Botswana dogged by new controversy over Bushmen

Botswana is embroiled in a new controversy over the fate of its San Bushmen after the government decided to close down part of the Kalahari game reserve, prompting clashes.

British-based Survival International (SI) last month accused the government of shutting down the reserve as part of a stepped-up campaign “to remove the Bushmen and end their way of life”.

“Armed police and wildlife scouts are camped in the Bushmen’s reserve and are threatening to shoot them dead,” it said.

But the government of President Festus Mogae flatly denied that the closure amounted to a clampdown on the Bushmen who have been waging a court battle since July last year over land rights to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of the world’s largest sanctuaries.

“That is false. There is nobody who has been ordered or forced to leave the game reserve. There is no policy of the government to force anybody out of the game reserve,” said government spokesperson Clifford Maribe.

Botswana parks authorities last week said in a statement that several police officers were assaulted in the game reserve when “the officers wanted to enter the compound of one of the witnesses in the CKGR court case to investigate a poaching incident”.

The flare-up in tensions centres around a decision to shut down parts of the reserve due an outbreak of sarcoptic mange found in the Bushmen’s goats.

Survival International has dismissed the disease outbreak as a pretext to evict the few remaining Bushmen living in the reserve.

The British organisation says that up to 250 Bushmen still live in the game reserve in defiance of the campaign to resettle them but the government maintains that only a few dozen are left.

The British colonial government created the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961 in Botswana, then called Bechuanaland, to protect the San’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

But the Botswana government contends that the San’s traditional way of life is lost and began relocating the Bushmen to villages located outside the reserve in the 1990s.

The San are asking the Botswana’s High Court to declare that the eviction in 2002 of Bushmen to a new settlement called New Xade outside the game reserve was illegal.

Hearings in that case brought by 240 Bushmen are due to resume in February.

Meanwhile, Survival International itself has come under criticism over its statements.

“We object strongly to the fact that Survival International seeks to give the impression that they speak on behalf of all the Kalahari Bushmen when they handpick quotes from a few San only,” said a statement issued in July from the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities of Southern Africa (Wimsa).

“We, the San from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola request SI to understand that the CKGR San do not want to close the door for negotiations with the Botswana government,” it said.

South African diamond giant De Beers has also criticised Survival International for alleging that the resettlement of the Bushmen was to make way for diamond drilling in the game reserve.

“Survival’s confrontational campaign has alienated the government, divided the San and brought a halt to negotiations between the two,” De Beers said in a recent statement.

There are roughly 100 000 San left, with almost half of those—48 000—in Botswana, according to rights groups.

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