Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Robert Hitchcock has a generally pessimistic view of the progress made by the Ju/’hoansi in Botswana. While the Ju/’hoansi of Namibia have been able to gain some rights to their traditional lands, the ones living in Botswana have been less successful overall. The reason is that the government of that country does not believe in granting land rights on the basis of traditional livelihoods and customs. He devotes an article in a recent book to describing the Ju/’hoansi of two communities in the North West district of Botswana—XaiXai and Dobe.

The Ju/’hoansi in those communities, as in the rest of Botswana and Namibia, live in permanent settlements near sources of water most of the year. But they go out into the desert for brief periods of time during the rainy season to collect wild foods and, as they will say, “get away from all the noise of the settlements” (p.151). Some of the noise they complain about simply comes from the livestock and chickens that people keep.

After the Ju/’hoansi settled into permanent communities, their livestock built up enough numbers that the people became self-sufficient—until 1996 when an outbreak of disease prompted the national government to destroy all the cattle in the region. Since then the Ju/’hoansi have been attempting to rebuild their herds, but so far they have not recovered to the level of 1996. Some of the people have wage jobs on the cattle posts of others; some are simply unemployed.

The land boards of Botswana, such as the one in the North West District, have been reluctant to grant the Ju/’hoansi the rights to the land and water of their traditional territories since they see them as “mobile hunters and gatherers” who have no need for such land rights. Other land boards, however, have granted the Ju/’hoansi rights to their homes and lands.

Some of the Ju/’hoansi have obtained rights by digging or drilling water wells. Under customary Tswana law, providing water is a form of landscape improvement that can be recognized as an investment which allows the owner to claim title to the land. In recent years, some Ju/’hoansi communities have finally been able to secure the rights to water.

Part of the discrimination against the Ju/’hoansi in northwest Botswana has been caused by the fact that they live in very small communities of less than 500 people—below the minimum size to qualify for development assistance in that country. The government claims that it allocates resources based on need, not on ethnicity, and apparently larger communities have more needs than very small ones do.

The Ju/’hoansi have lobbied the national government directly, attended district and national meetings, and even, in one case, sent a representative to attend a conference in Geneva of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. They have networked with other San groups in Botswana and neighboring countries, and, in 1996, formed their own advocacy and networking organization called the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa.

At the local level, the people of XaiXai founded, in the 1990s, the XaiXai Tlhabololo Trust. That group applied to the government for a quota of wildlife that they could harvest, with permits they could allocate to local residents or outsiders. The group awarded permits to some people for subsistence hunting, but they also reserved some permits for outside companies that wanted to conduct safaris in the XaiXai area.

At Dobe in 1999, the Trust for Okavango Cultural and Development Initiatives began to assist people dig water wells and to seek rights to the water. That group, employing local people, has conducted community-based needs assessments. It has also worked with district officials and nongovernmental organizations to further the cause of winning land and water rights.

The Ju/’hoansi in the Dobe area began mapping their traditional lands, their n!oresi, in the late 1990s to help establish their claims. People trained in the use of GPS instruments worked with Ju/’hoansi informants to map the lands they had always used. They then used the maps to present their cases at district meetings and before land boards.

The mapping made a profound impact, according to Hitchcock. It aroused feelings of identity among the Ju/’hoansi and gave them the sense that they needed to learn more about their traditional uses of the land and their ways of managing it in the past. The Ju/’hoansi realize that “maps are power,” as they express it, and they use them to promote interest in their cause by supporters.

Hitchcock believes that when they are claiming their rights at the local level, the Ju/’hoansi in Botswana effectively assert their identity. At the same time, when they are speaking to officials at the national government level, they have to downplay their ethnicity since ethnic identity appears to get them nowhere in the capital. They accept the fact that the government classifies them as Remote Area Dwellers, but they work for assistance from government agencies as best they can. As one woman expresses it, “We know that the government wants us to have livestock and crops and to live like other people, so that is why we get these things whenever the ministry of Agriculture offers them” (p.156).

The author concludes on a hopeful note. The Ju/’hoansi of Botswana have learned to negotiate effectively with government powers, and their new organizations have had some resounding successes. As an example, the XaiXai Tlhabololo Trust won a grant of $200,000 in 2001/02, which generated more than a dozen jobs in the community.

Hitchcock, Robert K. 2006. “Land, Livestock, and Leadership among the Ju/’hoansi San of North-Western Botswana.” In The Politics of Egalitarianism: Theory and Practice, edited by Jacqueline Solway, p. 149-158. New York: Berghahn Books

[Reviews of other articles in this book appeared on May 17 and June 7, 2007 ]