Bushmen removed from Kalahari land

Women of the Basarwa tribe, nomadic hunter-gatherers who have survived for over 20 000 years in the stark desert plains of Botswana, rest by their hut in the Kaudwane settlement outside the Kalahari Game Reserve. File photo: Jerome Delay

Women of the Basarwa tribe, nomadic hunter-gatherers who have survived for over 20 000 years in the stark desert plains of Botswana, rest by their hut in the Kaudwane settlement outside the Kalahari Game Reserve. File photo: Jerome Delay

Published Dec 10, 2014


Gaborone -

New Xade Bushmen in Botswana, ordered to leave land in the Kalahari desert that their ancestors had inhabited since time immemorial, suspect the authorities want to make room for diamond mines.

The government says it wants to integrate the hunter-gatherers into modern society.

At the resettlement camp for Bushmen at New Xade, west of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the only bar fills up in the afternoon.

Customers play cards in the yard. One of them tries to tune into an old radio for music. Some people are already so drunk they can barely stand.

Empty beer cans litter the sand.

“Everyone drinks in New Xade,” barmaid Kgomotsego Lobelo says from behind the counter in the bare concrete room, with bottles arranged neatly on shelves.

“Even I drink. There is nothing else to do.”

More than 3 000 Bushmen - also known as the San or Basarwa - were moved from villages inside the game reserve in the Kalahari desert, to three resettlement camps between 1997 and 2002.

The government says it wants to provide southern Africa’s oldest ethnic group - regarded by many Botswanans as “primitive” – with modern services.

The Bushmen, though, believe the real reason for the resettlement lies in the development of tourism in the game reserve, and in the discovery of diamonds there in the 1980s.

Mining is thought to have been postponed in order to first exhaust other mines in the country and keep prices high, because diamonds make up 80 percent of Botswana’s export income.

The first mine started operating in Gope in the south-east of the game reserve in September. The operating company, Gem Diamonds, estimates it contains deposits worth $4.9 billion (R56bn).

Activists suspect the government wants to prevent the Bushmen from claiming royalties for diamonds found on their ancestral land.

“Officials initially told us we could not coexist with wild animals and mines in the area,” said Roy Sesana, 85.

A government spokesman said there were restrictions on human activities in the game park, such as a hunting ban, but denied the move had anything to do with diamonds.

It would not have been necessary to move people because of mines, and royalties were not an issue as “natural resources belong to the state”, he said.

A spokeswoman for Gem Diamonds said Bushmen interested in job opportunities had accepted the mine.

The government compensated the Bushmen for moving to New Xade. “I was given 59 900 pula and my wife was given five cows,” said Xamme Gaothobogwe, 58.

Despite such offers, many of the Bushmen did not want to leave villages near to where their ancestors lie buried.

“My wife was moved to New Xade in 2001, while I was away,” Sesana said. “I took her back to our village, but officials took our goats and police beat me.

“My elderly mother ran away from soldiers trying to force us to move, fell exhausted, and died of shock,” said Mmolawa Belesa, 56.

The lobby group Survival International says it has documented more than 200 cases of the abuse of Bushmen between 1992 and 2014, including torture leading to death. Many of the Bushmen were accused of hunting protected animals.

“We cannot say there were never any cases of abuse, but most such charges were false,” the spokesman said.

At New Xade, the 1 500 residents have a school, a health centre and shops. But there are few edible wild plants and the hunting ban was extended from game reserves to the entire country in January, depriving the Bushmen of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The resettlement camp has few jobs and most of the residents live on government handouts. Some - mainly teachers and nurses - have modern housing, while others live in traditional grass huts.

“If we cannot return to our ancestral lands, there will soon be no Bushmen left in Botswana,” activist Jumanda Gakelebone said.

But Bushmen living in the resettlement camp also appreciate the advantages there.

“My sick father can get treatment here,” Belesa said.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bushmen had the right to live on their ancestral land. The government interpreted that as meaning that only the ones who had signed the court petition - less than 200 - were allowed to return.

Roy Sesana was one of them. He now splits his time between New Xade and Molapo, one of the villages that were re-established.

Activists say the government is trying to drive the Bushmen back to resettlement camps. Their relatives are not allowed to visit them without permits, and residents are dependent on rainwater and juice from melons.

In 2011, the Court of Appeal ruled the Bushmen had the right to water. The government has allowed Gem Diamonds to sink some boreholes for them, but it has otherwise ignored the ruling, their lawyer Gordon Bennett said.

“They want us out of here,” Molapo resident Kesebonye Roy said.


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