NEWS 2005


San eviction trial goes on in Botswana

afrol 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.

Three years 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 provisions.

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 among residents.

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 home."

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.