The Bushmen of southern Africa once numbered several million. Today, only about 100,000 live in the region. They were wiped out by Bantu Africans descending from the north and by white colonists moving up from the south. A group of Bushmen, also called San or Basarwa, are trying to hold on to their ancestral lands in Botswana. Their plight has become a very modern one, involving lawyers and courtrooms as they demand the right to return to the bush.
The largest group of remaining Bushmen resides in Botswana and has been among the last still living their tradition hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The London-based activist group Survival International has long supported the Bushmen’s efforts to retain rights to their ancestral land. Research Coordinator Jonathan Mazower compares their plight in resettlement areas to those of the American Indians and Australian Aborigines.
“There is chronic alcoholism, endemic diseases, very high levels of child mortality and depression, chronic boredom, loss of self esteem – all the symptoms that are very well known from pushing indigenous peoples off their land and robbing them of their culture,” said Mr. Mazower.
Over the years, the government has evicted the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Now some Bushmen are suing the government for rights to their ancestral land.
Ambassador Caesar Lekoa says the Basarwa are better off in resettlement areas, not scraping by in the bush.
“It goes against logic and human nature to want to live in a place where you die from preventable diseases, or to go hungry or to go thirsty, to go without medicine,” he said. “The logical thing to do is to go where you can carry out some activities to sustain your life.”
The government says it became too expensive to continue providing services to the few Bushmen still living on the reserve. But Survival International says its research shows that the resettlement villages are far more expensive to maintain.
Ambassador Lekoa says less than 20 Bushmen remain on the reserve. But Mr. Mazower says Survival International counted about 200 men, women and children on a recent visit there.
“They have been living there without any water supply or any other government services for about two years, which is pretty graphic evidence that these people can still survive by getting underground water from roots and tubers and rainwater when it rains and hunting and gathering, and they’ve been living without any government assistance at all,” he said. “And there are many hundreds more who are also very keen to return to their land if they feel that they can live there without simply being moved off again.”
Survival International says the numbers are unimportant because ethically the Bushmen simply have a right to their land - the land where their ancestors are buried. Bushmen use the soil on the graves for healing.
Ambassador Lekoa says recognizing the Bushmen’s land claim goes against the country’s spirit of equality. Botswana is Africa’s oldest democracy – although the same party has held power for nearly 40 years. The country has escaped the ethnic strife of some of its neighbors.
“I think it would be against the ethos of the political philosophy of the government to say for the case of the Basarwa we are going to single them out as a special group which should remain disadvantaged and live a certain mode of life which for the majority of them is not the preferred way of life,” said Ambassador Lekoa.
Although the Bushmen have clinics, schools and some training at the resettlement sites, most live in a cultural limbo. They have little say in determining their livelihoods or futures.
“We are very much opposed to the notion that hunter-gathering should be seen as an old-fashioned way of life that is not as modern as working in a bank or putting on a suit and tie and going to a job in the office,” said Mr. Mazower. “It is a very sensible way to exploit certain types of environment and should not be seen as an ancient way of life that is inevitably going to disappear if these people are enticed with the products of western civilization.”
The government denies it has pushed the Bushmen off the game reserve for diamond exploration, saying people commonly live around diamond areas. Botswana is Africa’s top producer of diamonds in terms of value.
But officials likely paid keen attention to a decision last year by South Africa’s highest court. It ruled that another indigenous people, the Richtersvelders, have a legal right to their land and its minerals. They are related to the Bushmen and were evicted from their land after diamonds were discovered there.
Botswana’s Bushmen case is set to resume in November.