Sunday, May 26, 2024

Councillor confirms CKGR residents not allowed to plant crops

A letter from London has illuminated an obscure and loosely enforced legal requirement used to regulate the residence of San communities in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve.

“We have also received reports that Bushmen have been stopped from planting melons and other foods in the CKGR and again hope that is not official government policy,” reads a letter from Stephen Corry, the Director of Survival International, an indigenous-rights pressure group that is based in London and routinely tussles before with the Botswana government.

Headlined “Arrest and Harassment of Bushmen in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve”, the letter is addressed to President Mokgweetsi Masisi and is copied to the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Philda Kereng; the Director of Wildlife and National Parks, Major General Otisitswe Tiroyamodimo; and Botswana’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Reverend Dr. John Seakgosing.

A long-time CKGR resident, who now represents a community that was forcibly removed from the CKGR (officially the euphemism “relocated” is used) in the Gantsi District Council has confirmed to Sunday Standard that in a COVID-19-related development, they have indeed been ordered to stop planting crops. When Masisi ordered a national stay-at-home in April, the government undertook to feed the needy in order to curtail movement. Jumanda Gakelebotse, who is the councillor for New Xade, says that he and some of his colleagues in the Council suggested that as an economic empowerment measure, the government should buy melons from CKGR farmers for its feeding programme.

“The response was that the government would be setting a bad precedence if it bought produce from the CKGR because no crops are supposed to be grown in a game reserve,” says Gakelebotse who before joining politics, was the last coordinator of First Peoples of the Kalahari, a San-rights pressure group that worked closely with Survival International in a major international campaign to restore the residency rights of CKGR communities. “Government officials said that if crops had been planted in the CKGR, that would have been illegal.”

What is baffling is why a supposedly illegal activity has been allowed to go on for decades and why it had to become an issue now. When Roy Sesana, a San-rights activist of international renown, was suspended for absence from work for a protracted period of time, he would later contest such suspension because he felt he had done nothing wrong. He told Sunday Standard that all he did was visit his ancestral home in Molapo, a small village inside the CKGR, to “plant a few hectares.” The Setswana he used was “Ke ne ke ile go baya ditemanyana ko Molapo.” That was a decade ago and there is no way that the government, notably game scouts and police, would not have known that CKGR residents who won a court case through which they sought to return to the game reserve, were engaged in farming.

It remains to be seen how the government will handle the crop-planting issue but historically, it has never applied a common-sense approach to CKGR-related issues, lurching from one blunder to the next.

The saga began when 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 Survival International. 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, whereupon some of them launched a legal bid to have their full residency rights restored.

At a cultural level, the government grossly mishandled the whole exercise. One of the arguments that the residents made was that they couldn’t be separated from the CKGR because their ancestors were buried in it. Performing the trance dance at or near graves is central to San religion. In a moment of extreme cultural insensitivity, a senior government official said that the claim about graves was false because he was part of a team that had visited the game reserve “and we didn’t see any graves.” In order to appear genuine to him, a grave had to be constructed the same that a western-type grave is constructed. A San man was torn away from his wife and when he protested, his claim that he was married to the woman was promptly dismissed by the Gantsi District Commissioner who said that the woman didn’t have a wedding ring on her finger. This ring is western and even culturally Tswana tribes started using it in the mid-1900s when they adopted western ways.

In a High Court judgement that didn’t completely favour the residents, only the litigants were allowed back but the court also pronounced that the government was under no obligation to provide the returnees with services. Everybody else remained put at the resettlement villages of New Xade and Kaudwane. The government’s denial of water services to the returnees would prompt a South African company to take pity on them and sink a borehole in the CKGR at its own cost. In 2015, after more than a decade of battling with Survival International and the First People of the Kalahari, the government finally caved in and restored its essential services in the CKGR.

Decades later, the people who were kicked out of the game reserve are being replaced by multi-national companies who are tearing up the CKGR in search of mineral wealth and setting up luxury safari camps that the average San is never going to be able to afford stay in for at least the next century. A credible report released by Survival International a few years ago shows that the displaced now have to battle with chronic diseases like sugar diabetes and high blood pressure. The report attributes these diseases to a sedentary lifestyle and eating processed food distributed to San communities by the Gantsi District Council under a feeding programme for the destitute. Two years ago, Gakelebone told Sunday Standard that he had recently hosted a group of concerned constituents who asked to go back to the CKGR.

“They were saying that when they were relocated from the CKGR to New Xade, the government promise to eradicate their poverty and make them rich. However, they are complaining that instead of those riches they are now getting infected with AIDS. They want to escape the certain death that will come with this AIDS by going back to the CKGR,” said Gakelebone.

He added that before the communities were removed from the CKGR, “AIDS was a just a name of something we didn’t know.” At the time of the resettlement, there was a lot of construction work going on – New Xade has a health clinic that is bigger and plusher than any in Gaborone. Gakelebone points the finger of blame at construction workers for having introduced the disease to members of his community.

“The prevalence rate is now unbelievably high,” he said. “What adds to the problem is alcohol abuse which we were not used to in the CKGR. Yes, there was alcohol in the CKGR prior to the relocation but the one you would find would have been brought in by visitors. For that reason, there was no alcohol abuse. That is not the case in New Xade where there are two bars and countless shebeens. With Gantsi being within reach, some people travel there to buy malt in shops and brew khadi (traditional wine) for their own consumption. There are times when up to 60 people in the village are brewing their own khadi at the same time.”

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