The government has started a consultation process to determine who the rightful owner of Moremi Game Reserve is. There is a broad category of potential outcomes and one is particularly tantalising.
Moremi, which is the first game reserve in Africa to be created by local residents and which in 2008 was voted the “Best Game Reserve in Africa”, may be returned to the Ngamiland community that established it in 1963. In the event that happens, the government would have lost a multi-billion pula tourist asset that throbs with breathtaking vistas and a rich variety of wildlife. On the other hand, that community would become among the richest in Africa.
Revelations about the consultation were made by Maun West MP, Tawana Moremi, who is among those leading effort to reclaim the game reserve from the government. He is continuing in the tradition of his grandmother, Mohumagadi Pulane Moremi and father, Kgosi Letsholathebe, who both played a key role in the establishment of the game reserve on tribal land in 1963.
Moremi, which is part of the Okavango Delta, was formed by a multi-racial, multi-tribal cast of actors who constituted themselves into what history remembers as the Ngamiland Fauna Conservation Society (NFCS). At the time of its establishment, hunting expeditions made of whites from South Africa and present-day Zimbabwe had invaded Ngamiland and were killing off large herds of game with the express permission of the colonial government. In her book, “Chiefs, Hunters and San in the Creation of the Moremi Game Reserve: Multiracial Interactions and Initiatives 1956-1979”, Dr. Maitseo Bolaane of the University of Botswana, examines the historical record of this scenario in more detail.
The book was developed from the dissertation that she submitted to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom for her PhD. In the early days, Moremi was a hugely successful venture that gained international attention and popularised the entire Okavango Delta. At the height of a highly sophisticated marketing campaign in the mid-1960s that reached all the major capitals of the world, Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover vehicles vied for the international market by plowing the terrain of the delta.
According to Bolaane’s book, things fell apart when infighting ensued at NFCS. To make matters worse, one founding member, a born-again conservationist called Robert Kay, relapsing by shooting a wildebeest and using its carcass to bait and photograph lions. The World Wildlife Foundation also came into the picture with a management plan that not only failed to comport with the Society’s own but also had specks of naked racism. WWF proposed the creation of a game warden position (to be filled by an African earning ┬ú60 per month) as well as that of a white assistant (Kay) who would earn ┬ú20 a month more than his African senior.
Owing to this and other complications, the WWF project never got out of dry dock. After independence in 1966, NFCS became increasingly independent on the new government for funding. Two years later, the Tribal Land Act which transferred land administration from the tribal administration to land boards, came into being. Soon thereafter, Parliament debated the management of the game reserve and according to Bolaane’s book, “some of the members felt that Moremi was becoming mismanaged and control over financial affairs was disputed.”
The problems worsened with time and in August 1979, Kgosi Letsholathebe called a kgotla meeting to decide the fate of the game reserve. The resolution was that the management of Moremi would be transferred to the government. Two months later, President Sir Seretse Khama issued a directive to the effect that the Moremi Game Reserve Regulations be published in the Government Gazette to enable the government to administer the reserve. Thereafter, events followed a predictable trajectory as the government mixed mercies and apparent malignity. As it financed the game reserve, the government also incorporated into its administration, its own policy and bureaucratic processes.
In the process, the NFCS committee was, by degrees, systematically stellenbosched into administrative irrelevance and ultimately taken completely out of the picture. The takeover might seem an open-and-shut case but Tawana, who is a lawyer, argues that the 1979 meeting merely agreed to the government managing the game reserve and not to transfer of ownership. Given how important Moremi is to state coffers, this campaign faces significant headwinds.