Africa: Namibia's bushmen threatened with oppression by black government

The past couple of centuries have not been kind to the Kxoe-speaking San, or `bushmen', of north-eastern Namibia. Ed O'Loughlin found out why their problems have got worse since the country became independent.

The descendants of free-ranging hunter gatherers, Namibia's remaining 4,000 Kxoe now live in sprawling resettlement camps inside the West Caprivi game reserve, the shrivelled heart of their traditional hunting range.

No longer able to hunt or wander in the old manner, they have fallen prey to all the predictable 20th-century social scourges - unemployment, alcoholism, malnutrition, violent crime and disease, including a rapidly- worsening epidemic of HIV. Yet what preoccupies them most at present is not these modern afflictions, but a new threat from an old enemy.

The powerful chief of a neighbouring Bantu-speaking tribe, which once enslaved the Kxoe, is claiming that they are still his vassals and that the land they currently occupy is his. And the democratically elected government of the South West Africa people's Organisation (Swapo), which wrested independence from apartheid South Africa in 1989, seems to be supporting the chief's feudal claim.

At the centre of the dispute is a small tourist campsite built by the Kxoe on the Okavango River's Popa Falls to raise funds for development. Constructed at the beginning of this year with the help of Western donors and local development agencies, the campsite was condemned from the outset by Chief Erwin Mbambo, leader of the neighbouring Mbukushu tribe, on the grounds that his permission had not been sought.

The Kxoe ignored him, saying the Mbukushu chiefs had no jurisdiction east of the Okavango River. But then in May, the government abruptly announced that the camp would have to go: the prison ministry, it said, needed the stretch of scenic riverbank along the east of the falls to expand a neighbouring penal farm.

Since then the Kxoes' campsite has become a cause celebre for Namibian and environmental and social activists and a rallying point for the divided and demoralised Kxoe people.

They claim that key figures within the government are really acting at the behest of the Mbukushu chief, Erwin Mbambo, a former Swapo exile with close ties to senior government leaders. If not, they ask, why is the government ignoring the hundreds of Mbukushu peasants who have settled within the reserve over the past two years, illegally grazing cattle and burning off bush for planting?

Many Kxoe also believe that elements within Swapo are trying to punish them for taking the wrong side in the Namibian liberation struggle. Between 1975 and 1989, the South African army used attractive wages and racial propaganda to persuade thousands of "Bushman" soldiers to serve as trackers and reconnaissance troops along the Angolan border.

"They say to us, `We remember you when you were killing us'," said Kipi George, elected chief of the Caprivi Kxoe. "Every tribal group in Namibia has members who fought against Swapo, but we are the only ones who are being blamed."

For many San, apartheid was not a black and white matter. South Africa's own San were wiped out by two centuries of white genocide - Bushmen were hunted for trophies up until the beginning of this century - but elsewhere in southern Africa many aboriginal San found a more immediate threat in the well-organised Bantu farmers who began arriving there 2,000 years ago.