[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 2 May 2005, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Bushmen fight for homeland
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

If you know anything about the quiet Southern African country of Botswana, the chances are that it will chiefly be because you have read the delightful novels of Alexander McCall Smith.

Bushmen in Kalahari desert
Bushmen are fighting to remain in their Kalahari reserve
Botswana is indeed one of the most pleasant and successful countries in Africa.

But two important cases which will come before the courts in the capital, Gaborone, next week will hint at the direction Botswana is taking.

And many people around the world may feel anxious as a result.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in Botswana is a vast, arid, yet immensely rich area, which for tens of thousands of years has been one of the chief hunting-grounds in southern Africa for the Bushmen.

They are small, hardy, intelligent and gentle people, who have eked out a life for themselves while the rest of humanity developed along completely different lines.

Bushmen is the term they themselves use.

They speak a series of remarkably intricate languages, involving a variety of clicking sounds. And they can live comfortably in terrain where you and I would die of thirst within two days.

But there are diamonds under the CKGR - potentially an important source, controlled by an offshoot of the gigantic De Beers organisation.

The Botswana government decreed that the Bushmen should be moved out of the reserve, and onto relocation sites outside, and this started in 1997. Their villages were pulled down, and they were expelled. It was often an ugly process.

Long-running case

When I last went to the CKGR, I saw that the wells the Bushmen had used were broken up and concreted over. There is something particularly distasteful about destroying wells in a desert.

Their villages were pulled down, and they were expelled. It was often an ugly process
I also went to the relocation site at New Xade. At a shebeen (bar), I saw men staggering round, drunk from early in the morning on the beer which costs next to nothing.

Prostitution is rife, and so are sexually transmitted diseases unknown in the reserve itself.

When the Botswana government takes foreign guests to New Xade on fact-finding trips, it shows them the showcase schools and clinics which have been built for the Bushmen. The VIP buses take a detour in order to miss the shebeens.

A group of 240 Bushmen have taken the Botswana government to court, demanding the right to return to their ancestral lands. A new session of the hearing will begin next week.

This case has dragged on for a long time - so long that 20 of the original Bushmen litigants have died in the meantime.

The Bushmen believe the government wants to wear them down and drain their money through delaying tactics.

The government lawyers ask witnesses the same questions again and again, and there are frequent adjournments. The judges are not friendly to the Bushmen.

Yet even though they expect to lose here, they have to continue. If the case goes to appeal, the judges will be drawn from other Commonwealth countries, and the Bushmen are confident of winning.

'Stone-Age creatures'

The other case which will be heard next week is that of an Australian academic, Professor Ken Good, who teaches at Gaborone University.

Village in Botswana
President Mogai says the Bushmen do not belong to modern society

In February, after he had publicly criticised the evictions of the Bushmen, he was issued with a deportation order, which he is contesting. His students staged a demonstration in his support.

Why should the Botswana government, whose record is otherwise impressive, choose to damage itself in the eyes of the world like this?

Some of it seems almost personal. President Festus Mogai is a charming and intelligent man, but he has a particular hang-up about the Bushmen - "Stone-Age creatures", he once called them.

He believes they do not belong in a modern, go-ahead state, and should be forced to integrate into Botswanan society.

And then there are the diamonds.

Glory of Africa

I used not to believe that this was the real cause, but now I have changed my mind.

Somehow, it is too much of a coincidence that so much wealth lies under the land of so few Bushmen.

De Beers strongly denies any link with the evictions, knowing how badly this allegation would damage a corporate image it has done a great deal to improve.

Yet it is hard to get rid of the suspicion that if De Beers really wanted the Bushmen back on the land, the Botswana government would agree.

Instead, the Botswana government is planning to change the clause in the constitution which protects areas like the CKGR.

Once this is changed, it will be easier to evict the Bushmen forever. And eventually, perhaps, the mining of diamonds could start.

Still, there have been no further evictions since February 2002, and none of the disgusting beatings and torture which accompanied the earlier forced removals.

Some 250 Bushmen have managed to make their way back into the reserve, and have so far been allowed to stay there. While the court case continues, they are probably safe.

There are Bushmen in many of the surrounding countries, but the CKGR group is the most viable and independent group of all.

The harshness of the Kalahari has always protected them from cattle grazers, agricultural farmers, and developers - but not, alas, from diamonds.

Nor from a government which finds them an irritating nuisance - instead of understanding that they are one of the great glories of Africa.

Read John Simpson's previous columns:

Your comments:

What a pity that the world demands these bits of stone
Jane, England
I have not heard of the novels you mention. However, I have lived in Botswana, have travelled over the Kalahari, have been concerned that the Basarwa/Bushmen were not allowed to live their lives in their own way when they harm no one. I saw the carefully fenced off diamond areas back in the 70's and feared that those areas would expand. What a pity that the world demands these bits of stone such that the Botswana government (for whom I had great respect in the 70s) feels it must evict people and try to mould them into a common mould which does not fit them.
Jane, England

The so-called UN should be acting in cases like these to step in and protect indigenous populations where simple greed is the driving force. Soon the closest thing to nature will be the green concrete we walk on and Ray Mears will be a myth. We owe it to our grandchildren to protect unique ways of life. Our way of life could be next!
Sean, Penzance, Cornwall

It's always about profit, not people. Whether they be Bushmen in Africa or the various aboriginal tribes of Canada, if there are resources under or on the land, the TRUE owners/residents of that land are forced off. Hopefully, the Bushmen will win their fight, as that will help inspire other aboriginal groups fighting for their land rights.
Joanna, Calgary, Canada

