NEWS 2005


25 April, 2005

Bushmen fight for homeland

By John Simpson
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 in Kalahari desert

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 themselves use.

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.

Long-running case

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 itself.

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 meantime.

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 winning.

'Stone-Age creatures'

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 society.

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 the CKGR.

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.