Bushmen to be Denied Homeland
for War & Peace Reporting - Africa
Reports No. 32
29th April 2005
The authorities in
Botswana look set to scupper bid by Bushmen to reclaim their Kalahari home.
By Fred Bridgland
government is about to end for ever the rights of southern African Bushmen to
their traditional lands, a move that would likely have been denounced as
racist if ever introduced by one of Africa's former colonial powers.
This month the
government introduced legislation in parliament in Gaborone, the Botswana
capital, to amend the constitution so as to remove any of the Bushmen's
lingering claims on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, CKGR. It comes just as
they pursue a landmark case in the country's High Court seeking the right of
return to the region.
"How can the
government even think of changing this section half way through our court
case?" said Roy Sesana, leader of a Bushman action group, the First
People of the Kalahari. "It was included in the constitution to give us
protection. Now we are trying to rely on it for the first time in our history."
amendment has already had two readings. When it obtains its third reading soon
it will render the Bushmen's court case dead. Their only hope now seems to lie
in an appeal they have made to the World Bank which has funded diamond
exploration on the Bushmen's Kalahari lands by the Australian mining company
The CKGR, the size
of Switzerland, was the last part of southern Africa where the Bushmen, the
original inhabitants of the region thousands of years before black tribes
arrived from the north and white men from Europe, had land rights where they
could live according to their own time-honoured culture.
British colonial rulers gave the CKGR, a vast expanse of hot sand and bush, to
the Gana and Gwi Bushmen, as a place where they could live alongside the
Kalahari's abundant wildlife. The first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse
Khama, reaffirmed the commitment at independence in 1961. Under the Bushmen,
who hunted only for the pot and offered prayers of thanks to each animal they
killed, the Kalahari lion prides and gemsbok and springbok herds multiplied.
But in 1997, as
international mining companies began discovering diamond-bearing kimberlite
pipes beneath the CKGR's burning sands, government officials from the majority
Tswana tribe swept into Bushmen settlements in truck convoys and forcibly
removed 1200 people, dumping them on a bleak, dusty plain beyond the reserve.
removals were in breach of the Bushmen's guaranteed constitutional rights and
were accompanied by widespread allegations of torture. Kqwathiswa Gaorapelwe,
one of the first Bushmen to be picked up and interrogated for a week, said,
"They [the Tswanas] lit a fire next to a big tree and handcuffed me
around the tree. The fire was burning me. The next day they handcuffed me to
the bullbar [of their Land Rover] and jumped on my back."
director of the Botswana Centre for Human Rights and daughter of Botswana's
first foreign minister, Archie Mogwe, wrote a report which detailed threats
and torture used against the Bushmen. The most common form of torture, said
her report, which the government tried to suppress, involved "the use of
a rubber ring placed tightly around the testicles and a plastic bag placed
over the face of the person". One Bushman told Mogwe, "You are
castrated, you are throttled so that you excrete all that you have eaten."
of expulsions followed until all 2500 surviving Bushmen had been removed from
the CKGR to desolate settlements where they are unable to hunt an where there
is no work. Alcoholism, prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases are
rife among the small, apricot-skinned people with high cheekbones and
The isolation in
the Kalahari Reserve that kept them safe from the AIDS epidemic ravaging the
Tswana population is now only a memory. "This is the Place of
Death," said Tshara Johannes, pointing towards festering uncollected
garbage and lurching drunks in New Xade, a settlement to which he was expelled
from the CKGR.
decided to fight back in 2002 with support from local and international human
rights organisations. On behalf of all their expelled kinfolk, 243 Bushmen and
women launched a lawsuit before three judges in Botswana's High Court
asserting their rights under the constitution to return to their ancestral
Lawyers argued on
behalf of the Bushmen that they were being persecuted by the Tswana majority
in precisely the same way as Australia's aborigines had been treated by white
settlers. "There are fewer and fewer sites in the world where the people
inhabiting them have links going back tens of thousands of years," said
Roger Chennells, one of the lawyers. "For the Bushmen this is more than
just a loss of their last land. It's a spiritual loss as they are wrenched
away from the place that gives their lives meaning."
a Bushman and coordinator of one of the leading Bushmen action groups, the
Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa, WIMSA, said,
"We have a right to our ancestral land and culture. Our cultural identity
and traditional lifestyle cannot survive the removals."
The mood of the
Bushmen was summed up by Amolang Segwetsane, born more than forty years ago in
the CKGR, who told the judges, all of them Tswanas, "I don't need any
piece of paper to show the land was given to me by God. It belongs to my
forefathers and all my children who were born there."
The landmark court
case has been dragged out by the government in an apparent attempt to break
both the finances and the morale of the Bushmen. At the end of last year the
Bushmen resumed their challenge after a three-month postponement because they
had run out of money and had to send envoys around the world to raise funds to
be able to continue their action.
Then this month
came a devastating blow to the Bushmen. The government introduced its
constitutional amendment denying them rights to the CKGR granted by the
British and Sir Seretse Khama to the Gana and Gwi. The amendment will remove
clause "s14(3)[c]" of the constitution which protected the Bushman's
CKGR rights. " Can it be a coincidence that only a few months after we
resumed [the court case] the government has decided to remove the clause?"
Festus Mogae has little sympathy with the Bushmen. He uses a derogatory Tswana
word, Basarwa, meaning "people with no cattle" [as opposed to the
cattle-owning Tswana], to describe the hunter-gatherers. "How can we have
Stone Age creatures in an age of computers?" he asked disdainfully of the
Bushmen's desire to maintain their own way of life, unwilling to understand
why such "creatures", often used as forced labour on Tswana cattle
ranches, had no wish to move.
Bushmen in the dreadful camps to which they have been removed from the
Kalahari sense their impending final reduction to a non-people. Tattered
remnants of a doomed way of life clinging to the edges of the modern world,
they sit around their night fires and sing an old song: The day we die a soft
breeze will wipe out our footprints in the sand. When the wind dies down, who
will tell in the timelessness that once we walked this way in the dawn of
Fred Bridgland is
IWPR's Africa Reports editor.
was one of the great leaders of the Central Kalahari Bushmen. He travelled to
Britain and Scandinavia in attempts to warn the international community that
Botswana's majority Tswana rulers planned to expel the Bushmen from their last
traditional refuge in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. In particular, he
wanted Britain to honour its pledge that the CKGR would belong to the Bushmen
for all time. In desperation, he wrote to the Queen for help, but was unable
to persuade anyone to deliver the letter before he died eight years ago. The
undelivered letter is published here for the first time.
The Queen of England,
Dear Great Queen,
My name is Komtsha.
I am an old man. I am a Bushman. If we are too small, or if you have forgotten,
you must ask other people what a Bushman is and where they live.
When I saw a man
from England, I asked him to give message to you. It is the message of our
pain and suffering. The [Tswana] people are stealing the land from my people.
I must answer my people. I say I do not know why they [the Tswana] can come
and do so. The Great Woman from England will know. She will know the truth.
Not very long ago
you gave the Tswana people their land [at independence in 1966]. At that time
when you came here what did you see? Were there only trees and black people
here? Is that why you did not talk to us? The Tswana people think you have
given us to them. They do not understand you did not see us and that is a
If you did not
give us to them, then you must tell them now that they must let us go. They
are killing our land. They do not understand the animals or the land. They are
wasting everything and soon nobody will be able to live. We have always lived
with the animals. They are our friends. The Tswana people are chasing us away
from the animals.
You must not
answer the Tswana people. This is my word to you. You must send your word to
I must first see
your answer before we can talk to the Tswana people.
Please do not wait