This account seems extremely one-sided as it does not provide any element of support from the Botswanan government to the Bushmen of Botswana. I am currently completing my PhD at Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute on issues related to the rights of indigenous peoples and in the course of my research I have travelled to South Africa and have been following very closely the issues of the South African San and the Botswanan Bushmen. I am very sympathetic to their concerns but at the same time, I think governments have this difficult task to reconcile the necessity to satisfy the needs of specific groups while addressing issues of national interest.
Marcelin Tonye Mahop, London, UK

I wish them all the best in their Commonwealth appeal
John Muir, Edinburgh
In a world often set on destroying its own history, native tribal peoples everywhere are at risk and so often go unnoticed. It's easy to see the troubles in advanced nations like Iraq but no one can say that their very culture is endangered. John Simpson's done a good job to highlight this cause, as without the surviving tribes of the world we would all be poorer - diamonds or not! I wish them all the best in their Commonwealth appeal.
John Muir, Edinburgh

Thank you for such an insightful article. Sadly, we don't change much over the years. We relocate people and then give them just enough to buy beer and keep them under a thumb. I've never been to this part of the world, but your last comment was wonderful. I'm sure these people are their nation's gift. We should instead be watching and learning how to live with less. We could start by living with less diamonds. Again, thank you.
Bobbi, Olympia,WA

As a human race, we would go to extreme measure to protect other species on Earth, why can't we use the same approach to other human race? But when there is money involved, it's often difficult. Just look at hunting for whales and the killing of seals.
Michael Yue, London, United Kingdom

I am a citizen of Botswana who has lived in the areas referred to and who is very much sympathetic to the plight of the Bushmen. With due respect, this is the most ridiculous account I have heard on the issue by a professional and respected journalist. I am disappointed because I always had respect for Mr Simpson and thought him to be credible. Why do Western journalists always have to shamelessly ferment fantasies when they report on Africa? The reason Western campaigners have failed to get the support of the locals stems mainly from their persistence to use disinformation, supposedly, to create a more appealing picture for their Western audience.
Edward Dintwa, Gaborone, Botswana

The Bushmen have always been persecuted - many generations have been enslaved by Bantu. Pressure should be brought to bear on De Beers to influence the Botswana government, and the Bushmen should be allowed to choose their future.
Stephanie Wiffen, Pershore, Worcestershire

This is another sad case of the world elite placing profits before human dignity
Starr Feeler, Ft Worth, TX, USA
This is another sad case of the world elite placing profits before human dignity. I'm reminded of the relocation programs the US forced on native Americans. I'm sure De Beers in tandem with the media will successfully slide this cultural tragedy through without much world attention. That's how they work.
Starr Feeler, Ft Worth, TX, USA

It's not often that I read news and even vaguely understand what it's all about but John Simpson's report hit a soft spot. Great reporting and I sincerely hope that somebody listens; although I doubt it. Sadly, where money; especially in the shape of diamonds, people lose out. I just hope that De Beers and the Bushmen can come to an understanding. Surely they are big enough to let them live there while they make lots and lots of money!
Frank Lee, Limassol, Cyprus

I think it's a disgrace that companies like De Beers should have so much clout over the government. Places that are protected for their raw and natural beauty need to stay that way. So the president calls the Bushmen "Stone Age Creatures" maybe they are but they are probably happier with the little they have as long as they maintain a semblance of cultural identity.
Gideon, London (Ethiopian)

This is really a story that should hit the headlines because these people have been removed from places where they should be. Stone age creatures¿ I think that's a misunderstanding of modernisation. If the mining starts in yet another place it will affect their already dry country.
Mangaliso, Lilongwe

I've just returned from South Africa and I had the opportunity to hear from a field researcher about the Kalahari Bushman's way of life. I genuinely believe that we in the First world could learn much from the sustainability techniques they have practiced over 40,000 years.
Martyn Emery, Stockholm, Sweden

Mr Simpson stated in the article that "Why should the Botswana government, whose record is otherwise impressive, choose to damage itself in the eyes of the world like this?" Botswana leaders are not stupid. A good name for Botswana means a lot of benefits for the country's economy and image. I am sure they value what the rest of the world think about us and violation of human rights openly will surely damage our good reputation. Then the question is "why would they do that? If the reason is for diamonds, does Mr Simpson think we are so ignorant that we don't know what happened with the sale of mink coats?

The industry suffered because of the ban on killing of the animals. Then surely our leaders are not stupid to chase away the Bushman for the love of diamonds and money only to be hit with the same kind of ban on Botswana diamonds. Mr Simpson needs to check his sources. Whatever the reason is for removing the Bushmen, it is not diamonds. Our diamonds are clean; they are used for the benefit of everyone, including the Bushmen. Botswana is one of the safest countries in Africa. Human rights are respected, that's why there are no civil wars here.

We are trying hard to attract investors to diversify the diamond based economy. Why would someone like Mr Simpson want to destroy that? We pride ourselves for being one of the shining democratic examples of Africa. We don't seize anyone's land by force, we don't fight each other, we don't exile any political activists, we don't kick anyone out of the country without a good reason and we don't remove the Bushmen from their land.
Vincent Moloi, Gaborone


Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad is pulled down True predictions
Three years Saddam Hussein's regime fell, what has gone wrong in Iraq?



Botswana lecturer wins reprieve
28 Feb 05 |  Africa

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific