Friday, March 24, 2023

Government finally got CKGR issue right

On an otherwise normal weekday morning while an unsuspecting city noisily went about its usual business, three helicopters whop-whopped off a tarmac from somewhere in the city – most likely the Sir Seretse Khama Barracks. Mission: top secret. Passengers: three cabinet ministers and a file of senior government officials. Destination: Botswana’s very own Wild Wild West.
Prince Charles (not Stephen Corry) is Botswana’s problem
The mission has not been accomplished yet but whatever the outcome, 2015 would mark the year in which the Botswana government finally came to its senses about the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR) issue. Between 1997 and 2001, Bushmen communities in the game reserve were forcibly relocated to the settlements of New Xade and Kaudwane. The government’s explanation was that it was expensive to provide services to them, that it was necessary to integrate them into the modern way of life and that they couldn’t co-exist with wildlife. Resistance was swift and took the form of the First People of the Kalahari (FPK), a Bushmen rights group, sending an SOS to international sympathisers, among them a London-based pressure group called Survival International (SI). The latter claimed that the Bushmen were being relocated to make way for a De Beers diamond mine at a place called Gope. (While the government has banned official use of “Bushmen”, the Khwedom Council, an amalgam of San rights groups says that it prefers that name to the officially recommended “Basarwa.”)
In the popular imagination, the government is feuding SI but in reality, the latter is just the face of that campaign. The body is made up of highly influential European royals and politicians, A-list Hollywood celebrities and journalists stabled at international media houses. In the early 1990s, the future king of England, Prince Charles, donated a Land Rover to FPK following a meeting with its leaders, John Hardbattle and Roy Sesana. A peer in the British House of Lords, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, has, since 1997, been a vigorous campaigner for the rights of CKGR Bushmen, raising questions in the upper house of parliament every now and then. Alongside other celebrities, X-Files star, Gillian Anderson, has vowed not to visit Botswana or wear its diamonds to protest its treatment of CKGR residents. Roy Sesana and Jumanda Gakelebone (another FPK leader) have attended an event in Beverly Hills hosted by Rock and Rock Hall of Famer, Jackson Browne, to raise awareness about the CKGR issue. And, BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, has used his bully pulpit at an international channel that reaches millions around the world to support this cause. De Beers would deny the claim but SI is adamant that this campaign forced it to sell the Gope mine to Gem Diamonds. What chance does Botswana stand going it alone against this international pro-Bushmen coalition?
‘I dedicate this [donkey] testicle to the people of Africa’
In January last year and as part of the tourism boycott, SI’s operatives targeted Botswana Tourism Organisation stands at the Adventure Travel Show in London and the Fitur Travel Fair in Madrid, handing out hundreds of flyers to visitors and tourism industry professionals to draw attention to “Botswana’s persecution of Africa’s last hunting Bushmen.” Two international travel companies, Travelpickr and Horizonte Paralelo joined the boycott, with the latter releasing a statement that said it was “deeply troubled to … learn about the degrading treatment of the Bushmen at the hands of the government.” The boycott took the form of these companies cancelling pending tour requests for Botswana as well as suspending all tours and blocking tour requests to Botswana.
Basically the battle is for the hearts and minds of western consumers. The United States is the largest market for Botswana’s diamonds and for the most part, the buyers are ordinary people whose minds about Africa are pretty much made up. Case 1: When the Botswana Export Development and Investment Agency (precursor to the present-day Botswana Investment Trade Centre) was developing the national brand, part of the process entailed administering a questionnaire overseas. One question asked respondents in western countries to identify a phenomenon they most associated Botswana on a list provided. At least according to what MPs were told at a morning briefing at the Gaborone International Convention Centre, some of the respondents ticked “war.” Case 2: As he mentally prepared himself to chomp on a hideously engorged donkey testicle on whose surface a clew of worms was thrusting its way hither and thither, a Black American contestant on a past Survivor episode quipped: “I want to dedicate this testicle to the people of Africa.”
The point being made here is that westerners believe all the bad, depraved things they are told about Africa. The questionnaire respondents took Africa to be a monolithic whole of warring nations and the contestant’s TV-informed impression of the continent was of a place inhabited by a murder of savages eager to eat anything with a heartbeat within a heartbeat. (Interestingly, it is possible that at the precise moment that this homeboy was hustling for the $50 000 prize money, trash-talking Africans as a mental strategy to gathering the nerve to force a pre-historic dish down his throat, a C-list Motswana tenderepreneur was chilling on easy street, living out the American Dream. In the writer’s imagination – and as a feeble attempt to fathom how easy money is spent, the tenderpreneur would have been lounging in the presidential suite of a five-star Las Vegas hotel while, ind├®shabill├®, a Miss USA Top 10 contestant from the previous year would have been leisurely feeding him strips of specially prepared Brahman veal imported from Argentina.)
The larger point is that longer the CKGR conflict drags out, the more Botswana’s international image gets tarnished. As late as last year, the negative perception about Africa enabled SI to hustle an allegation about wildlife scouts having castrated a certain CKGR man called Xawaxlao Kgoteng in the early 1990s. As a socially ex-communicated underclass that has been permanently relegated to the base bottom of a long-standing ethnic caste system, Bushmen have suffered untold pre-historic cruelty from their overlords and security agents. However, even CKGR residents find this claim incredulous ÔÇô they don’t even know anyone by that name.  On the other hand, westerners (the prospective diamond buyers and tourists) will most likely find this allegation believable: with images of the Sierra Leone civil war still vivid in their minds, to them Africa is a place where people’s body parts are routinely chopped off as punishment.
