25 April, 2005
Bushmen fight for
BBC world affairs editor
If you know
anything about the quiet Southern African country of Botswana, the
chances are that it will chiefly be because you have read the
delightful novels of Alexander McCall Smith.
Botswana is indeed one of the most pleasant
and successful countries in Africa.
But two important cases which will come
before the courts in the capital, Gaborone, next week will hint at the
direction Botswana is taking.
And many people around the world may feel
anxious as a result.
Bushmen are fighting to
remain in their Kalahari reserve
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve
(CKGR) in Botswana is a vast, arid, yet immensely rich area, which for tens of
thousands of years has been one of the chief hunting-grounds in southern
Africa for the Bushmen.
They are small, hardy, intelligent
and gentle people, who have eked out a life for themselves while the rest of
humanity developed along completely different lines.
Bushmen is the term they
They speak a series of remarkably
intricate languages, involving a variety of clicking sounds. And they can live
comfortably in terrain where you and I would die of thirst within two days.
But there are diamonds under the
CKGR - potentially an important source, controlled by an offshoot of the
gigantic De Beers organisation.
The Botswana government decreed
that the Bushmen should be moved out of the reserve, and onto relocation sites
outside, and this started in 1997. Their villages were pulled down, and they
were expelled. It was often an ugly process.
When I last went to the CKGR, I
saw that the wells the Bushmen had used were broken up and concreted over.
There is something particularly distasteful about destroying wells in a desert.
|I also went to the relocation
site at New Xade. At a shebeen (bar), I saw men staggering round, drunk
from early in the morning on the beer which costs next to nothing.
"Their villages were pulled
down, and they were expelled. It was often an ugly process"
Prostitution is rife,
and so are sexually transmitted diseases unknown in the reserve
When the Botswana government takes
foreign guests to New Xade on fact-finding trips, it shows them the showcase
schools and clinics which have been built for the Bushmen. The VIP buses take
a detour in order to miss the shebeens.
A group of 240 Bushmen have taken
the Botswana government to court, demanding the right to return to their
ancestral lands. A new session of the hearing will begin next week.
This case has dragged on for a
long time - so long that 20 of the original Bushmen litigants have died in the
The Bushmen believe the government
wants to wear them down and drain their money through delaying tactics.
The government lawyers ask
witnesses the same questions again and again, and there are frequent
adjournments. The judges are not friendly to the Bushmen.
Yet even though they expect to
lose here, they have to continue. If the case goes to appeal, the judges will
be drawn from other Commonwealth countries, and the Bushmen are confident of
The other case which will be heard
next week is that of an Australian academic, Professor Ken Good, who teaches
at Gaborone University.
|In February, after he had
publicly criticised the evictions of the Bushmen, he was issued with a
deportation order, which he is contesting. His students staged a
demonstration in his support.
Why should the Botswana government, whose
record is otherwise impressive, choose to damage itself in the eyes of
the world like this?
President Mogai says the
Bushmen do not belong to modern society
Some of it seems almost personal.
President Festus Mogai is a charming and intelligent man, but he has a
particular hang-up about the Bushmen - "Stone-Age creatures", he
once called them.
He believes they do not belong in
a modern, go-ahead state, and should be forced to integrate into Botswanan
And then there are the diamonds.
Glory of Africa
I used not to believe that this
was the real cause, but now I have changed my mind.
Somehow, it is too much of a
coincidence that so much wealth lies under the land of so few Bushmen.
De Beers strongly denies any link
with the evictions, knowing how badly this allegation would damage a corporate
image it has done a great deal to improve.
Yet it is hard to get rid of the
suspicion that if De Beers really wanted the Bushmen back on the land, the
Botswana government would agree.
Instead, the Botswana government
is planning to change the clause in the constitution which protects areas like
Once this is changed, it will be
easier to evict the Bushmen forever. And eventually, perhaps, the mining of
diamonds could start.
Still, there have been no further
evictions since February 2002, and none of the disgusting beatings and torture
which accompanied the earlier forced removals.
Some 250 Bushmen have managed to
make their way back into the reserve, and have so far been allowed to stay
there. While the court case continues, they are probably safe.
There are Bushmen in many of the
surrounding countries, but the CKGR group is the most viable and independent
group of all.
The harshness of the Kalahari has
always protected them from cattle grazers, agricultural farmers, and
developers - but not, alas, from diamonds.
Nor from a government which finds
them an irritating nuisance - instead of understanding that they are one of
the great glories of Africa.