Botswana should let the San be

This is the truth: this land belongs to the San. History shows that the San of the Kalahari were the first inhabitants of modern-day Botswana and other countries in southern Africa.

And this is another indisputable fact: the San have inhabited this place for more than 40,000 years, long before any other communities migrated to the region.

August 15th, 2013

This is the truth: this land belongs to the San. History shows that the San of the Kalahari were the first inhabitants of modern-day Botswana and other countries in southern Africa.

And this is another indisputable fact: the San have inhabited this place for more than 40,000 years, long before any other communities migrated to the region.

But despite these truths, these groups – instead of being celebrated as the region’s indigenous peoples – have been subjected to unfair treatment, including dispossessing their land, violating their rights, and continuously marginalising and excluding them.

This is how it happened. During the great migration, Bantu-speaking people armed descended into what is now called southern Africa. But when they arrived, they didn't find it empty. They found the San (or the Basarwa as they are often referred to in Botswana) living there.

According to historians, the San were then forced – by the tips of many spears – into the Kalahari region and other desert or semi-desert areas by the more numerous and more powerful new arrivals. Others were forced against their will to assimilate into some of the major tribes in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. The colonial period brought no respite as the land available to the San shrunk even further and as many communities disappeared entirely.

Independence did nothing for the San. Indeed, apart from some anthropologists, there was very little interest in the remaining San groups spread across Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. They were the forgotten people. Many continued to live as hunter-gatherers while others struggled to survive in abject poverty in isolated ‘settlements’ with few – if any – government services.

Botswana governments sudden interest in the San?

However, in the1980s, the government of Botswana suddenly began to show a keen interest in the fate of the San of Kalahari. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a government expressing a desire to develop its people, but in Botswana’s case the authorities’ sudden interest met with understandable suspicion. Why now? Why did it take years for the government to realise that the San should not be treated as second-class citizens in their own country? And – the critical query – was there an ulterior, possibly economic, motive behind the change of policy?

The San were quick to smell something fishy. One thing that was very clear was that the Kalahari region – the land that had been forsaken by the larger tribes, the British colonialist and the post-independence governments as of little use to anyone but the San and the desert animals – had suddenly become valuable and was now viewed as prime land. Why? Apart from the world-renowned wildlife, the area also appeared to be rich in diamonds and coal. There was even talk that parts of it could become successful farming areas.

But something was standing in the way – or rather someone: the San. To develop the area for farming, mining or tourism, the government had to make sure that the San were removed from their ancestral lands. The question was how, especially as most of them had no wish to move.

So the government used the guise of development to relocate them to a ‘better’ place – to a promised land of ‘milk and honey’, where the government would provide them with water, shelter, education and health care. This process has been going on for decades now with the authorities working day and night to bring the San to sites where they can be ‘developed’ – and out of sight of those who wanted to economically ‘develop’ (or rather exploit) their ancestral lands.

But this argument does not hold water. The government has a duty to take development to the people, not the people to development. And it certainly has no right to remove people from their land against their will. And it is clear that many San had no desire to quit the Kalahari or forsake their age-old way of life.

However, it should be pointed that some San have opted to voluntarily relocate from their ancestral land to places outside Kalahari. That is their choice and it should be respected. But it should also be appreciated that some of them may have relocated under duress and pressure from the authorities.

Indeed, the 2006 case in which San successfully challenged the government’s decision to remove them from Central Kalahari Game Reserve is a clear indication that many of them wanted to remain within the CKGR and that the government had ‘declared war’ against them and their traditional way of life. While the authorities denied that they were forcing the CKGR’s indigenous inhabitants to move, the High Court ruled that they had been forcibly relocated and that they should be allowed to continue living inside the CKGR. But the government has largely achieved its aims since very few San remain within the reserve.

And as the San presence in the CKGR continues to dwindle, the area is a buzzing beehive of other activities, particularly tourism. And all of this is happening on land that rightfully belongs to the San.

The case of Ranyane

And it’s not just the San in the CKGR. The government also seems intent on moving San families from Ranyane – a settlement of about 600 inhabitants in the Ghanzi, a few hundred kilometers from the CKGR.

The government’s contention is that the removal has everything to do with the need to move Ranyane’s residents to places where they can benefit from development and services. The authorities also claimed that they were only relocating residents who had asked to be moved to Bere village – another tiny village more than 150km away from Ranyane. Close to hundreds residents have already been moved to Bere settlement as of June this year.

Faced with this situation, a group of San approached the High Court seeking to stop the relocations – and a settlement was eventually agreed between the Ranyane community and the authorities, which included the following provisions:

  • If the authorities return to Ranyane, they will [have to] park their vehicles and/or pitch tents on the other side of the main Kgotla;
  • The authorities will not permit their officers to enter any household compound occupied by the Ranyane San without their express consent;
  • The authorities will not remove the engine that currently operates the borehole at Ranyane without 14 days prior written notice to the community’s attorneys; and
  • No one shall be removed from Ranyane less than 48 hours after the authorities have informed the community’s lawyers by telephone of their proposed removal.

The government has said that it will abide by the court order but Ranyane is just the latest clash between the San and the Botswana authorities. It is time for the government to respect and protect the rights of all the San in the country.

While the government will never admit it, its treatment of the San has been inhuman and a violation of their rights. They are the original indigenous inhabitants of our nation. They should be allowed to live in peace on their ancestral lands. Whatever the economic or developmental benefits of moving them might be, the government should review its plans – and should let the San be.


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