Even CKGR diamonds don’t take 10 years to form
What complicates the government’s case is that Botswana is severely compromised on the CKGR issue. In 2004, a fact-finding mission made up of journalists, NGO leaders and civil servants visited the CKGR ahead of a conference on Basarwa that SI leader, Stephen Corry, would attend against the advice of his overly anxious mother-in-law. The first stop was Gope where government officials said that exploration at a site there had yielded commercially non-viable diamond deposits. They were adamant that the Basarwa were not being relocated to make way for mining.
Diamonds take millions of years to form but only 10 years later and by some miracle, Gope has enough diamond deposits to be commercially viable. Only last month, the mine yielded the second largest rock in history. Gem Diamonds buying a non-commercially viable asset doesn’t seem to be part of a rational calculus for a company that has always been rational in its conduct of commerce. More than anything else, this one factor raises serious doubts about the government’s sincerity and dents its credibility.
It has also been a sad fact that the government started its own campaign to counter SI’s late in the game, way after a whirlwind of negative media coverage had suffused international media. At this point SI had already defined the issue, forcing the government to start from a bad place and to forever play catch-up.
Kwakakwasa has replaced trance dance at New Xade
According to Kuela Kiema, the first CKGR resident to obtain a university degree, the resettlement has also been nothing short of disastrous. In his book, Tears for My Land, Kiema writes that the self-help projects meant to benefit the relocated are “irrelevant to our local culture and customs.” The only customers for the candle-making project at New Xade are teachers, nurses and a few members of the community because “as per our tradition, [the Kua] use fire as a source of light.” The poultry project “failed dismally because of lack of demand for chickens and eggs. Chicken is not one of our favourite foods.” While some people have started to show an interest in growing crops for subsistence purposes, “[m]ost Dcui and Dxana people prefer wild vegetables to spinach and carrots.”
One other thing that Kiema sheds tears for is that, once the mainstay of the Bushmen culture, the world-renowned trance dance has now been replaced by kwasakwasa. He laments that “the youth do not join the elders at the trance dance arena” and that the loud kwasakwasa from the New Xade bar also drowns out the voices of elders trying to sing trance songs. In response to this, Kiema says that some people have abandoned their landboard-allocated residential plots and moved a few kilometres out of the village to seek safer spaces where they can do the trance dance undisturbed bykwasakwasa. Every opportunity he gets, BBC’s Simpson harps on how the resettlement has destroyed the culture of the Bushmen. The government will always have a tough time arguing against this point.
Months after the rapprochement began, everything is still hush-hush but the government’s action appears to be a big step in the right direction. The top secret mission, which was led by ministers Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi (Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation), Slumber Tsogwane (Local Government and Rural Development) and Tshekedi Khama (Environment, Wildlife and Tourism), was meant to normalise relations with CKGR residents. The delegation made stops in the settlements of Molapo, Metsiamanong and Mothomelo before flying back to Gaborone in late afternoon. Two days prior, an advance team of government officials from Gantsi had visited all three the settlements to consult the on plans to restore basic services (water, health facilities, education and safety net programmes) that were discontinued in 2001. This party was made up of officials from the ministries of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Local Government and Rural Development as well as Health.
Additionally, the government plans to help the residents set up and operate cultural tourism projects in Molapo and Mothomelo. Sites for these projects are said to have been identified already and were visited by an advance party. Before the residents were resettled at New Xade and Kaudwane, the only school in the game reserve (a primary school) was in Xade. In a future when the situation would have been normalised, a new school will be built in Molapo which has now become the main population centre in the CKGR.
‘Sometimes you have to lose to win again’
Pragmatism is a good and important principle in the conduct of international affairs and commerce. Past the humiliation of caving in to outsiders, the government would be in a position to use its increasing shrinking resources more productively. At a time like this, when the ethical consumption movement is fast gaining traction in western societies, it would also be extremely difficult to tout the attractiveness of Botswana as a tourist destination when there is ample evidence of one section of society being treated as dastardly as it has historically been.
Going back to the subject of (socially acceptable) dedications, we would like to make our own in order that we end on a note befitting the spirit of the season and importantly, to tack on last vital message. In 2015, a pastAmerican Idol winner called Fantasia released a song she titled “Lose to Win.” The song’s chorus (‘Sometimes you have to lose to win again’) whose message Government Enclave would do well to pay heed to as it mulls the CKGR issue. Granted, American music is not exactly suited to polka dance but when the Molapo Primary School is officially opened and a certain polka-dance enthusiast who lives at the most exclusive residential address in the country has to cut the (eland-hide) rug with Miss CKGR, this is the song that the DJ should play.


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