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. (Photo provided by Survival
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
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, 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.
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