Under Siege: the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari
Thirty years, but probably less - that is how long Botswana’s Kalahari bushmen have left before their way of life and culture are consigned to the history books. With their looming demise, which is fuelled by diamonds and economic growth, the world is about to lose one of the oldest hunting peoples.
By Miriam Mannak / contributoria.com
Nov 3, 2015

The socio-political status of the original inhabitants of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is not something many Botswanans are willing to openly discuss with the media. Situated smack-bang in the heart of Botswana, this arid wilderness the size of Switzerland stretches as far as the eye can see, encompassing more than 52,000 m2 of plains, pans, Camel Thorns, Kalahari Apple Leafs and other shrubs typical of this region. Life in the world’s second-largest game reserve is ruled by wildlife, the elements, forces of nature, scarce water resources and temperatures that easily surpass the 45°C mark.

To the bushmen, also known as the San, this breathtakingly beautiful semi-desert has been an emotional, physical and spiritual sanctuary and home for tens of thousands of years. That is how long these nomadic hunter-gatherers have roamed the area, chasing after summer rains and migrating wildebeests while relying on their knowledge of how their land and elements operate in conjunction with one another.

Diamonds

Apart from a few adaptations here and there, the San’s way of life has hardly changed. For centuries, if not millennia, boys have been groomed to become subsistence hunters capable of identifying spoors of any possible animal, while learning about the nutritional and medicinal value of plants. Girls, in the meantime, were raised to become gatherers and, most importantly, protectors of their compound while their partners were away. Drastically changing their lifestyle was unnecessary; the CKGR was, after all, established in the 1960s as a safe haven for both bushmen and wildlife.

The discovery of diamonds in the area turned this equilibrium upside down, with 1996 being a watershed year. It was then, following the first official assessment of the country’s diamond reserves, that the Botswanan government ordered the removal of the bushmen.

The first resettlement round kicked off barely a year later, with the forced transplantation of 1,740 men, women and children. Most of them ended up in New Xade or Dekar. Both situated a long and bumpy four-hour four-wheel-drive journey from the reserve’s nearest border, these relocation villages are far removed from migrating wildlife, summer rain clouds and ancestors’ spirits. These components have been replaced by poverty, alcoholism, unemployment and reliance on government handouts. Tuberculosis, HIV and other illnesses are now prevalent.

“What I can say is that life in Dekar is tough and is dominated by unemployment and poverty”, says a Botswanan man of British descent who runs a small operation near Dekar. As expected, he doesn’t want to be named. He is afraid of losing his licence and even residence permit. “The suicide rate in Dekar is one of the highest in the world, at apparently some 120 per 100,.000 inhabitants. The bushmen can’t function in modern life. There is no hope there. I know that, because I often visit the place.”

Craving for the bush

Twenty-three-year-old Tshegu doesn’t see it as black and white. He was a pre-teen when the second relocation round of 2002 came along. He has lived in Dekar ever since. “Life in Dekar is good, sometimes. We have schools, clinics and running water now. But there is poverty, and other problems too. Life in the bush is much better”, he says.

To feed his ingrained craving for the bush and to make a living, Tshegu has started to take visitors for nature walks on private game farms in close vicinity to the CKGR. Dressed in traditional bushmen attire, comprising a leather loin cloth and a bow and arrow, he shows them the difference between oryx and eland tracks while talking about the healing properties of various plants. “Life in the bush is better, because it was cheaper as you could live off the land”, he adds. “There was no poverty.”

A third and final relocation round followed in 2005, according to the government to stop the bushmen from disrupting the CKGR’s wildlife. Nonsense, says activist Jumanda Gakelebone. He too, was thrown off the reserve, together with his parents and most relatives. He currently lives in Ghanzi, a dusty cattle-farming town approximately 150km west from the wilderness he once called home. From here, Gakelebone spends his days fighting for bushmen rights, on a local and global scale. He even met with Prince Charles recently.

“The resettlement of my people was directly linked to the diamonds. We are marginalised and oppressed, and have no land rights. Over the past years, we have been forced to abandon our traditional way of life, while we are the country’s indigenous people”, the activist says, shedding a light on the intricate web of social, economic and political difficulties facing the Kalahari bushmen who reside both in and outside the reserve. Because there are still a couple of San left, some 600 of them. Thanks to a series of court cases they were allowed to stay within the CKGR’s boundaries. Gakelebone is doubtful about whether they will stay. “They have it tough”, he says. “As a result of the hunting ban which was imposed this year, they can’t survive. In the past, we were given special hunting licences which allowed us to shoot a couple of animals per year for our survival. These permits have been withdrawn.”

Starvation and genocide

Gakelebone says that the hunting ban in many aspects can be considered the last straw for the remaining Bushmen. “People in the reserve are starving and suffering. They will have to move out some day if they don’t want to die”, he says, adding that this existing element of fear is fuelled further by the authorities. “The police and special forces are monitoring the San in the CKGR to prevent them from hunting. Every day, my people are being harassed. Every day, they are afraid of what might happen if they do kill an animal to eat.”

