Botswana’s minister for environment, wildlife and tourism, Kitso Mokaila, stoked the growing controversy around his government’s treatment of Bushmen living in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve by telling the BBC that Bushmen are “living in the Dark Ages in the middle of nowhere”.
Mokaila’s remark prompted a sharp counterblast from indigenous rights group Survival International.
“Mokaila’s remarks are the latest in a long line of insults by government officials and are an indication of the deep-rooted racism towards the Bushmen,” said the director of Survival International, Steven Corry.
Corry’s statement follows Survival’s launch of an international boycott of Botswana’s tourist and diamond industries and of tourism company Wilderness Safari group, which has lodges in the reserve.
Celebrities — including actresses Sophie Okonedo and Joanna Lumley — have publicly pledged their support.
Corry told the Mail & Guardian Botswana has been on a “concerted drive” to remove the Bushmen from the reserve as it attempts to grow tourism and diamond mining in the area.
“Since 2002 the Bushmen have been refused access to boreholes, while animals and tourists are allowed water, and they are not allowed to hunt or keep animals.
“New boreholes for animals have been drilled by [jewellery chain] Tiffany but the Bushmen are not allowed access. The government is strangling them out,” said Corry.
The reserve is thought to have one of the largest diamond deposits in the world. According to Survival, the Botswana government denied that there were diamond deposits in the area before the eviction of Bushmen in 2002.
In 2007 the Gem Diamonds/Gobe Exploration Company bought the mining concessions in the Gobe area of the reserve from De Beers for $34-million.
Mining in the area stalled because of the recession and a global decline in the demand for diamonds, but earlier this year Gem Diamonds estimated that there were deposits worth about $3,3-billion in the reserve’s Gobe area alone.
Survival intimated that racism was characteristic of the government’s drive to move the Bushmen off their ancestral land, noting a litany of derogatory remarks made about them over the years.
Fighting an “archaic fantasy”
Other “racist” remarks by Botswana’s leaders cited by Survival include President Ian Khama’s comment in 2008 that the Bushmen’s hunting lifestyle is an “archaic fantasy” and a declaration by Khama’s predecessor, Festus Mogae, in 1996 that the Bushmen were “Stone Age creatures who must change, or otherwise, like the dodo, they will perish”.
In July this year the Botswana High Court ruled that the government was not compelled to provide the Bushmen with water. The Bushmen are appealing against the decision.
Asked for comment, Botswana government spokesperson Jeff Ramsay said there was an agreement between the Bushman community and the government that “we are not going to fight this battle out in the press”.
However, Ramsay described Survival International as a “neo-apartheid organisation” which had no respect for the Bushmen and no representatives in Southern Africa.
The M&G also put questions to the spokesperson for Botswana’s department of environment, wildlife and tourism, Annah Bogatsu, a week ago.
By the time of going to print, Bogatsu had not responded.