NEWS 2005


Botswana strips Kalahari bushmen of ancestral land

By Geneviéve Roberts

Apr 20, 2005, 10:38

The oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, the Gana and Gwi Bushmen of Botswana, are set to lose historic rights to ancestral lands after a controversial change to the country's constitution.

The Bushmen have lived in the Kalahari desert for 20,000 years, but the Botswanan government claims that the tribesmen are endangering wildlife in parts of the Kalahari. Ministers also claim that the cost of providing water to the tribes is too great and the authorities have forced at least 243 Bushmen to move to "relocation camps" outside the desert.

In response, the Bushmen challenged the government's right to evict them in court, basing their argument on a key clause in the Botswana constitution, which protects Gana and Gwi Bushmen's ancestral land within the central Kalahari game reserve.

The scrapping of the clause, halfway through the case, appears designed to ensure that the Bushmen cannot win in court.

During the hearings, Bushmen have given graphic accounts of how they were forced off their land. At least 22 of the Bushmen who brought the case have died, most in relocation camps.

The Bushmen's lobby organisation, First People of the Kalahari, said in a statement: "How can the government even think of changing this section halfway through our court case? This section was included in the constitution to give us protection.

"Now we are trying to rely on the section for the first time in history. Can it be a coincidence that a few months later, the government has decided to remove it?" The government says it wants to render the constitution "tribally neutral".

The Botswana Democratic Party, led by President Festus Mogae since 1988, has been in power since independence in 1966. Its majority allows it to push any bill through parliament virtually unhindered.

Losolobe Mogetse, a witness, said he had argued with an official who came to evict him. He was told he could not visit his dying father, Mogetse, who was already in a relocation camp, unless he agreed to relocate there permanently. He said he had no choice but to leave his land if he wished to see his father again.

Another witness, Mongwegi Thobogelo, told the court that she would never apply for a permit to enter the reserve as it was the place of her birth.

She recounted how Bushmen returning to their land have been harassed by government officials, and arrested for entering the reserve without a permit.

To escape deteriorating conditions in the camps, where prostitution, alcoholism and Aids/HIV have taken hold, many are returningto the reserve .

One family returning home in November was denied water by game scouts when their vehicle broke down near the reserve entrance, and had to wait three days without water until they were rescued.

Desert folk

* "Bushmen" are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, which has been their home for at least 20,000 years.

* Bushmen have no collective name for themselves, and the terms "Bushman", "San" and "Basarwa" are all used. They speak a variety of languages, all of which incorporate clicking sounds.

* The Bushmen hunt - mainly various kinds of antelope - but their daily diet has always consisted more of the fruits, nuts and roots which they seek out in the desert. They make their own temporary homes from wood.

* Their numbers have declined from several million to 100,000.