Gaborone — The right to live and hunt as their forefathers did in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is the crux of an application by 243 San Bushmen to overturn their relocation outside the game sanctuary by the Botswana government.
The landmark case, which goes to the heart of minority rights in Botswana, resumed on Monday after a two-month break at the High Court in Lobatse, 60 km south of the capital, Gaborone.
The Bushmen began court action in April 2002, seeking a ruling that the government's termination of basic services to those who had refused to leave the CKGR was illegal. The government had cut water, food and health services in January, arguing that it was too expensive to reach out to the small San communities scattered around the game reserve.
It had created the New Xade and Kaudwane settlements outside the CKGR in 1997, when it came up with controversial plans to set aside the game reserve for wildlife and tourism development. Cut off from their traditional lifestyle, those San who have been relocated have joined Botswana's underclass of rural poor, dependent on government handouts. Alcoholism, prostitution, begging, low self-esteem, TB and AIDS have set in.
In 1961, the British colonial government set up the CKGR to protect the habitat, the wildlife and the lifestyle of its residents. They comprised the G/wi and the G//ana San and a few hundred Bakgalagadi Bantu people, who, 400 years ago, moved into what is now the reserve and mixed with the San.
In 1966 the constitution of newly independent Botswana restricted the entry and residence of non-Bushmen in the CKGR. This, say lawyers for the San, means the San have a right to live and hunt on their ancestral land.
But in the late 1980s the government decided to resettle roughly 2,500 CKGR residents outside the reserve. "At no stage during the relocation exercise did government or its public officers involved in the relocation use force, coerce people residing in the game reserve, or threaten anyone of them in any way. The emphasis has always been persuasion and voluntary relocation," a government statement stressed.
However, the plan sparked local and international protest. The pressure group, First People of the Kalahari (FPK), formed in the early 1990s, rallied residents to resist. A Negotiating Team comprising representatives of the residents, FPK, the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), human rights group Ditshwanelo and the Botswana Council of Churches, was set up in 1996. After negotiations failed, the team went forward with legal action, and the case commenced in July 2004 at New Xade.
"The government has trampled on our rights, and terminating basic and essential services is tantamount to forced eviction," said Mathambo Ngakaeja, coordinator of the Botswana chapter of WIMSA.
"We seek the courts to declare that those who had been effectively forced to move, due to the termination of services, should be returned to the CKGR," Ngakaeja added. "We are determined to remain on our ancestral land."
The government has argued that the court case was instigated by the London-based minority rights organisation, Survival International (SI), and the FPK movement.
Last year the then assistant minister of labour and home affairs, Moeng Pheto, who had co-ordinated the relocation programme, was quoted in the pro-government Daily News as saying that the two organisations had intimidated the San into resisting relocation.
SI has been highly critical of the Bushmen's removal, and has alleged that it was directly linked to diamond exploration in the CKGR, a claim the government has denied.
"Stephen Cory [SI's executive director] is not the problem for the Basarwa [the derogatory term for Bushmen in Setswana]," Roy Sesana, the Bushmen's self-appointed spokesperson told IRIN.
"The problem for the Basarwa is that they have been pushed out of the fat areas of Botswana, and now they are being pushed out of the places where they had found refuge, and being told to leave and go to places where they will certainly perish, together with their culture."
The court case is to determine whether it was unlawful for the government to end essential services to the residents in January 2002; whether the government has an obligation to restore these services; whether the residents were in possession of their land and were deprived of it forcibly; and whether the government's refusal to issue game licenses to the residents and allow them to enter the CKGR is unconstitutional.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]