Whether killed for survival or for illicit commercial gains, the repercussions for shooting an animal on national land are severe. There is no differentiation between shooting an impala to eat or an elephant for its ivory. “I know people who have been tortured after shooting an animal for food”, Gakelebone says. “I know of bushmen who were forced to stand in front of a car, with their hands tied to the bull bar and a fire between that person’s feet and the car’s front tyres. The flames would hurt their belly and burn them.”

The activist suddenly falls silent and stares ahead for a few seconds. “I know of three people who have been tortured to death for hunting an oryx”, he says, his voice briefly immersed in sadness before determination takes over. “To me, this reeks of cultural genocide. If you deliberately make a group of people suffer and starve, then that is genocide.”

Police crackdown

Gakelebone’s statements with regard to violence used against bushmen resonate strongly in a recent report published by Survival International, a global organisation that fights for the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. Titled They have killed me: the persecution of Botswana’s Bushmen 1992-2014, the document reveals some 200 cases of assault, arrests, abuse and torture of Kalahari San, allegedly committed by government officials, wildlife authorities and the police. Among the victims are a man who succumbed to torture and a child who was shot in the stomach by the police. Another person was apparently buried alive for killing an antelope.

“The government crackdown on the Kalahari bushmen continues, and has possibly worsened”, says Survival International’s Rachel Stenham. “The hunting ban is the most recent development. We saw plans for this being ramped up last year, when paramilitary police – which is known as the Special Support Group – started going into the CKGR in large numbers. They harassed the remaining bushmen, raided their huts for animal skins and threatened them with violence and expulsion if they were caught killing animals.”

Environmental anthropologist Herman Els, who has done a lot of work in relation to the bushmen of southern Africa, is of the opinion that the hunting ban is the last straw for Botswana’s indigenous hunters. “They are under so much pressure. I can’t see how they can survive under this pressure. I predict that in 30 years from now, the bushmen as we know them will be gone. If they can’t live in the CKGR, they will not be able to pass on their knowledge about the land and wildlife, such as tracking animals, to the future generations. This is not the type of knowledge you learn from books. This means that this knowledge and their languages will die out.”

Gakelebone is less hopeful: “Thirty years is too much. If things continue the way they are going, then the San have only 10 years left.

Switching off the water

Apart from being banned from hunting and the constant fear of the military police, the bushmen in the CKGR struggle with water access. “Before the 1970s, we lived a predominantly nomadic life. Then the government introduced things like schooling, clinics, and water connections into the reserve”, Gakelebone explains. “People slowly but surely got used to this, particularly to water. Then in 2002, when the second round of forced removals happened, the government switched off various boreholes. They said we would get it back if we would move out.”

In that same year, a group of some 200 bushmen took the government to court, forcing the authorities to allow them to return to the reserve while switching the water back on. The judge ruled in their favour. However, the state managed to successfully argue that only those whose names appeared on the court papers – 189 individuals – could return to the CKGR and that the borehole could only be used by animals.

Difficult to give up

When exploring Botswanan public opinion on the plight of the bushmen – from the allegations of human rights abuse to the government’s contempt of high court rulings – the sensitivity around the issue soon becomes apparent. While various sources expressed their concern, none of them were willing to go into detail, nor to have their identity disclosed. What came to light is that criticising the government on this topic may lead to repercussions in the form of losing research and residency permits, or being banned from the country. The latter happened to Survival International and UK advocate Gordon Bennett, who in recent years has won various court cases on behalf of the bushmen. In June last year, just days before an important high court hearing, he was declared persona non grata.

Being ostracised from Botswana has not stopped Survival International from raising awareness around the bushmen’s plight. Working on the ground has, however, become more difficult, and not just because of geographical logistics. “The attitude of the media in Botswana has changed”, Stenham explains. “It has become much harder for us to get them to, for instance, accept our press releases. The biggest radio station in Botswana is not even picking up the phone any more. This makes it difficult for us to raise awareness on the ground.”

Gakelebone is aware of the media situation. “The office of the presidency controls the state-owned media. This means that every editor indirectly reports to President Ian Khama”, he says. “It is also apparent that many journalists in Botswana don’t really care about indigenous affairs. I often call them, suggesting they go and report on what they see. Many refuse. Foreign journalists tend to be interested, but they have to be careful. The international press is not allowed in the CKGR.”

When I ask what keeps him going, knowing that it could be over in a decade, Gakelebone pauses briefly before giving his answer. “It is too difficult to give up, because you are talking about people’s lives”, he says. “We do hope things will change. Our country is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth and SADC. We are trying to lobby these bodies. Besides, it is not just a few of us who are fighting. Many of us are part of this struggle, including young people at university level. Together, we hope to make a difference.”


Photo: Tshegu walking the bush in traditional bushmen attire (credit: Miriam Mannak)

About the writer

As a journalist and foreign correspondent I am based in South Africa, from where I am writing and shooting for various newspapers, press agencies, magazines and online publications in South Africa and elsewhere (including Europe). Topics I cover: human rights; social development; energy and food security; rights of indigenous people and minorities; press and media freedom; constitutional and gender-based issues; and more.

Go to writer’s Contributoria profile page

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Under Siege: the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari