The Heart of a Lion: Botswana’s Bushmen Celebrate 5 Years On

‘The lion and I are brothers,’ a Gwi Bushman from Botswana told a Survival International representative when he was evicted from his ancestral home in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. ‘I am confused that I should have to leave this place, but the lion can stay’.

The Bushmen are the original people of southern Africa. They can, in fact, uniquely claim to be the ‘most indigenous’ peoples in the world, having lived on their lands longer than anyone else has lived anywhere. They know this vast place – the acacia woodlands, flat grasslands and winding fossil rivers – intimately. For 70,000 years or more they have survived alongside the lion and giraffe, hunting for duiker and hare in the shade-less summers, and storing water underground in empty ostrich eggs when the waterholes turn to dust.

It is their home. It always has been. In fact once, it may have been the original home of us all – it is thought that either southern or eastern Africa was the ‘cradle of mankind’. Today’s Bushmen are quite possibly genetically closer to the ancestors of all of us than anyone else.

And yet they are also the most victimized peoples in the history of southern Africa. They have suffered marginalization and brutal discrimination for centuries, initially from Bantu cattle-herding peoples who arrived from the north; more recently from European colonists who organized hunting parties to kill them after they docked on the southern tip of Africa.

In the 1980s, it was discovered that the CKGR lies plump in the middle of the richest diamond fields in the world. And so between 1997 and 2002 the unthinkable – the unconscionable – happened. Almost all Bushmen – people who had once lived from the Zambezi Basin to the Cape – were taken away from their homes and driven to eviction camps outside the reserve. Their villages were pulled down; the well they had used destroyed; the water drained into the sand.

‘We were made the same as the sand, we were born here,’ said one Bushman. But to the Botswana government, their heritage and human rights mattered not a jot now that there were diamonds to be mined. The government claimed that under the Wildlife Regulations, the Bushmen needed official permits to enter the Game Reserve, and that without them they were criminal trespassers. It also condescendingly suggested that the eviction was somehow for the Bushmen’s own good; that they would benefit from the move socially and economically.

That suggestion was but a sop; the reality of the eviction could not have been further from the truth. The Bushmen were forced to live in miserable shacks – ‘places of death’, as one Bushman referred to them – where they had nothing to do. Their survival depended not on the hunting and gathering, but on food parcels that arrived by truck once a week. They had to stand in line for these, and sign for them with a thumbprint.

The Bushmen were, in short, deprived of everything they had ever known. Before long, without their homelands, hunting sites, myths and memories – without the ability to exercise choice and control over their lives – a collective depression set in. ‘I do not want this life,’ said Jumanda Gakelebone, a Gana Bushman. ‘First they make us destitute by taking away our land and our way of life. Then, they say we are nothing because we are destitute.’ As dignity seeped away, so alcoholism took its place. Prostitution and AIDS – never before known in Bushmen communities – became rife.

With the campaigning help of Survival International, the Bushmen took their case to the High Court. They argued that the law should respect their special relationship with the land, and the rights that each clan traditionally enjoyed within its own territory. The Court agreed – despite a last minute amendment to the Constitution designed to thwart their claims – and ruled that their rights must take precedence over the strict letter of the Regulations.

The Court went on to hold that the Bushmen had been removed from the Reserve unlawfully, that the denial of hunting licenses to them had also been unlawful and that the forceful eviction of the Bushmen affected their livelihood, which was entirely dependent on their lands. In the words of Justice Phumaphi, the treatment meted out by the Government ‘was tantamount to condemning the residents of the CKGR to death by starvation.’ (1)

I was asked to represent the Bushmen at the hearing because I had already been involved in tribal claims elsewhere in Africa. This case, however, turned out to be unlike any I had known in the past.

We started with a trip into the Reserve. ‘We’ were three Judges, two teams of Batswana lawyers, one English barrister and a horde of film and television crews. In a resettlement village outside the Reserve, a makeshift court was convened among the cows, donkeys and goats. There, Bushmen witnesses testified in their ancient click languages, waiting patiently while their answers were translated first into Setswana, then into English.

None of the Bushmen had been in a court before. Some had never been in a building. Judgment was delivered live on national television; special tents were drafted in to accommodate the many people that had arrived from all over Africa and other parts of the world. The trial caught the public imagination: it had pitted an illiterate and poor community, and its apparently hopeless attempt to protect an ancestral way of life, against an all-powerful State with apparently unlimited resources at its disposal.

If the verdict came as a surprise to the assembled press corps, it was also a shock to the Bushmen. They had believed fervently in their cause, but in a twenty-year struggle to stop the relocation of their people had become only too familiar with the bitter taste of defeat. Finally, however, someone in a position of authority had understood that the Bushmen’s relationship with their lands dictates everything: who they are, what they do and how they think. At last it had been recognized that without their land, the Bushmen would not survive.

Losing their lands had made the Bushmen utterly bereft, but the prospect of being able to returned home evoked jubilation I have rarely seen before. When we returned to the Kalahari with the good news, we were carried around the settlements shoulder-high.

But the Bushmen cannot rest. The Botswana High Court only ruled that they had the right to return to their ancestral land, but did not order the Botswana government to provide the basic services it had previously provided, such as water.

Their appalling struggles, referred to as ‘degrading treatment’ by Winnemem Wintu, the UNPFII’s Special Rapporteur on Water, continued. The Government simultaneously allowed the development of a tourist lodge inside the Reserve whilst refusing to allow the Bushmen the use of a borehole in the Reserve, forcing them to make 300 mile round-trip journeys in searing heat, to fetch water from outside the CKGR. ‘This is an extremely difficult life’, they said, ‘having to look for any root or other edible matter from which we can extract even a few drops of water’.

So the Bushmen went back to Court, to contest afresh a government that was repeatedly trying everything to make their lives wretched, and their return home impossible. ‘Trying everything’ includes harassment, torture, evictions, shootings, arrests and endless human rights offences. Their claim was initially dismissed in July 2010, but in January 2011 the Botswana Court of Appeal quashed a ruling that denied the Kalahari Bushmen access to water on their ancestral land. The appeal judges referred to the Basarwa’s plight as ‘a harrowing story of human suffering and despair.’

The Bushmen do not ask for Government handouts, or roads, or hospitals. They do, however, want to be consulted about plans to develop the Reserve, whether these come from the public or the private sector. This does not seem unreasonable, yet the government has yet to discuss with the Bushmen any other proposals it may have for the CKGR, despite the fact that international law now expects governments and companies alike to seek the ‘free, prior and informed consent’ of indigenous peoples before they embark on any project on their lands.

It remains to be seen whether the Government will seek this consent. Lawyers can negotiate agreements to limit a project’s impact and to ensure that the Bushmen derive some benefit from it, but they cannot negotiate with themselves. If the politicians and businessmen continue to ignore the communities inside the Reserve, further trips to court will become inevitable.

Is it too much hope that common sense – and common decency – might still win the day, and that the Bushmen will at last be allowed a say in what is to happen in their own lands? The first people of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve have the right to go home unimpeded: back to their lives and hunting grounds. Back home, to the lion.