Hunted by their own government – the fight to save Kalahari Bushmen

Survival International, which campaigns on behalf of tribal peoples, has called for tourists to boycott holidays in Botswana, which is forcing Kalahari Bushmen off their reserves

The Kalahari Plains Camp in the central Botswana desert is a great place to have a bush holiday. Many of the staff are of Bushman origin, and Wilderness Safaris which runs it offers guided walks “where guests gain life-changing insights into the unique culture of this fascinating people”.

The local Bushmen have been getting some fairly life-changing insights themselves. The Botswana government gave Wilderness Safaris permission to dig boreholes for water, which supply a pleasant swimming-pool. But the government prevents the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve from digging for water. It wants to drive them out, and it is using thirst as a weapon.

The Bushmen’s main borehole was concreted up by the Botswana army some years ago. I’ve seen it for myself. The pipe that should be gushing water is blocked and full of sand, and scorpions scuttle round the cracked, dry basin. It’s hard to think of a greater obscenity in a desert.

Most of the Bushmen have now been moved out of the Reserve – often forcibly, though the government denies this. They were transported to camps outside the game reserve: places like New Xade, awash with disease, prostitution and the cheapest and deadliest booze. Their character as a people is being relentlessly destroyed there. Those who are left are threatened, abused, and forced to get their drinking water from plants and trees.

Yet the Bushmen don’t lack friends. Organisations like the London-based Survival International have campaigned tirelessly for them. A British lawyer, Gordon Bennett, has devoted much time and effort to fighting their cases in the Botswana courts.

And because Botswana is a functioning democracy with an independent judiciary, he won a stunning victory in January 2011. The Court of Appeal ruled that the Bushmen could once more use the blocked-up borehole, and sink new ones. The judges described the Bushmen’s experience as “a harrowing story of human suffering and despair”.

But the government stopped it happening. And after another big legal success this summer, Mr Bennett has been barred from returning to Botswana. Without his help, the Bushmen will find it very hard to fight their cases in court again.

The Bushmen can skilfully transform buck skins into clothes, bags, and other useful items The Bushmen can skilfully transform buck skins into clothes, bags, and other useful items. (Photo provided by Survival International)

Why should an otherwise enlightened government treat its Bushmen like this? They should be one of the country’s chief attractions. Indeed, the official Botswana tourism agency carries a photograph of a traditional Bushman hunting party on its website – even though the government has stationed its paramilitary unit, the Special Support Group, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve specifically to prevent the Bushmen from hunting.

The basic problem is that their traditional lands lie in the middle of the world’s richest diamond field. De Beers, anxious about its reputation, has sold out to a British outfit called Gem Diamonds. Gem Diamonds have cooperated with a South African aid agency, Vox United, to dig a water hole for the Bushmen; but the government has made it difficult to dig more, and has done nothing to provide the Bushmen with water.

Under the previous president, Festus Mogae, Botswana’s approach to the Bushmen sometimes seemed to be based on sheer prejudice; Mogae once publicly called them “primitive Stone Age creatures”. In 2008 he was replaced by a very different character, Ian Khama: younger, smoother, more aware of outside influence.

President Khama is an internationally recognised conservationist. He seems to feel that the Bushmen, who live by killing game, must be prevented from doing so. But he didn’t stop King Juan Carlos of Spain shooting elephants in Botswana last year. Perhaps he feels that a king with a gun does less harm than Bushmen hunting for food with bows and arrows.

The Bushmen are some of the world’s most ecologically attuned people. Once, on a hunting trip with a small group of Bushmen in neighbouring Namibia, I saw how careful they were about the way they killed their prey, using a minimum of arrows daubed with natural poison.

The buck I watched them kill died fast, and every bit of its carcass was used by the group.  They are quick-witted people, funny, and unfailingly generous to outsiders. (“Bushmen”, incidentally, is the name most Bushmen prefer. “San”, which sounds suitably ethnic, is actually the name their Nama neighbours use for them; it means “outsiders”.)

A Bushman woman who lives in Gope, Botswana, where there are plans to build a diamond mine A Bushman woman who lives in Gope, where there are plans to build a diamond mine. (Photo provided by Survival International)

Altogether in Southern Africa there are around 100,000 Bushmen. How many there are in Botswana itself is hard to say; they have been specifically excluded from census counts.

If they can no longer argue their case effectively in court, the Bushmen’s future seems increasingly dark. Survival International’s big card for now is to call for a tourism boycott. Previous boycotts have had some effect, mostly on public opinion in Botswana itself.

Much of the press there, which used to be hostile to anyone who drew attention to the Bushmen’s plight, has swung round. Increasingly, people ask why their government, moderate and successful in other ways, should court international disapproval over the issue.

And perhaps, as they sip their poolside gins and tonic, some tourists will ask why the Bushmen, who are such a part of Botswana’s enduring attraction, should not be allowed even water to drink.

For further information, please visit www.survivalinternational.org.

John Simpson is the BBC’s World Affairs Editor.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect