NEWS 2005


Govt, Basarwa in Public War

Staff Writer

With the case in which Basarwa want the court to confirm their land rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve having adjourned, the parties to the dispute are engaged in a public relations war.

Following the weekend's aborted demonstration by representatives of the First People of the Kalahari, the British-based NGO, Survival International, yesterday posted a statement on the internet in which it alleges "a full-scale crackdown on Bushmen".

"The leaders of the Bushmen organisation - First People of the Kalahari have been arrested and imprisoned. They were among a group of 28 Bushmen, including seven children, who were seized by police as they tried to enter their ancestral homeland, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve," Survival International's statement says. "Their fate is now uncertain."

Survival International says with the reserve sealed off, all hunting banned, Basarwa's radio transmitters confiscated, no water allowed in and armed wildlife guards in "every Bushmen community" those still holding out in the reserve have little means of survival.

"The last message sent by the Bushmen in the reserve read, 'They are firing over our heads, they are beating us, we don't know if we can hold out'. The government has banned journalists from entering the reserve. A group of Americans probing allegations of repression in the reserve, including the Chair of Human Rights Watch, report that they were followed, questioned, intimidated and harassed for three days by Wildlife Department officials, and finally escorted out of the reserve by armed guards. This repression is the culmination of the government's crackdown on all Bushmen resistance to their forced relocation. It comes despite the fact that the court case to establish whether the Bushmen's eviction was lawful is still going on," the statement says.

It concludes with a quotation attributed to Rafael Runco, who is identified as Chair of Survival International: "Botswana's government seems to have gone totally off the rails. Faced with criticism from all quarters, it's simply lasing out at the easiest targets - the Bushmen who it has been persecuting for so long. What it is doing now is coming perilously close to genocide - a systematic attempt to destroy an ethnic group."

On the same days, President Festus Mogae's press secretary Jeff Ramsay circulated another statement that reports the same incident from government's perspective.

Ramsay's statement says "a small number of people, instigated and incited by Roy Sesana and Jumanda Gakelebone, held a demonstration at New Xade" with intent to force their way into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

"The demonstration in New Xade was lawful and their right, hence the police allowed it to proceed. Despite an intensive house to house campaign in New Xade by Roy Sesana and his friends over many days, the demonstration largely failed insofar as it attracted no more than 35, including 7 children, out of the more than 2000 residents of New Xade.

What was unlawful and the police could not allow was an attempt by the demonstrators to forcibly enter the Game Reserve. The police spent a considerable amount of time warning the demonstrators that their attempt to force their entry into the Reserve was unlawful, appealing to them to return to New Xade. Through all this, the demonstrators, who carried placards and had radical messages written on their six 4 x 4 vehicles, were unremittingly hurling insults and verbal abuse at the police. They also displayed threatening behaviour towards the police. Many times they attempted to break through the roadblock manned by the police and drive into the Reserve," Ramsay's statement says.

It says the police "exercised patience and great restraint through all the provocation, repeatedly warning the demonstrators that their activities were illegal and urged them to cease them and return to New Xade".

"When the police would not let them enter the Reserve, the demonstrators broke into a riot and attacked the police with an assortment of weapons.

"In order to maintain law and order, the police were forced to fire three rubber bullets, one of which hit and slightly injured one of the demonstrators. The demonstrators, including Roy Sesana and Jumanda Gakelebone, fled into the bush, but all were intercepted and arrested," the statement says.

The statement volunteers information that the spectacle was witnessed by Sidney Pilane, the Special Advisor to the President, Thebeyame Tsimako, the Acting Commissioner of Police, and Jan Broekhuis, the Assistant Director for Parks. It is stated that the three "are satisfied that the police acted with restraint in the face of continued and severe provocation and tolerated the unlawful activities of the demonstrators for as long as they could after endlessly pleading with them to desist".

"The position of the government on this matter is a simple one: While the events of Saturday last are a matter for regret, all are subject to the law and will obey it, including FPK and their friends, local and foreign. The country has recently experienced acts of unlawful filming in the country by foreign journalists, and that will not be countenanced in the future. The issues whether the Basarwa have a right to uncontrolled entry into the reserve, to permanent residence in villages in it, to hunting within it, to keeping livestock and to cultivating land inside the reserve, and to government providing them with social and relief services within the reserve are currently pending a decision of the High Court, having been taken there by a group of Basarwa. Those Basarwa must, therefore, await that decision and not take the law into their own hands by pressing these rights, for that is not only unlawful, it also undermines the authority of the very Court to which they have gone to seek relief. The government will, as always before, honour the decision of the court, whatever it may be. Applicants in the court case must remember that that decision is delayed with every adjournment they seek to afford them time to raise funds. Until the court gives its judgment on the matter, the government will continue to do its duty to enforce the law as it understands it to be. Unlawful activity by FPK and their friends, local and foreign, will not, whatever the excuse for it, be tolerated," Ramsay's statement says.