New land-rights pressure group contests Batawana’s claim to Moremi Game Reserve

13 Jan 2019

A brand new land-rights pressure group has laid claim to Moremi Game Reserve, a multi-billion tourist asset which was the first game reserve in Africa to be set up by Africans.

Called SAYEMBU, the group touts itself as “an activist group to fight for the redemption of the ancestral land of the first people of the Okavango region in Botswana namely the Basarwa, Bayeyi and Bahambukushu tribes.” Its name was cobbled together from those of the three tribes it represents.

Through their kgosi (supreme traditional leader) and Member of Parliament, Tawana Moremi, Batawana are waging a campaign to wrest back control of Moremi Game Reserve from the  government. Tawana’s grandmother, Regent Mohumagadi Pulane Moremi and own father, Kgosi Letsholathebe, were key figures in the establishment of the reserve. (Although he subsequently made a foray into politics, Tawana is still more commonly known by the regnal name he took upon his installation as Batawana kgosi.) SAYEMBU is troubled by language that Tawana has used in his advocacy of regaining control Moremi Game Reserve. While he has stated that everyone in Ngamiland will benefit from the game reserve, Tawana has also made clear the fact that it belongs to Batawana. That has made SAYEMBU very jittery and last year, it appealed to a London-based pressure group called Survival International “to help Basarwa, Bayeyi and Bahambukushu tribes get a good representation in the current on-going debate between Botswana Government and Batawana tribe for ownership of Moremi Game Reserve.” In its letter, SAYEMBU says that it wants cast-iron guarantee that the three tribes that it represents will get “a fair share of their ancestral land in Moremi Game Reserve or a fair share of benefits/profits that are being generated from their ancestral land.” The group contests that Batawana constitute only 5 percent of the region’s population.

Tawana’s promise sounds hollow to the group because of a “painful history whereby at some point Batawana dominated us to a point of slavery as well as looking at the fact that the same arrangement of a Batawana chief holding Moremi Game Reserve for the Batawana tribe was made in the past but it never benefited Basarwa, Bayeyi and Bahambukushu.” What SAYEMBU wants is explicit representation of these tribes in the ongoing negotiations over the game reserve. 

The most authoritative source of information anywhere in the world on the game reserve is “Chiefs, Hunters and San in the Creation of Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta; Multiracial Interactions and Initiatives, 1956-1979”a book written by Professor Maitseo Bolaane, who teaches history at the University of Botswana. As the book’s title hints, the game reserve was a collective effort involving all racial and tribal groups who lived in Ngamiland at the time. Formed in 1962, the game reserve was managed by the Ngamiland Fauna Conservation Society (NFCS). Post-independence, Moremi Game Reserve experienced problems so severe that a kgotla meeting in 1979 that was chaired by Kgosi Letsholathebe resolved to hand over its management to the central government. Tawana’s contention is that this was done in the absolute belief that the reserve was not changing hands. 

“The question of ownership is clear. If you hand over administration and management, you don’t change ownership,” he told Sunday Standard in the past, meaning by that that while the Ngamiland community may have handed over management of the game reserve to the government, it still retained proprietorial rights.

Legally, Moremi falls in the category of what are known as “private game reserves” and the use of this term harks back to the colonial era. Tawana made the point that all government levels of bureaucracy leading to the approval of the game reserve dealt with it as a private game reserve. Indeed, archival records confirm that. Minutes of a three-day Ad Hoc Committee meetings that was held in Francistown in March 1963 “to discuss tourism, game etc”, state the following: “It was agreed that there was no objection to a survey of the area, which the Fauna Conservation Society of Ngamiland wished to make into a private game reserve, and it was noted that such a survey would be carried out with the Society’s private funds.” Tawana stated that the Wildlife and National Parks Act is clear on the exemption of "private game reserves" from regulations of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. By his reckoning, Moremi Game Reserve is just like a private estate.

Bolaane’s book says that even after the government takeover, “Moremi remained the property of morafe [tribe].” In a political dispensation in which there was an explicit tribal caste system that officially recognised Batawana as the only tribe in Ngamiland, this assertion confers proprietorship on Batawana. Times have changed and with such development has emerged SAYEMBU.

SAYEMBU says that with agriculture not being sustainable in Ngamiland, Moremi Game Reserve is the one consistently reliable source of livelihood for people in the area. Reasons given for the non-sustainability of agriculture are continual foot-and-mouth outbreaks and elephants raiding crop fields. SAYEMBU links the latter problem to the 2014 ban on hunting which led to an exponential rise in elephant population as well as human-animal conflict.

The Moremi Game Reserve is just the start of what could be a very long and contentious campaign to reverse historical injustices. In its letter to SI, SAYEMBU says that once everything has fallen in place organizationally, it will help other tribes get their “ancestral land” back. The ones they single out are Basubiya (for Chobe National Park), Kalanga (for land currently owned by Tati Company), Batswapong (for Tuli Block), Babirwa (for Tuli Block and Mashatu Game Reserve) and Basarwa (for Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve) as well as “other tribes provided they have interest in working with us.”

“All in all, Botswana Government has oppressed, deceived and stolen the ancestral land of many tribes of Botswana. Botswana Government has a fake reputation overseas as a good government that treat its people fairly,” SAYEMBU says.

The group hopes that after getting back the ancestral land, formerly dispossessed tribes will “rekindle their memories and bring back their culture and native language.”