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How Botswana Runs Roughshod Over the Rights of Its Bushmen Minority

Botswana has moved Bushmen to resettlement camps and banned hunting.

Bushmen in Deception Valley, Botswana demonstrating how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together.
Photo Credit: Ian Sewell/Wikimedia Commons


Some people see Botswana as a beacon of democracy in southern Africa. Those who regard respect for minorities as the true hallmark of a democracy, however, might take a rather different view.

For years successive governments have ridden roughshod over the rights of Botswana’s most vulnerable minority, the Kalahari Bushmen. It seems that they do not chime with the “progressive” image that the country wants to project, and must be made to mend their ways until they do. If a law or two has to be broken along the way, the government apparently regards this as an acceptable cost of “development”.

When the British established the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961 it had already been home to the Bushmen - or the “San”, or “Basarwa”, as they are sometimes called – for several thousand years. The UK Parliament was assured that the “CKGR” would remain their home so long as they wanted to live there. In 1986, however, an independent Botswana decided that they were now to be “encouraged” to leave the Reserve. According to President Mogae, their hunter gatherer existence had no place in a modern Botswana. That way of life should be consigned to the Stone Age.

Many Bushmen did not share his view. Their experience of the outside world had been one of exploitation and prejudice, in which they did not believe that they or their children were likely to flourish. They preferred to follow their own ways on their own land, and to accept whatever hardship came with this.

For more than ten years, one government after another – albeit formed always by the same political party - continued to “encourage” the Bushmen to change their minds. In 1997 many were finally moved to resettlement camps outside the Reserve, but over six hundred still refused to go.

By early 2002 the government had lost patience with these diehards, and announced that it would now withdraw the food rations that it had previously supplied. It also withdrew a mobile health clinic and other basic services. It banned all hunting in the Reserve, even by those who had been issued with official licences to hunt. It cut off the only source of potable water and emptied water tanks. It dispatched police and wildlife scouts to gather up all the people, animals and huts that they could find. Apart from the few stragglers who escaped into the bush, all were herded into trucks and dumped in specially constructed camps outside the Reserve.

Ministers must have thought that this was the end of the matter - bar a few squeals of protest, perhaps, from people of no importance. The CKGR had been demarcated on State Land, after all, and was for the government to do with as it wished. Even if Bushmen had been born in the CKGR and had spent all their lives there, if they did not have official permits they were criminal trespassers; and no permits had ever been issued. Besides, as the Bushmen themselves would eventually realize, the government had acted in their own best interests.

This was a fatal miscalculation. To general astonishment over two hundred of those who had been bundled out of the Reserve sued the government in what came to be known as the Sesana case. Their claim proved to be to the longest and most expensive litigation in Botswana’s history, and thanks largely to the efforts of Survival International attracted huge publicity around the world.

There were moments in the trial of which Groucho Marx might have been proud. As it began, the government moved to amend a section of the Constitution intended to protect the Bushmen - but amended the wrong bit. Half way through the hearings the Special Advisor to President Mogae, who was also the lead attorney for the State, refused to obey a court order and was committed for contempt. He fled the scene with his star witness, had to be stopped at a police road block, and spent three nights in Gaborone Prison. Government witnesses succumbed to bouts of collective amnesia when asked how they had managed to “relocate” more than six hundred people who had not wanted to leave. The Minister in charge of the reelocation was not put in the witness box. Government records were conspicuous by their absence.

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