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Education system accused of discriminating against San

The general ill treatment of the Basarwa - or San - ethnic group by the wider Botswana society extends into the classroom, where Basarwa children are being harassed and discouraged by their non-Basarwa teachers and classmates.
Mqondisi Dube

Botswana, which is still smarting from the wrath of international human rights groups over its programme to forcibly remove the San people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) over the past two months, is again facing allegations of discriminating against school children from the same community.

Teachers in Botswana ill-treat Basarwa, or San, children in an attempt to force them out of school, according to a report released at a multiculturalism seminar held in Gaborone at the end of April. Titled "The San and the Issue of Participation of Minorities in National Development: an Example from Botswana," the report says the environment in government schools, where the majority of teachers are from the dominant Tswana speaking ethnic group, makes it difficult for Basarwa children to enrol at school because they fear humiliation and ill-treatment.

"Learning is made difficult for San children by non San teachers, apparently with the hope that these San children will discontinue their formal education and go back to join their parents in the settlements of their origin," says the report, written by Prof. Isaac Mazonde, deputy director of research at the University of Botswana. Basarwa, or the San, is a minority ethnic group found in the country’s Ghanzi district west of the capital city of Gaborone. The Basarwa have largely remained less developed compared to other ethnic groups in the diamond rich Botswana.

The 300,000 or so Basarwa still depend on hunting and gathering fruits for their survival. It is only now that the Botswana government has started relocating them to areas where amenities could be easily provided. But this has been strongly opposed by the San people, who say that this would lead to the death of their culture. The report says conditions at government schools make it difficult for Basarwa parents to send their children to school. These include: verbal and even physical abuse against San children by teachers and fellow pupils; and an absence of San teachers and representatives in the school system.

San children complain that they are ill treated at schools and in their boarding hostels, says Mazonde’s study. "They reported that they were sometimes beaten up and berated for not learning by the non San teachers.

"Prevailing hostel conditions and modes of operation often made San parents reluctant to enrol their children in primary school and often contribute to student dropout," says the report. Even the composition of associations that deal with education in Basarwa areas is loaded against Basarwa children, says the report. "In Dobe, as of January 1999, there was no San in either Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Committees or Village Development Committee (VDC), the two organizations that deal with education at village or settlement level," writes Mazonde. "Both these structures seemed to reinforce the prejudice that non San had about the San children and their parents."

Research has revealed that 88 per cent of the so-called "missing children" - children reportedly absent from school because of non-enrolment, dropping out, repetition, and substandard academic performance - live in rural areas. Within this subgroup, non-enrolment, dropout, repetition, and substandard academic performance rates are highest among the Basarwa.

To capture the sentiments of Basarwa and their perceptions about non-Basarwa teachers, Mazonde reproduced sections of a 1999 interview researcher Elizabeth Reynolds had with a Masarwa parent. The Masarwa parent stated that teachers normally say to Basarwa children: "We give you food you don’t have at home, why do you not learn?’ The reason why teachers handle Basarwa kids this way is because they say Basarwa children used to live in the bush. As soon as they do well at school, they will be the same as blacks. They are jealous of the kids, so they do not treat them well, thinking that the Basarwa kids will then go home."

The parent then recounted an incident that took place recently. "There were some children from Dobe who were taken to school and travelled by car. That same night, they left the school around midnight and ran the 20km distance, arriving in Dobe just before sunrise. All those children have since dropped out and are now scattered all over. We really feel powerless."

The parent said they followed up the incident with the school matron who advised that "we should keep [San] children at home. The matron said we should take away from school children who are inclined to abscond because they might be hurt on their way home from school, something for which she should be blamed. She wanted to protect herself."

The report’s release is the latest controversy facing the Botswana government over treatment of the Basarwa. Last month, it came under severe attack from the international community for cutting amenity services to the Basarwa community in a bid to force them out of the CRGK.

Survival International, a worldwide organization that supports tribal peoples, is leading the campaign against the government, which it accuses of ’racial oppression’ against the minority ethnic group. Even the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit at the University of Botswana has in the past accused the Botswana government of ill-treating the San people. In response, the government says its only objective is to relocate the ethnic group from the arid desert to more habitable places.

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