Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Bushman activists re-enlist Survival International’s support

A man who was one of the major combatants when the Botswana government fought a long, vicious and costly battle with Survival International let slip that his people may seek the latter’s help.

“We may have to bring in Survival International if the government doesn’t want to listen to us,” says Jumanda Gakelebone, a Bushman activist who now represents New Xade in the Gantsi District Council.

Survival International (SI) is a London-based pressure group that fights for the rights of indigenous people across the globe. Its leader is Stephen Corry who visited Botswana in 2003 to both attend a Basarwa conference in Gaborone as well as visit the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR).

The saga began in the 1990s when De Beers discovered alluvial diamonds at Gope in the game reserve and convinced the government of President Sir Ketumile Masire to declare the largest game reserve in the world a red zone in line with its policy. This basically meant kicking out people who called the CKGR home. It was then that FPK was founded and under the leadership of its first coordinator, John Hardbattle, established a working relationship with SI. One of FPK’s earliest and most prominent international supporters was Prince Charles of England who gifted the organisation with a Land Rover van. In later years and as FPK grew, it would cultivate support among Hollywood A-listers like Julianne Moore.

With De Beers exerting pressure on the government behind the scenes, residents were forcibly removed from the CKGR in 1997 and resettled in New Xade and Kaudwane. Following this development, a total of 190 residents launched a legal bid to have their full residency rights restored via a case known as Roy Sesana & 189 Others vs the Attorney General. Fatefully, a man called Pitseng Gaoberekwe was not among the applicants.

Alongside the court case, SI waged a campaign against the life blood of Botswana’s economy – diamonds. The campaign started around the time that the idea of “blood diamonds” was being franchised into public consciousness and mostly mentioned within the context of the diamond-fuelled wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The context was entirely different but SI did nothing to clarify that Botswana’s conflict diamonds were any different from those mined in Sierra Leone. Thus the CKGR case became a PR nightmare for the Botswana government which, at one point, was forced to hire a western PR firm to counter SI’s campaign. At this point, Hardbattle had died and had been replaced by Roy Sesana. Gakelebone was Sesana’s right hand man, often acting as his interpreter when he travelled the world and would succeed Sesana years later.

The court case ended in a draw with a three-judge panel, which included then Justice Unity Dow, ruling that while the applicants (and only the applicants) could return to the CKGR, the government was under no obligation to provide them with services.

FPK died an unnatural death because it became inactive while some of its business was still outstanding. On the other hand, Gakelebone is still active and has used his platform in the Gantsi District Council to advocate for the rights of his people. He is now advocating for the posthumous right of Gaoberekwe, who died four months ago, to be buried in the CKGR. The state’s argument, which Justice Itumeleng Segopolo agreed with, is that Gaoberekwe shouldn’t be buried in the Reserve because he was not among the 190 applicants who were granted the right of return.

Gakelebone says that it is shameful that a time that the government has set in motion a process to review the constitution and make it more responsive to citizen needs, one group of citizens is being denied its cultural rights.

“Our religious rights are being violated because we believe in ancestor worship and bury our dead close together in order to enhance their spiritual power,” says Gakelebone adding that before his death, Gaoberekwe had left instructions that he be buried in the CKGR. “That is what we do in our culture and he is supposed to be buried where he wanted.”

While fully mindful of the 2006 judgement, Gakelebone says that he knows at least two men (Ramariri Tshotego and another he only remembers as Kgarikgari) who, in accordance with their wishes, were buried in the CKGR when they were not party to the Roy Sesana & 189 Others matter. He also takes issue with the High Court’s legalistic settlement, asserting, “How can we be buried in separate places when we are one people?”

Now and again, there are clashes between game wardens and CKGR-resident Bushmen, whom the former have accused of poaching game. In a brief moment of levity, Gakelebone says that the government should have no fear that Gaoberekwe might poach game because he is dead and can no longer hunt. He threatens that the posthumous persecution of the Metsiamanong man will leave him and other Bushman activists with no choice but to ask for SI’s help. The group’s campaign against Botswana happened before social media and would be much more devastating in a period of time that a damaging post can reach billions within an hour.

There may be some complications though. The previous administration (that of President Ian Khama) banned the lawyer that SI hired for FPK. The ban happened as the lawyer was fighting another battle to help more Basarwa gain rights they had lost when they were forcibly removed from the CKGR. Even with a new administration, the ban remains in place. While court battle was fought via FPK, the organisation no longer exists and Sesana is now a civil servant.

Gaoberekwe died in November last year and oddly for a culture that buries corpses with no delay, his corpse is still at the Gantsi mortuary as his family battles with the government. In a past when CKGR residents were less sedentary and independent, an old person who was evidently in his/her last days was given an adequate supply of food and essentially left to die in their hut (or “coffin” as it were) as the rest of the band moved on.

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