Thirsting Bushmen go back to court

‘They see a park but I see my home,” says 30-year-old Bushman Smith Moeti, who is visibly heartbroken as he reflects on life in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

‘Our families survive by pleading with those leaving the settlement to take their little buckets and bring back water for them. I have a wornout car and I use it to help get water for my people.”

In Metsi-a-Nong 1 000 Bushmen (Basarwa) have been struggling since 2006 for access to water, after the Botswana government sealed off the Mothomelo borehole in the reserve and removed the pumps.

Established in 1961, the reserve is the second-largest in the world, a wildlife- rich area covering 52 800km2. In July 2002 the Botswana government began evicting 4 000 Bushmen from their ancestral homeland. Their legal challenge two years later culminated in a December 2006 high court ruling that the government’s actions were ‘unlawful and unconstitutional” and that the Bushmen had been ‘forcibly and wrongly deprived of their possessions”.

They were allowed back to the reserve, but the ruling absolved the government of all responsibility to provide water and social amenities. That opened the door for the capping of the borehole, amid government claims that the water infrastructure could ‘endanger the life of wild animals”.

Refusing to allow the Bushmen to recommission the borehole at their own expense, the government argued that Bushmen who returned to their homes after the court ruling had only themselves to blame because ‘they have chosen to stay in a place where there is no water”.

This week the Bushmen returned to the court in a bid to overturn the government’s stance, which has drawn the criticism of the United States department of state and the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous peoples.

The latter recently reported to the UN Human Rights Council that the government’s denial of services to Bushman communities in the reserve ‘does not appear to be in keeping with the spirit and underlying logic of the 2006 decision, nor with the relevant international human rights stands”. ‘The government should reactivate the boreholes or otherwise secure access to water for inhabitants of the reserve as a matter of urgent priority.”

In stark contrast with the plight of the Bushmen is the reserve’s lavish safari lodge. Built last year, the Kalahari Plains Camp is owned by Wilderness Safaris, which runs 26 operations in Botswana and, in April this year, listed on the Botswana and Johannesburg stock exchanges.

President Ian Khama’s nephew, Marcus ter Haar, and his personal attorney, Parks Tafa, are listed among the company’s directors. Wilderness Safaris prides itself on being ‘an ecological and conservation company dedicated to responsible tourism”.

Kalahari Plains Camp boasts a swimming pool, solar electricity and a ‘Bushman’s Walk ... to gain lifechanging insights into the lives of the unique culture of Bushmen”. The reality, says Moeti, includes government guards at the gate of the reserve who deliberately spill water the Bushmen have brought back with them.

In an interview last year James Workman, author of Heart of Dryness, which explores the Botswana government’s use of water as a weapon against the Bushmen, quoted an anonymous government official saying that ‘the water cut-off has everything to do with diamonds”.

At the height of the 2002 evictions, Festus Mogae’s government denied that diamond exploitation spearheaded by De Beers was the underlying motive. The government said that the ‘relocation’’ of the Bushmen from the reserve was intended to end their obsolete hunter-gatherer lifestyle and integrate them into modern society. Khama has been more straight-forward.

In a November 2008 address to Parliament he described the Bushman way of life as an ‘archaic fantasy” and called for them to move with the times. A 2003 report by Survival International highlighted De Beers’s role in diamond prospecting in the reserve.

De Beers held concessions to diamond deposits at Gope, a settlement in the reserve valued at $2.2-billion, which it sold in May 2007 to Gem Diamonds for $34-million. The sell-off appears to have been sparked by the controversy over the eviction of the Bushmen and the 2006 court judgment.

Although no diamond mining is taking place at Gope, a Gem Diamonds official said it would start in 2011, fuelled by a recovery in the diamond market. In addition to cutting off water supplies, the government has refused to grant hunting licences to the Bushmen or provide other amenities.

Lucy Arnot, Survival International spokesperson, said: ‘Denying the Bushmen access to their borehole while drilling new ones for wildlife is nothing short of vindictive.

‘All they want is access to one borehole and that the government refuses to allow them. This shows the deep-rooted racism underlying government policy.” The Botswana government channelled 14-million pula (about R15- million) for the drilling of new boreholes for wildlife in the reserve last year.

According to Felix Monggae, chief executive of Kalahari Conservation Society, the organisation that manages the drilling, refurbishment and equipping of the boreholes, at least five boreholes are being rehabilitated.

The Bushmen’s latest court application is premised on allegations that the government has violated their human rights by denying them access to water. In the general election in October last year 400 Bushmen living in the reserve were denied the right to vote, according to Roy Sesana, leader of the First People of the Kalahari, an advocacy organisation representing the Basarwa.

Sesana said that the electoral commission had been complicit in this decision, by declaring that it had no obligation to provide voting polls for Bushmen living in the reserve, while questioning the numbers of those allegedly disenfranchised.

Local attitudes towards the Bushmen were recently highlighted by the detention of South African Dorsey Dube for saying that Khama ‘looked like a Bushman”.

The statement was construed as an insult to the president, an offence in Botswana. Says Moeti: ‘It’s clear from the way we’re being treated that this government doesn’t consider us as citizens. But this is our homeland; we can’t live anywhere else.”

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu has been a correspondent for the Mail & Guardian in Zimbabwe since 2009. His areas of interest include politics and business. With a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies, Ray aspires to become a media mogul.   Read more from Ray Ndlovu

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