eviction trial goes on in Botswana
News, 11 February 2005 - On
the third anniversary of the eviction of the San people
("Bushmen") from Botswana's the Central Kalahari Game Reserve,
the struggle about their future goes on in court. While the court case
currently is bout the San people's ability to live in the Reserve
without food aid, another battle about Botswana's image abroad is fought.
ago, the Gana and Gwi groups of Southern Africa's aboriginal San people
were evicted from the Kalahari reserve by Batswana authorities. The San,
also called "Bushmen" or Basarwa", claim that the reserve
is their ancestral land and that it was protected by British colonial
authorities to assure their livelihood.
The government of Botswana, on the other hand, holds that the San were
over-exploiting the scarce resources of this protected part of the
Kalahari desert by their traditional hunting and gathering activities.
After cutting off food provisions and health services to the population
of the reserve, most San were resettled to the newly constructed New
Xade, widely described as "a desolate place".
The San people of Botswana have however improved their organisation
since the forced resettlement and are now ably defending their rights to
return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in court. Botswana's
political San activist have found support from San representatives in
other Southern African nations forming a new network, from Botswana's
human rights groups and from international rights groups.
This week in court, the main issue has been whether the Gana and Gwi
communities were able to survive independently through sustainable use
of the scarce resources of the Kalahari reserve. Botswana's state
counsel Sidney Pilane disputed the statements by earlier witnesses,
saying the San in reality had gone to court to force the government to
re-instate food rations and other basic services to the reserve.
Expert witness, Arthur Albertson, testifying on his scientific knowledge
of the reserve's ecology and the San's diet, had earlier stated that
hunting and gathering could adequately and sustainably provide basic
nutritional needs for the San communities. Mr Albertson said that
government-provided food rations would be useful for the elderly but
that the San communities in any case never had received regular
Meanwhile, in the Kalahari desert, some 200 San are reported to have
defied government orders and have returned to the reserve. According to
residents of New Xade, life in the new settlement is too harsh to
sustain for most San, a semi-nomadic people. As there is no employment
in New Xade, alcoholism and HIV/AIDS is reported to be spreading rapidly
The most important battle however does not seem to take place in the
Batswana court or in the Kalahari. It is fought between support groups
of the San and the Gaborone government and it is about the country's
image abroad. While activists describe the otherwise democratic
government as rude human rights abusers, authorities are claiming to act
according to national laws.
The most vocal critique of the Batswana government comes from the
UK-based rights group Survival International, which has published
evidence that the evictions of the San communities from the reserve were
due to diamond explorations there. The group published a government deal
with the diamond multinational De Beers to exploit the known diamond
deposits in the reserve. This is however denied by Gaborone authorities.
Survival International regularly reports on the hardships faced by the
Gana and Gwi groups, including the government cut of food supplies, the
use of force to resettle the San and to hinder them from returning and
the desolate conditions in New Xade.
In a statement issued today, Survival's director Stephen Corry said it
was "incredible that the Botswana government still pretends that
the Gana and Gwi moved voluntarily and are happy with life in the
eviction sites. Every independent journalist comes back with the same
story of alcoholism, despair, and the people's desperation to go
But authorities in Gaborone have also taken steps to counter this media
offensive by the British activists. According to Survival International,
the government and De Beers "have spent huge sums of money paying
international PR firm Hill and Knowlton to defend the evictions."
The Batswana presidency further keeps a weekly record of international
press reports about the San's case and about Survival International. The
weekly review, mostly received by the Batswana press, also regularly
comments on the "propaganda" allegedly diffused by Survival
and on occasions has noted that the UK group has had less success in
reaching international media, thus signalling that its accusations
should not be taken seriously.
While international reporting on these issues was somewhat lower in the
last half of 2004, Survival today however noted its recent victories in
the propaganda battle. "Botswana faces increasing criticism in the
international press. Recent articles in the 'Los Angeles Times', the
'Boston Globe', the 'Seattle Times' and the well-known US magazine 'Mother
Jones' all slam the evictions," the group proudly stated.
Faced by the massive interference in internal Batswana issues from
abroad, the national independent press is remarkably toothless in its
reporting. The otherwise critical media mostly refer to statements made
in court, without questioning the government's position. The case is
seemingly turning into a perceived attack on Botswana's national pride.