Botswana's Bushmen ready to settle out-of-court

Botswana’s San Bushmen fighting for rights to Kalahari land went back to court on Wednesday with lawyers mooting the possibility of an out-of-court settlement.

The Bushmen are taking the government to court to challenge their eviction four years ago from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), one of the world’s largest sanctuaries and an area they have called home for the past 20 000 years.

“We remain willing to talk to the government,” said Gordon Bennett, the lawyer representing the Bushmen, or Basarwa as they are called in the arid Southern African country.

“It’s never too late to settle. This is a case crying out for mediation,” he said as hearings resumed in the Botswana High Court in Lobatse, south of Gaborone.

Making headlines as far as London and New York, the land-claim case is picking up after a five-month break that was called by the Bushmen’s lawyers to raise funds.

The court on Wednesday heard a government witness testify that the game reserve should be off limits to people.

“I believe it is not possible for human settlements to remain inside the reserve without causing unacceptable disturbances,” said Kathy Alexander, an ecology expert.

The ecologist cited fears that livestock and people might spread contagious diseases to the game inside the park.

State prosecutor Sidney Pilane said the government would also be willing to listen to an attempt to settle the case outside of court.

“It’s never too late. You can even get it after a judgement.
We have never stopped talking,” he said.

But an analyst and a non-governmental group described prospects for an out-of-court settlement as unrealistic.

“The case has gone too far for the government and the Basarwa to reach an amicable settlement. It is now for the courts to decide,” said Log Raditlhokwa, a lecturer at the University of Botswana. “In effect, the court has now become the final battleground.”

“That’s exactly the reason why the Basarwa is in court,” added a representative of the NGO the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (Wimsa).

“All other doors have been closed to them,” said the representative, who asked not to be named.

A group of 200 Bushmen filed an urgent application in April 2002 challenging their eviction from the game reserve, but the case was thrown out on a technicality. The high court agreed in 2004 to hear the complaint.

London-based Survival International, which has waged a 30-year campaign in support of the Bushmen, maintains they were driven out of the Kalahari to make way for diamond mining, a claim the government has denied.

President Festus Mogae was quoted in local media on Monday as saying he was “concerned that efforts to uplift the standard of living for the 1 000 former residents of the CKGR were not appreciated by Survival International”.

But the plight of the Bushmen has nevertheless blemished Botswana’s international reputation as a model for democracy and tolerance in Africa.

Once numbering millions, roughly 100 000 San are left in Southern Africa, with almost half of those—48 000—in Botswana. Others are spread across Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.—Sapa-AFP

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