Monday, July 05, 2004

Botswana: the San's day in court

A group of 243 San (bushmen) get their day in court today. The group is challenging the government of Botswana's decision to move them from their traditional home in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).
The court case on Monday is to examine: whether it was unlawful for the government to end essential services to the residents in January 2002; whether the government has an obligation to restore these services; whether the residents were in possession of their land and were deprived of it forcibly; and whether the government's refusal to issue game licenses to the residents and allow them to enter the CKGR is unconstitutional.(source)
The San, known in Botswana as the "Baswara", are the indigenous people of southern Africa. When the CKGR was created in 1961, the San were allowed to stay on the land and continue on with their traditional way of life. But things changed about two decades back ...
[...] in the late 1980s the government decided to resettle roughly 2,500 CKGR residents outside the reserve. "At no stage during the relocation exercise did government or its public officers involved in the relocation use force, coerce people residing in the game reserve or threaten anyone of them in any way. The emphasis has always been persuasion and voluntary relocation," a government statement stressed.

[...] In 1997, 1,740 people moved out of CKGR into the settlements of New Xade and Kaudwane. "By carrot or stick or monkey tricks," commented Ngakaeja [Mothambo Ngakaeja, coordinator of the Botswana section of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa ]. Another 530 left in early 2002, when the government cut off water, food, health and social services to the reserve.

Some 200 people [in defiance of the government] have stayed in remote areas, eight or 10 hours on foot from the nearest park entrance. Among them is Keletso Ketalelago. She took a look at New Xade ("place of death", the San call it) and headed back home. Her village of 300 people, Molapo, had been razed by park officials, but Ketalelago and some 50 others rebuilt a handful of branch-and-thatch huts. (source)
The government claims that there are only 17 San left on the reserve.

Here is the point that I find most fascinating. According to this story, the San are asking the court to rule their removal from the CKGR illegal under a Botswana law which states that the CKGR was created to protect their lifestyle. The government counters that the San have abandoned their traditional lifestyle. From the government's website ...
Over time, it became clear that many residents of the CKGR were becoming settled agriculturists, raising crops and rearing livestock. These land uses, especially livestock husbandry, are not compatible with preserving wildlife resources. (source)
The government says that it has never used force or other coercive methods to get the San to move. The government says that over the years, it has managed to relocate hundreds of San off the CKGR. As to why the government stopped providing services to the San left within the CKGR ...
Given the number of people remaining in the reserve [about 145 by my calculation], the continued provision of services to the CKGR proved unsustainable and unaffordable. Government therefore resolved to terminate the services on 31st January 2002 as such services are now provided outside the CKGR.

[...] So far, only 17 people have not relocated (7 in Gugama and 10 in Metsiamanong). Government is continuing with efforts to persuade these 17 people to relocate from the game reserve to settlements outside the reserve where their standards of living could be brought up to the level obtaining in the rest of the country. (source)
That last point -- that the relocation is for the San's own good -- is an equally fascinating angle of the story. Sadly, many of the stories about the relocation effort seem to illustrate that life off the CKGR has not been good for the San. An example ....

The Sunday Telegraph carried the story of nine British MPs who recently visited the New Xade settlement.
Last week, as a government minister, a bushman chief and some hand-picked elders did their utmost to highlight the benefits of New Xade, elsewhere - and out of sight of the MPs - the depressing reality was exposed.

Hollow-cheeked men and women, many of them worse for drink, squatted in a dusty compound waiting for their monthly food parcels of flour, sugar and a few tins of corned beef. Forbidden by law from feeding themselves through their ancient hunting methods, most of the resettled Bushmen are completely dependent on state rations in a village ravaged by unemployment, alcoholism and sexual crime. None of this was pointed out to the British MPs.

"This is not my home, it was not my choice to come here," said Gaboshelwe Ratoto, an elderly woman with skin creased by years of relentless Kalahari sun, as she wrapped her rations in the antelope skin she uses as a rucksack. "Our water was cut off and our houses were pulled down. I was brought here, but no one asked me if I wanted to come. I want to go home and I am keeping myself alive so that I don't have to die in this place." The nine MPs from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Botswana were the latest in a string of foreign politicians invited by the government to inspect the Bushmen settlement.

[...] A Bushmen chief, Lobatse Beslag, said: "The majority of people are happy here, they are well looked after." It was only when Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat MP for Hereford, hastily organised an audience with Roy Sesane, a campaigner for Bushmen's rights, that the MPs were given the chance to hear an alternative view.

However, hampered by confusing translations and a warning not to prejudice the court case, the meeting descended into chaos with Mr Sesane declaring: "If I can't talk about my eviction, or why I am not happy about the way I have been treated then I have nothing else to say."

As the rest of the MPs were swept away in government 4x4s for an inspection of the schoolhouse, two Labour MPs, Diane Abbott and Roger Godsiff, stayed behind to speak to some of those in the rations queue, as Miss Abbott said, "out of the earshot of the government officials and de Beers PR people".

She heard from Jumanda Gakelebone who had been born in the CKGR but had been forced out of the reserve along with his family.

"The government claimed we were hunting in 4x4s and using high-powered rifles, but how could we have afforded them? It is the story they tell so that people think they were right to move us," he said.

Miss Abbott described the new settlements as "more like refugee camps than communities". "I am quite convinced that they were moved against their will," she told The Telegraph following her six-day trip to the country. (source)
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Head Heeb has this informative post on the legal case.

Also ... I have used the term "San" throughout the post because I was told a long time ago that "Bushmen" is a derogatory term. But according to this, they perfer the term "Bushmen" and view "San" as a derogatory term. The difficulty stems from the fact that the hunter-gatherer people of southern Africa, whom we think of as San/bushmen, have no collective name for themselves. And according to this, the issue of what to call them -- what they want to be called -- is far from settled.

I will continue to use the term "San" because that is what they are most often called in news stories.