to be different," says Alice Mogwe, director of Ditshwanelo.


The rumours of eviction began circulating in the late 1980s. The local pressure group, First People of the Kalahari (FPK), rallied the residents to resist expulsion from the CKGR and demand the right to their ancestral land.

Some San resettled voluntarily. Others were persuaded, according to Ngakaeaja, "by carrot or stick or by monkey tricks", which ranged from promises of large compensation to alleged threats of forced removal by the army and police.

New Xade has been dubbed the "place of death" by the San. There is no hunting, and they are far from the graves of their ancestors, where the San find healing and guidance.

The San have suffered a history of discrimination, poverty, social exclusion, erosion of cultural identity and denial of rights as a group

"Why does the government want to move me like a parcel? The government found me here at independence in 1966," says Motuakgomo Zandu, an old man who refuses to leave the reserve.

He and 58 others are encamped in Molapo, one of the six original San settlements inside the CKGR, five hours by sandy track from the Xade park entrance. Once a thriving community of 300 people, Molapo was razed in 2002, its huts dismantled, water tanks emptied and taken away.

Molapo today consists of a handful of huts. The men, women and children are in rags, destitute, and highly vulnerable to any medical emergency but fiercely proud of their culture.

The CKGR San hold on to their lifestyle. "There is no bush food in New Xade," is a phrase often heard. More than diet is at stake. Hunting and gathering wild food is central to their cultural identity, and the residents suffered a major blow when the government cancelled their hunting licences in October 2001.

"The development the government offers us does not include what we are proud of," says Jumanda Gakelebone, acting coordinator for FPK. "We know how to provide for our families in the bush, but in New Xade we depend on government handouts. Instead of every day going to find food in the bush, we go to the shebeen to drink. This is killing our culture."

The new lifestyle "has led to many problems, including alcoholism, communal tension, and a rise in TB and AIDS cases, because the people were not prepared for such a change," says a 2002 report by the Kuru Family of Organisations, a consortium of NGOs working with the San.

The government is spending plenty of money - more than US $5 million, it says - on New Xade. This amount, activists point out, could pay for the delivery of essential services to the CKGR - estimated by the government at US $11,000 a month.

New Xade's newly built hospital and maternity ward, classrooms, students hostels and government staff houses, equipped with solar panels and water tanks, contrast with the basic branch-and-thatch huts of the San. But there is rubbish everywhere and no latrines. Only a few government vehicles drive by on the sandy roads. Goats and donkeys wander around as aimlessly as the people.

By noon, the youth at the Cool Way Bar are drunk and bored. They aggressively beg from the occasional foreigner. At family shebeens, people sit on the sand and share bowls of Qgari, a traditional fermented beer.

All the neat new brick buildings cannot hide the fact that New Xade stands on a bleak piece of scrub, with little shade and no water - a far cry from the rich savannah of the reserve.


Since 1996, a negotiating team, comprising representatives of the residents, FPK, WIMSA, Ditshwanelo and the Botswana Council of Churches, has protested the relocation, while seeking dialogue with the authorities.

A first step was to register 250 adults as CKGR residents, which gave the negotiating team a mandate.

A second step was the mapping of traditional hunting and gathering territories in the reserve, done by FPK members using oral history and modern technology, including satellite global positioning systems.

The third was the preparation of a land claim by a team of South African lawyers, who had successfully negotiated royalties for the San from a pharmaceutical company developing an appetite-suppressant derived from a cactus traditionally used by the San.

Things looked better in 2001 when the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, in consultation with the San and the negotiating team, drew up a draft management plan granting the San user rights and Community Use Zones inside the reserve.

"The plan was a healing process between residents and wildlife officials," Alice Mogwe told IRIN.

Survival International rejected the plan for lack of ownership and hunting rights, and intensified its worldwide campaign, accusing the Botswana government of "genocide" while launching a boycott of its diamonds.

The group also angrily protested the alleged torture of some San poachers at the hands of police.

"Attitudes hardened, the plan was shelved, and that was so frustrating," says Mogwe.

The Foreign Ministry's Clifford Maribe told IRIN that "the proposal in question was revised to align the draft management plan with government policies. Community Use Zones have been demarcated in wildlife management areas adjacent to the game reserve."

In fact, according to lawyer and negotiating team member Glyn Williams, the draft management plan conformed to the original government policy for Community-Based Natural Resource Management, which allowed Community Use Zones inside game parks. The policy was changed after the government announcement in 2002 that essential services to the reserve would be cut off.


After negotiations froze in 2001, the team took the Botswana government to court on behalf of the CKGR residents in April 2002. Since then there have been many delays due to technicalities, but the court is expected to rule in June on whether:

- It was unlawful for the government to end basic and essential services to the residents in January 2002;
- The government has an obligation to restore these services;
- The residents were in possession of their land and were deprived of it forcibly, wrongly and without their consent;
- The government's refusal to issue game licenses to the residents, and allow them to enter the CKGR is unlawful and unconstitutional.

The lawyers point out that the Botswana constitution restricts entry or residence of non-Bushmen in Bushman areas like the CKGR, which can only be interpreted as granting the San the right to live and hunt on their ancestral land.

The San derive hope from a landmark case in South Africa last year, involving a diamond company and 3,000 Nama people from the Richtersveld area in the Northern Cape Province. The Constitutional Court ruled that indigenous people have land and mineral rights over their territory, and laws that dispossessed them amount to racial discrimination.

South Africa also restored land rights and benefits to the Khomani San in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park in 1999.

"We hope for a victory because we have good legal arguments, but we fear delays in implementation," said WIMSA's Ngakaeaja.

Back inside the reserve at Molapo, men, women and children gather around a fire. Motuakgomo Zandu tells stories about how the eland and the ostrich got their names. The San believe that animals were once human. Under the starry sky of the Kalahari, Africa's oldest traditions are under threat, but tenaciously live on.

 Theme(s) Human Rights
Other recent BOTSWANA reports:

Access to education may be limited by new fees policy,  5/Dec/05

Govt hardens stance on hiring foreigners,  29/Nov/05

Govt denies claims of ethnic cleansing,  10/Oct/05

Alleged crackdown on Bushmen denied,  23/Aug/05

Government wants to brief UN Special Rapporteur on Bushmen,  10/Aug/05

Other recent Human Rights reports:

AFGHANISTAN: Journalists still under threat, 26/Dec/05

WEST AFRICA: IRIN-WA Weekly Round-up 309 covering 17 - 23 December 2005, 23/Dec/05

BENIN: Pressure mounting but elections still in doubt, 22/Dec/05

AFGHANISTAN: Journalist jailed for blasphemy, freed, 22/Dec/05

MIDDLE EAST: MIDDLE EAST: Weekly round-up Number 53 for 18 – 22 December 2005, 22/Dec/05

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