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RIGHTS-BOTSWANA: ”We Will Die Like the Grass” – San

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, May 23 2007 (IPS) - ‘‘Eviction is like removing grass from its roots. We will die like the grass,” said Jumanda Gakelebone, spokesperson of the First People of the Kalahari, the group that represents the rights of the San community in Botswana.

He was responding to the Botswana government’s campaign to remove 5,000 San people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to clear the way for diamond mining. In the latest incident in the campaign, the government has denied the United Nations’ special rapporteur on indigenous peoples access to the country.

Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the special rapporteur, is investigating the eviction of the San community, also known as the Basarwa, from their ancestral lands.

Survival International, a London-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) which highlights minority issues globally, said last week that the Botswana government ‘‘has invoked a special clause of the country’s constitution to slam visa restrictions” on Stavenhagen.

‘‘I think it is dictatorial. They say they do not want outsiders to get involved in the problems of the San,” Gakelebone told IPS by phone from the Botswana capital Gaborone.

The San, historically hunters and gatherers, are regarded as the aboriginal people of southern Africa. Anthropologists say they are the oldest inhabitants of the region, having a traceable record of over 20,000 years in southern Africa.

About 100,000 San live in the region: 50,000 in Botswana, 4,500 in South Africa, 38,000 in Namibia, 1,600 in Zambia and 1,200 in Zimbabwe, according to the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), based in the Namibian capital of Windhoek.

In Botswana, the campaign to remove the San from their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve began in 1985 after diamonds were discovered there, Gakelebone said. The reserve was created to protect the 5,000 Gana, Gwi and Tsila San people and the game they depend on.

The campaign gathered pace in the 1990s when in three waves, in 1997, 2002 and 2005, virtually all the San were forcibly removed from their lands. ‘‘People were moved in trucks and dumped in distant places between 400 and 1,000 kilometres away,” Gakelebone told IPS.

In December 2006, a Botswana court ruled that the eviction was ‘‘unlawful and unconstitutional” and gave the San community the right to return to their land.

The evictions attracted a lot of international attention which did not please the government. ‘‘Foreign journalists who have written stories about the evictions have not been allowed back in the country. The government knows that when the journalists and human rights groups come to Botswana, people will tell them the truth,” Gakelebone said.

Apart from Stavenhagen, 17 other foreigners denied entry into Botswana in March this year included four Survival International staff, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson, other journalists and human rights activists. Most of them had taken an interest in the eviction of the Kalahari San, according to a Survival International statement.

‘‘International convention allows Botswana the right to deny access to an individual. But it is rare to deny the United Nations as an institution access,” according to David Monyae, lecturer at the department of international relations at South Africa’s Witwatersrand University.

‘‘Botswana’s action raises a lot of questions. One is whether the Botswana government is complying with UN regimes that it is a signatory to. It shows a picture of a government that is trying to hide something,” he said.

Survival International agrees. In its statement, the group’s director, Stephen Corry, said: ‘‘The Botswana government clearly thinks it has something to hide from the UN special rapporteur. And indeed it does. Despite the Botswana High Court’s decisive ruling in the Bushmen’s favour, the government is still trying to stop them returning to their land.”

Despite the court ruling, Gakelobone said the government is preventing them from returning to their ancestral lands.

‘‘We believe that we have been cursed by our ancestors for leaving our lands to which we have had an attachment for centuries. Our ancestors are buried there. We talk to them and the land provides us with medicines. Because of the curse, we have now picked up alien habits and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Drugs and alcohol abuse are killing our people,” he said.

Monyae argued that ‘‘the San people won their case internally in Botswana. But along the way you may have some interest groups that make the Botswana government angry, prompting it to declare these groups undesired aliens within their territory”.

But some believe that Botswana has gone a little too far this time. ‘‘Botswana is touted as the Switzerland of Africa for its stability and democracy. Therefore, it makes no sense for it to deny access to a UN human rights official. This is a basic request. Democracy must be bigger than that,” Hassen Lorgat, campaign and communications manager of the Johannesburg-based South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), told IPS in an interview.

To resolve the problem, Monyae urged the government of Botswana to engage the United Nations using structures within the world body. Efforts to get a response from the Botswana government proved fruitless.

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