Friday, January 12, 2007
Botswana's displaced San finally look set to return home this week after winning a long-fought court battle to be allowed back to their ancestral land in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR), in the Kalahari Desert.
In December 2006 the High Court of Botswana ruled that a group of San, also known as Bushmen, had been wrongfully evicted four years earlier from the remote CKGR.
Two weeks after the court ruling, some 20 Bushmen were refused entry into the reserve. "We have since held meetings with the park officials and they said they will allow us in," said Jumanda Gakelebone, a former CKGR resident and spokesman for the First People of the Kalahari (FPK), an advocacy group for the San community. "About 60 of us will move in tomorrow [Friday] with our families."
The Botswana government said it intended setting aside the protected area for wildlife and tourism development and began relocating roughly 2,500 San from the CKGR in 1997. Rights groups claimed the San were forcibly removed to make way for diamond exploration in the reserve, and assisted 244 former CKGR residents to mount a legal challenge in 2002.
The government has maintained its emphasis was on voluntary relocation, aimed at providing development opportunities to the former CKGR residents. They were resettled in New Xade and Kaudwane, depressing villages where the San are dependent on handouts. Only a small hardcore group remained in the reserve after the government cut off water, food rations, health and social services to the CKGR in 2002.
Surprised that the San had not been allowed into the reserve, Abraham Keetshabe, head of the civil litigation division at the Botswana attorney-general's chambers, told IRIN the court had been very explicit about the Bushmen moving back to the CKGR. "The judgment said the 189 applicants [in the court case], along with their minor children, can return [to the CKGR] without being issued with any permits, but the returning families must have their identification papers with them."
According to the FPK, the judgment applies to all the 50,000 San in the country and cannot be confined to the 189 applicants involved in the litigation. "Our lawyers have written a letter to the attorney-general on the matter; we have not heard from them yet," added Gakelebone.
Botswana is rich in diamonds and cattle, with a population of just 1.6 million. But as an ethnic minority, the San experience both poverty and allegedly discrimination. They are called "Basarwa" (those who don't raise cattle, in the Tswana language), a term they feel is demeaning.
The government of Botswana provides free education but the San have problems in accessing it. Teaching is done in Tswana and English, which many San children do not speak. Through its longstanding Remote Area Dwellers initiative, the government has provided roads, potable water, primary schools, hostels and health posts in San areas. Its Economic Promotion Fund supports income-generation and training projects.
In spite of these efforts, rural poverty is endemic and the San remain the poorest of the poor, exploited as farm labourers, plagued by alcoholism, perceived as backward, silent in politics.
The landmark judgment in favour of the San, which ruled that the government had acted "unconstitutionally" and "unlawfully", was hailed as a model for other legal challenges being mounted by indigenous communities removed from their ancestral land in other countries.
The CKGR is a reserve about the size of Togo or Denmark, created in the last days of British colonial rule before Botswana's independence in 1966, in which the San were guaranteed continued occupation of land their forefathers had lived on for thousands of years.