“They have no voice, no jobs; poverty is excruciating, slavery is there — because they work for others for nothing, like in only getting a plate of food or tombo [traditional beer]. They are just suffering.”
This was the sobering assessment of Namibia’s indigenous San community, delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Libertina Amathila last September after a visit to the north-eastern Otjozondjupa region where the majority of San live.
“We need to go into full force as government. They should be given land — a place they can call their own so that they can feed themselves, run agricultural projects, water the gardens … and women can do needlework projects,” Amathila said.
In addition, the deputy prime minister promised that clinics, schools and hostels would be built for the San, also known as Bushmen.
Several months on, are there signs that the life of the San is improving? With the exception of two scholarships for San girls to cover the 2006 secondary-school year, not many, say human rights organisations and other groups.
“It is not within government policy to help the San, not to mention the few scholarships that have been awarded to San students,” says Ben Ulenga, president of the Congress of Democrats, Namibia’s main opposition party.
“How can the government say it is now committed to the plight of the San when Swapo [South West Africa People’s Organisation] MPs shoot us down each time we raise questions about the communities?”
Swapo led Namibia’s war of independence against the apartheid government in South Africa — and is now the country’s ruling party. Namibia was known as South West Africa until 1968; it gained independence in 1990.
“The San are no longer masters of their destiny,” Ulenga adds. “They can no longer practise hunting and gathering, something the government could have tried to correct when it came into power 16 years ago.”
San are also found elsewhere in Southern Africa (Botswana, South Africa, Angola), and are considered the region’s earliest inhabitants: their presence here dates back about 20Â 000 years.
According to Survival International, an NGO based in London that lobbies for the rights of indigenous groups, about 100Â 000 San remain in Southern Africa — out of an initial population of millions. Encroachment by Bantu tribes and white settlers, says Survival, forced the Bushmen from their ancestral lands — while a range of violent and discriminatory practices contributed to reducing their numbers.
Berenadus Swartbooi, Amathila’s special assistant, has defended the government’s track record concerning the San. In addition to the scholarships, he says, a technical committee was appointed to look into the conditions under which the San are living. A report on their situation is to be submitted to the Cabinet as part of efforts to resettle 30Â 000 Bushmen.
“We have also initiated a bee-keeping project for the San, among other initiatives — like giving them cattle and donkeys,” says Swartbooi. “Bee-keeping is part of their tradition and we are not destroying that, but flowing with it.”
But an incident earlier this year would seem to bear out claims that the plight of the San is, at least in some cases, as desperate as ever.
Last month, hunger drove members of a community living in Western Caprivi to eat mouldy rice. According to a report by the government’s emergency management unit, the rice had been swept up from the floor of a warehouse at Katima Mulilo — capital of the north-eastern region. The facility was used to store drought relief supplies.
The report noted that the San had been told the rice was only fit to be consumed by livestock. Nevertheless, community members cooked and ate the rice, as they had little else in the way of food.
There are also indications that agricultural projects for the San must be carefully managed if they are to be successful.
“That is difficult because they lack agricultural expertise,” says Morningstar Rosario, of the Namibian Red Cross, an aid organisation that has been working with the San in drought-relief projects. “While we give them seeds, they still lack farming tools that are essential for a transition into an agro-based way of life.”
According to government figures, almost two-thirds of San children drop out of school — while alcoholism is taking a severe toll on the community. In March, nine San at a farm in Gobabis, east of the capital, Windhoek, died after consuming illegally brewed alcohol.
The National Society for Human Rights believes reparations should be paid to the San.
“A crime has been committed,” spokesperson Dorkas Phillemon says. “There is a criminal liability case of simultaneous occurrence of inaction and wilful recklessness on the part of government.”
Over the years, civil society groups and United Nations agencies have produced a number of reports urging the government to act on the plight of the San, but to date nothing has been done, she notes.
“The government views the San people with suspicion because of their relationship with apartheid South African forces before independence,” she says. “They are viewed as enemy collaborators.”
A number of San men joined the South African army as trackers to locate Swapo guerrillas, something it is believed the ruling party has not forgotten.
“[At] such time that the San are compensated with their land and hunting rights, then we will be able to say that the government is committed to their plight,” says Phillemon.
The living conditions of the San are an issue of concern elsewhere in Southern Africa as well — perhaps nowhere more so than in Botswana.
Survival International has accused the Gaborone government of forcibly moving San from their ancestral land in the country’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), to allow for diamond exploration.
Officials also stand accused of cutting off water and medical assistance to San communities in the park — and of stopping transport to take children to school. The availability of services in settlements outside the reserve is now cited as a reason why Bushmen should move to these locations.
About 2Â 000 San, also called Basarwa in Botswana, have been taken to the settlements, where the familiar problems of alcoholism and social decay have apparently taken root.
Officials deny coercing the Basarwa to leave the reserve. Reports quote them as saying that the move was encouraged after Bushmen started abandoning their traditional patterns of hunting and gathering for killing wildlife to sell — and other activities that were incompatible with conservation.
Nonetheless, the Gana and Gwi communities have tried to get a court order allowing them to return to the CKGR, to hunt and gather.
“This is the main component of their livelihoods. For example, in the case of the Gana and Gwi of the CKGR in Botswana, hunting and gathering is crucial for them — although it is supplemented by planting some melons and keeping a few goats,” says Miriam Ross, of Survival International.
“Some have been thrown off their land, and others have been banned from hunting and gathering. Many are being forced to try to live by agriculture or cattle ranching, which is often not the way they want to live,” she adds. “Furthermore, the environments they live in are often too dry for these forms of subsistence to be successful.” — IPS