Global Policy Forum

Botswana's Bushmen Battle for Land


The bushmen, of Botswana's Kalahari are a people living in a place,
and perhaps a time, that is no longer their own.

By Alastair Leithead

July 12, 2004

Chief Maiteela Segwaba seems a forlorn figure, sitting in his kraal chatting to his friends - now as old and as wrinkled as he is. The proud man who once hunted antelope in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and gathered food, medicine and water from its plants, is now chief of a small but sprawling resettlement camp outside the reserve.

"We get food and water from the government every month, so it is good here, but the ancestral land is so much better," said Chief Segwaba. "When we were sick we could pray by the ancestors' graves. Most people are not happy here," he said.

Beer cartons

The bushmen are taking the Botswana government to court in an historic case to decide whether they have a right to live in their ancestral land from which they say they have been evicted. Chief Segwaba was one of the first to be resettled, but many more have followed. There are empty cartons of cheap local beer lying all over the camp - there may be water and basic services, but there are no jobs and there is little to do.

Thousands of bushmen used to live traditional hunter-gatherer lives inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, but now there are just a handful. And few still wear their loincloths or use bows and arrows to hunt game. The waterholes the government provided years ago changed them gradually into farmers - ironically the authorities' refusal to continue supplying that water is now driving the bushmen from their land. "People would go back if the supply of water was returned by the government," Chief Segwaba said.

But according to the government, this is not an option. "They can stay if they want to, but we cannot afford to supply them with services," said Sydney Tshepiso Pilane, an adviser to the president and the man leading the government's court battle with the San. "Every government in every country formulates a policy for the development of all its people. "They are not artefacts, they are not animals, they are not a tourist attraction, they are people. They do not belong where animals do, they belong in settlements, villages, towns and cities like you and me," he said.

As part of the court's fact-finding mission, judges and lawyers travelled to Kukama, once a bushmen village inside the reserve. The long line of white four-wheel-drive vehicles swept into the village and drew to a halt. The three judges, lawyers, barristers, court officials and journalists jumped from their cars to peer around Kukama, where only one family remains. The women in their brightly coloured clothes and hats shouted above each other, stamping their feet and gesticulating at their huts and their animals.

In broken English and over the cries of the baby strapped to her back, one woman explained they were angry; they did not want to live anywhere else. A small, elderly woman surged forward. "I want to die in my village," she said.

This was another stop on the court's safari through the central Kalahari, visiting resettlement camps and original villages where the bushmen live or lived. The inspection is a preview to the court case which will pit tradition and culture against modernisation and development, and decide the future of the country's original inhabitants. It will sit in the bush at New Xade, the biggest resettlement area, and will decide if the bushmen were illegally evicted from their ancestral land.

'Forced removal'

Roy Sesana, one of those who brought the case against the government, took me around Kukama, showing me where the water tank used to stand and where the homesteads had been burned down. "The government told us to leave or they would send the army in," he said. "My wife was ill and I was away in the capital arguing about these removals, and they told her to leave or else they would put her in my hut and burn it down." He is bitter about the resettlement and has been a thorn in the government's side.

"The essence is the right of the people to continue to reside on their ancestral land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve," explained Glyn Williams, the bushmen's lawyer. "We believe that right is enshrined within the constitution, and forcibly removing the residents from their land by unlawfully terminating services is to deprive them of that right."

The government says it wants them in one place so water and social services can be provided more cheaply. There have been rumblings that diamond rights in the reserve are at the heart of this, but this seems unlikely - it has more of the trappings of paternalism and stubbornness when faced with international pressure.

The court case will have serious consequences for both the bushmen and the government - either denying the bushmen the right to their land, or opening the floodgates for other land claims. But whichever way it goes, the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the bushmen is already gone, and no court case will ever bring it back.

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