Accessibility links

Botswana’s Bushmen Take the Government Back to Court

  • Kim Lewis

The Bushmen have survived across southern Africa for generations in harsh, arid environments

The Bushmen have survived across southern Africa for generations in harsh, arid environments

The Bushmen of Botswana say they have been forced to take the government back to court for denying them access to their ancestral land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, also known as the CKGR.

Though a previous court case granted them access, the Bushmen and the international tribal rights advocacy group, Survival International, report that the government is not allowing them to freely enter and exit the reserve.

Survival International said the harassment, intimidation and arrests of Bushmen for hunting has been on the rise in recent months, leaving the group with few alternatives but to renew legal action.

"The Bushmen have unfortunately been forced into a position where they are now taking the Botswana government back to court. This will be the third court case against the government," explained Rachel Stenham, a spokesperson Survival International in London. "[The Bushmen won] a landmark court case in 2006, allowing them to return to their ancestral land in an area called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, in central Botswana. [But] since that time, the government has made their lives increasingly difficult and refused them entry into the reserve.”

Stenham said that many of the Bushmen remained on the reserve though others have been forcibly evicted. She also noted how overjoyed they were when they won the court case in 2006. As a result of the win, they thought they would be able to freely travel in and out of the reserve for needed supplies, or to go to school, or collect water. After all, said Stenham, there are no supplies on the reserve and only one borehole so their ability to come and go freely is essential.

“Many of these Bushmen who take these permits feel afraid to stay inside the reserve for fear they either will be taken out by force, or the next time they try to go back into the reserve, they will not be allowed to go back in to see their families. So, there is a feeling of frustration and also fear amongst the Bushmen,” explained Stenham.

The frustration is further compounded by harassment and arrests of the Bushmen by members of the Special Support Group (SSG), or paramilitary police, patrolling the preserve looking for people engaged in what the government says is illegal hunting. Stenham said several Bushmen have been arrested for using traditional methods to hunt for game that they need for survival. Some have even been fined and taken to court.

Jumanda Gakelebone is a Bushman who said he has been harassed by the government while on the reserve.

“If you talk about somebody’s… land, you talk about his life, you talk about his origin. So for not having access to your ancestral land, to my ancestral land, it has really made me to be sad, because as a Bushman, that land was my life. That land was my healing. That land was my origin. That land was everything,” he said.

Gakelebone hopes this time the government will uphold the decision of the court.

“In 2006, the court of appeals [ruled] that we have access to go and stay on that land… so to me, going back [to court] is trying to make it clear to the government that, that land belongs to us,” he said.

Stenham also emphasized that it is vital that the Bushmen be allowed to live in peace on their ancestral land. She said the government’s continued denial of access to the CKGR is making life very hard for the Bushmen.

“They don’t have very much water. It’s a very dry period. They are not being allowed to hunt, and game is basically the main food that the Bushmen totally rely on. And also they’re being refused access to go in and out of the reserve so it is extremely disappointing,” said Stenham.

Survival International pointed out that battles over the Bushmen’s land began in 1997. That’s when Botswana was reported to have started forcibly removing them from the area. The government said it wanted to ensure the integrity of the land as a nature reserve, while integrating the Bushmen into society.

“In the past, the government used the excuse that the Bushmen living inside the reserve is not compatible with wildlife," said Stenham. "The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is a protected area for the wildlife, as well as being the ancestral land of the Bushmen. However, there is this huge diamond mine that’s currently being constructed by Gem Diamonds. Survival International has always said there are diamonds on the reserve, and that must be one of the main reasons why the government just doesn’t want anybody living there."

The government has denied that diamonds are the reason for removing the Bushmen.

The Voice of America has made several attempts to reach a spokesperson for Botswana’s government, but, to date, there has been no response. In the meantime, the plight of the Bushmen continues as they struggle to live in peace at the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.