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San: Bleak future after government freezes community support

Last year, the Botswana government fearing accusations of discrimination ahead of the UN conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa, pledged support for the country’s smallest ethnic group, the San. But Gaborone is now stalling claming it can’t afford the exercise and the a bleak future stares the San.
Rodrick Mukumbira

The Botswana government has backtracked on promises it made to the San people (popularly known as Bushmen) last year that it would not move the 600 left in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and would continue providing basic services. It dropped a bombshell last month when Local Government Permanent Secretary, Bergsman Sentle, announced in the state-owned Daily News that the government would implement a decision to cut off services to Basarwa, a derogative local term for the San, remaining in the CKGR.

As from January 31 the Gaborone government has been cutting off water and other basic social services such as health and food ration saying that it was too expensive to continue providing them for the remaining San who remain on the game reserve. The decision to cut the provision of basic amenities dates back to August last year, but the government was forced to backtrack as the UN Racism Conference held in Durban, South Africa, in September, drew nearer over fears of being labelled racist and intolerant.

According to the decision, the community had to move out of the game reserve into relocation camps hundreds of kilometres away, from where the government would be able to provide them with basic amenities. The government's argument was that it had become expensive to provide the San with basic services when they are scattered all over. The government's argument is that it cost US$5000 a month to provide the 500 San with basic amenities.

Maintaining a hunting and gathering way of life, the San normally live in small communities of 15 or less in areas where there are wildlife. But forcefully moving the San from reserve will mean that they are deserting the area they have lived in for over 2,000 years and their way of life. The government received alternatives on how to handle the matter so that it would not turn out to be a violation of human rights.

One of the alternatives was from the European Union (EU), which offered to involve the San still on CKGR into tourism-related community development, wildlife conservation and management project in the game reserve and adjacent areas. The EU identified several community zones around the country. It also offered a 14 million euros fund to the government to develop the community use zones in several areas of Botswana, which it had suggested to government adding that this could be extended to include areas in the CKGR.

Though the government did not however rule out this alternative by EU, Sentle said Gaborone still might consider it. The EU has had several meetings with the Minister for Local Government minister, Margaret Nasha, who told a delegation from the Union that her government was keen to move the San from the game reserve. EU spokesperson, Ernest Gunnar Ring, told AFRICANEWS that Nasha explained that although her government wanted the San to move out of CKGR, it would let them make use of the natural resources of the area within well-determined community "use zones", but not in the game reserve.

Last September, Nasha's deputy Gladys Kokorwe had said that the San would relocate to places of their choice where it would be cost effective to provided them with services. They would be given free transport and compensated for loss of possessions. Kokorwe advised the San to seriously weigh the advantages of staying in the reserve where there was no future for them or their children.

But this has not gone down well with Botswana’s human rights organisations that are crying foul and have stepped up accusations of racism, double standards and failure to recognise the San as "people". Leading the pack is the Botswana Centre for Human Rights-Ditshwanelo (BCHR-D) , which says the government’s move is "wrong and unlawful" and that this is also a deliberate attempt to force the community out of the reserves. The rights group says the decision to stop the services would affect the provision of food rations, the transport of children to and from schools and the provision of health services. "The relocation of the residents is unnecessary and it is in breach of the constitution and human rights of the residents," said a statement sent by the group to AFRICANEWS. The group is part of a team, which includes representatives of the residents in the reserve, currently negotiating with the government over the fate of the San.

It has been further reported that the government has threatened to remove a pump and engine from a borehole in a settlement centrally located inside the CKGR, as well as dismantle the 10,000 litre water tanks located in each settlement, added the statement. According to the human rights group, the small settlements within the game reserve were created in 1961 "specifically" for the San to maintain their hunter-gatherer way of life. Recently the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks said that it would no longer issue hunting permits to the San for use within the reserve. Another human rights organisation, which only emerged prior to the Durban Conference on the side of the San, the UK-based Survival International (SI), says that the Botswana government is set at destroying the remaining San communities in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The group condemns the move as placing the very survival of this ethnic group in danger.

Over the last 16 years, the Botswana authorities have been conducting a vigorous campaign to drive them out of the reserve. SI's director Stephen Corry says in a statement: "San have been tortured for hunting, their homes have been bulldozed, and many have been relocated to bleak 'resettlement camps', where they cannot hunt or gather and become dependent on government handouts. In the camps, boredom, alcoholism and despair set in with one San recently telling SI that the camps as "a place of death." Corry says: "Some of the San have clung on in the face of this aggression, remaining in their homes close to the graves of the ancestors. Yet now the authorities have announced that they are cutting off water supplies. The government claims it cannot afford the service."

Corry point to the fact that Botswana is a rich country, which is now the world's biggest diamond produces and which could afford the exercise. He also laments that the regime seems not ready to respond to the EU offer. "Many believe the reserve's rich diamond deposits are the real reason for the government's action. It also wants to open the reserve to tourism," he says. He adds that Gaborone has "a deeply racist view of the San, whom high-ranking ministers have described as 'primitive' and 'Stone Age creatures’. " Critics are pointing the fact that the Botswana government has spent 16 years harassing the San and they see the latest move - cutting the water - as one that seeks to destroy them once and for all. "The international community must speak out now to halt this racist crime against humanity", says Moeti Mohwasa, a local social commentator.

But the government thinks otherwise. It argues that it has long been its stated intention to persuade the San to move out of the CKGR as part of its policy to develop tourism in the area. It claims that over the last few years, 2200 San have taken advantage of government incentives and moved. In November the government warned the estimated 500 who remained that it was too expensive to provide them with support services as these would be discontinued from the end of January.

EU's Ring, is confident Gaborone will agree with its proposals ruling out the likelihood of the government forcing the San out by freezing all support to the community. He adds that the government has not taken a firm stand. "The government has not taken a final stand," he says. "But I doubt that they (San) will be allowed to stay without services. "If our proposals are accepted by the government, the wildlife conservation and management project will start in mid 2002," he says. But as of now it is a matter of waiting.

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