This past weekend, a group of 40 San people finally returned to their homes in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, despite hassles two weeks ago from Botswana government officials.
Police at one of the resettlement camps, where the G/wi and G//ana have been living for several years, attempted to dissuade them from returning to the CKGR. They told them that Botswana President Festus Mogae was planning to visit; he allegedly wanted to talk with them, they said. They decided not to wait, insisting on leaving right away.
The San were all permitted to pass through the gates to the CKGR, although the guards only issued temporary permits to some of them. Police then accompanied them into the reserve, though they subsequently left them alone.
Stephen Corry, the Director of Survival International, the British NGO that has assisted the San people for years, said on Monday that “the Bushmen are ecstatic and are full of gratitude for all those who supported them, both in Botswana and throughout the world.” However, alluding to a government delaying tactic a couple weeks earlier, he also said, “We hope that the authorities will not try to make life difficult for the Bushmen wanting to return home…”
In a ruling on December 13 that concluded a lengthy legal case, the Botswana High Court decided in favor of the San people, ruling that the government must not prevent them from their right to live in their traditional homes in the CKGR. About two weeks ago—dates vary in the different accounts—a group of San people were stopped at the gate to the CKGR on their first attempt to return. The women and children in the party were not permitted to enter.
One of the San people in that returning group, Jumanda Gakelobone from the NGO First People of the Kalahari, commented about the refusal to allow children and wives to enter: “We are all angry and surprised that people were turned away at the gate. We are asking why can we not go back to our lands as the court says? … We say to the government please please respect the law and the court ruling and just let us go home.”
According to the Director of the Indigenous Land Rights Fund, Rupert Isaacson, “That the Botswana Government would be prepared to let women and children be stranded in the waterless desert shows that it has lost none of its determinedness to destroy the San people. They have cynically waited until media attention had moved on from the court victory and committed an act that is both brutal and illegal. Botswana is supposed to be a beacon of democracy within Africa. Sadly it is degenerating into just another conflict diamond state.”
Government officials two weeks ago, contacted by reporters about the incident, all responded that they did not know anything. The spokesperson for the president said, “I am not aware of the details.” A representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said he was not familiar with the incident. The Deputy Attorney General would only say, “I am hearing this from you.” Jumanda Gakelebone concluded, “the whole thing looks like an orchestrated strategy to break our resolve. They are dirty tactics used to separate children from their parents.”
Whatever was going on two weeks ago, government officials have obviously decided to abide by their laws and permit the San people to return to their homes. But if the Botswana government continues to maintain its hostile attitude toward their own indigenous minority peoples, their prospects in the CKGR may be bleak. The government has indicated that it will only permit the 189 people who filed the suit to return, and only with their minor children. It has also indicated that it will limit the people from building any permanent shelters and it will prohibit anyone from bringing in domestic animals.
The government believes it has no obligation to provide any water or other support for them. Hunters will require special permits to hunt. It insists that the CKGR is government land, and the people who move back there are subject to the laws of the state. In other words, the government reserves the right to make life extremely difficult for them if it chooses.
A buffer zone and fencing around the revived settlements in the CKGR would certainly ameliorate potential dangers to wildlife from the presence of domestic animals—if the government will permit it. The handful of people who have held out in the CKGR despite the eviction orders of the government are desperate for food, clothing, and water, which they hope the returning people will bring to them.
According to an Associated Press story on January 15 about the difficulties the San face in returning to their homes, the government shut off the primary well in 2002. Access to water is now very difficult. Perhaps the resolve the G/wi and G//ana demonstrated during their recent court case will be a harbinger of the strength they will need in order to resettle themselves and re-establish their lives in their homes. Certainly their traditional life in the Kalahari was never easy, but their memories of desert living may give them the confidence to overcome the many obstacles they face.