British Lords wanted Botswana’s independence tied to guarantees for Bushmen protection

23 Oct 2017

Distrustful of the villainous “Bantu”, a member of the British House of Lords didn’t think it was a good idea to give Botswana independence before extracting cast-iron guarantees from the country’s future leaders about the welfare of the downtrodden Bushmen.

“The Bushmen get the worst of both worlds,” said Sir Douglas Glover when the House of Lords debated the Botswana Independence Bill in July 1966. “When there is drought, they suffer greatly, living on the fringes of the desert. Those who are in contact with the Bantu and people of European stock are referred to as tame Bushmen, and the remainder who live further in the Kalahari are referred as wild Bushmen.”

He went on to express grave concern that “these people have no one to speak for them” and that the British government intended to hand them over to the future government of Botswana which would be made up of Bantus.

“What safeguards for the future of these people have been written into the constitution, and what shall we in this country do to safeguard their future interests?” Sir Douglas posed.

A colonel in the British Army during World War II, he was also the chairman of the British Anti-Slavery Society. As he told the House, the Society had “taken a great interest in the Bushmen for many years.” He viewed the debate as “probably the last opportunity we shall have, apart from the Committee stage”, to extract cast-iron guarantees from the government that the Bantu would not continue to ill-treat the Bushmen.

“Therefore, the House is right to demand from the Right Hon. Gentleman that he should state what is to become of the little Bushmen. Is the Bushman to fend for himself in the hostile world of the 20th century, or is he abandoned to extinction?” he asked of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Frederick Lee, who had tabled the Bill.

Other members of the House - notably Lord Ogmore, also pressed the government to provide legal guarantees for future protection of the Bushmen.

The republic of Botswana that would come into being in only two months would become the third poorest country in the world and had to rely on its former colonial master for official development aid. Sir Douglas wanted Lee to assure the House of Lords that there would be a condition that 10 percent of that aid must go to the Bushmen who at the time constituted 10 percent of the population.

“If we do not lay down some such condition, none of that aid will go to the Bushmen. The Bantu will see that they are exterminated, they will have no friend or defender, and no voice at all at the United Nations or elsewhere. Ten percent of our aid might be too much to earmark for these people, but we could insist that 5 percent should go to them. Before we hand over the affairs of these defenceless people, we have a duty and a responsibility to say that when we give aid to Botswana in future some portion shall be definitely earmarked to deal with the problems of people who, after all, some 400 years ago occupied the whole of Africa and are the people who have been dispossessed,” he said.

In response, Lee assuaged such concerns by stating that he understood that a trained anthropologist had been commissioned the previous year to consider the welfare of the Bushmen.

“That gentleman made a survey. A copy of his report was published last year and is now in the library of the house. Responsibility for the Bushmen's affairs has now been placed within the portfolio of the Deputy Prime Minister, and the extent to which the Bechuanaland government will be able to devote funds especially to assist the Bushmen themselves will depend upon other competing demands,” he said.

However, Sir Douglas was still skeptical and told the minister that his answer was “completely and utterly unsatisfactory” because it didn’t address his core concerns.

“He has said that there is a book in the library,” Sir Douglas said of Lee, addressing himself to the Speaker as the rules dictated. “Everybody knows that there is a book in the library, but that does not solve the problem. What are the British government doing to protect the rights of the Bushmen before they hand over independence? They will not get a square deal if the Bantu have anything to do with it.” 

The Deputy Prime Minister Lee was referring to was Ketumile Masire who would become Botswana’s founding vice president and later second president when Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980. It was under Masire that the Bushmen were forcibly removed from the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve which, as Lee stated, had been created as a sanctuary for a group of people who had not acculturated to a fast-changing world. The forced removal of the Bushmen was in 1997, a year before Masire stepped down, Decades before the fact, Lee didn’t think that something like that would happen.

“We do not see any reason to suppose that they will not be treated by the Botswana government with understanding and sympathy. These Bushmen are dependent to a large degree upon the food they obtain from their own hunting. I understand that the game reserve which was established a few years ago to safeguard their hunting interests will be continued under the new dispensation, and there is a fundamental rights provision in the existing constitution which will be carried on into the new constitution,” he assured the House.

Even before their expulsion, the Bushmen had lost their hunting rights and to date have yet to regain them. Having been resettled in New Xade and Kaudwane, they have been introduced to a sedentary lifestyle (as well as diet) that a study says has, for the first time in their history, given them alien diseases like sugar diabetes and high blood pressure. The New Xade councillor in the Gantsi District Council, Jumanda Gakelebone, says that his constituents have complained that rather than bring the riches that they were promised, the resettlement has brought them HIV/AIDS – a result of social (and sexual) interaction with construction workers who built government buildings in their new home. Unable to hunt, adult Bushmen have, for the first time in centuries, also not been able to pass on hunting and other cultural skills to their children. Meanwhile, a slew of multinational companies are tearing up the CKGR prospecting for minerals. Fracking has also been alleged but denied by the government.

Sir Douglas, who was very good friends with the former and now deceased British Prime Minister, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, died in 1982. The anthropologist Lee was referring to, George Silberbauer, died in 2013 in Australia.