Thursday, April 15, 2021

In God’s name, let them go

When a verdict was reached in what has gone down in history as Botswana’s longest running and most expensive court case, two men felt vindicated. They were part of an organisation that chose to stand by one of Botswana’s most marginalized and despised ethnic group before it was in vogue to do so.The dust is just about settling on the ruling of the three-judge panel, and the wrangling seems not so intense as before.

Churchill Gape recalls feeling that justice had finally been done ÔÇô and the lonely struggle was worth every drop of sweat.

Gape was the Secretary General of the Botswana Christian Council ÔÇô which has since been renamed Botswana Council of Churches ÔÇô when the ecumenical body decided to take cudgels on behalf of Basarwa.

When the government first announced that it would relocate residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) to new settlements outside the park, it was with an undertaking that the movement would be voluntary. At the time, the relocation was mainly premised on two points: to protect the pristine environment of the game reserve, as well as to bring the residents into the mainstream society by grouping them into places where they could be provided with social amenities.

Soon, reports filtered through that Basarwa were being ill-treated by government agents. The voluntary aspect of the relocation gave way to acts of intimidation and what in most cases amounted to forced removal.

The main culprits were said to be officers of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks who, perhaps out of zeal, felt they were doing what their masters at cabinet desired. Allegations of torture got rampant.

Among the organisations that paused to take note of the disturbing reports coming out of CKGR was BCC.

Founded in 1966, one of BCC’s objectives was to unite churches to speak in one voice in articulating issues of poverty, justice, unemployment and, basically, playing a prophetic role in the society.
“Since the beginning of the issue, the BCC made its stand clear that it was against the relocation of Basarwa from the CKGR,” recalls Gape, who has since retired from BCC but continues to preach at the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.
“We saw the removal, by the government, of the Basarwa from their ancestral land as inappropriate. We felt that government’s action needed to be challenged and stopped.”

That was the beginning of a long relationship between BCC and Basarwa. BCC would play the mediatory role during negotiations between Basarwa representatives and government officials. Beyond that, BCC reached out to CKGR residents through its development unit.

“Roy Sesana would notify us about shortages of amenities that his people needed and our field staff would immediately attend to the request,” Gape tells FPN.

Through its work in settlements of people described in government-speak as Remote Area Dwellers, BCC increasingly saw the need to start a Human Rights Unit. But before that could happen, a decision was made to do an assessment of the human rights situation, with the intention that the report that would follow from that assessment would serve as a basis for further study and action.
Alice Mogwe, who had just completed a post-graduate programme in law, was given the task to carry out the mission.

Her study concentrated on the human rights situation of Basarwa in selected communities in the Gantsi District. When it came out in March 1992, Mogwe’s report ÔÇô “Who was (t)here first: An Assessment of the Human Rights Situation of Basarwa in Selected Communities In the Gantsi District” ÔÇô was explicit in describing the degrading abuses that Basarwa suffered. Writing in the report’s preface, Gape stated that though the assessment was limited in geographic scope, there were strong indications that the situation described in Mogwe’s findings applied throughout the country where Basarwa lived and interacted with other citizens.

A meeting of BCC’s Executive Committee ÔÇô on March 13, 1992 ÔÇô that endorsed the report made a plea to government to ensure that Basarwa enjoyed the same protection under the country’s constitution as other citizens, and “that special measures be taken to rectify the sins of the present and the past”.

“As churches, we cannot remain silent when we listen to the cries of God’s people. Publishing this report is done in the hope that all Batswana will listen to the cries of our fellow citizens and start changing attitudes, making oppressive actions revealed in this report, something of the past,” reads the concluding paragraph of Gape’s preface.
Gape has had to wait 14 years since he wrote those words to see the High Court ruling that might just begin to lay the foundation for restoration of Basarwa’s dignity.

“Basarwa’s win of the land rights will help draw a veil that will protect them,” he says in the comfort of his house in Extension Four, Gaborone.

After the ruling, he says, Basarwa are at liberty to return to CKGR, and that no-one should lecture them on why they should stay put in the settlements that they had been relocated to.

He recalls the derogatory labels that were described in the report, and shakes his head in anger that in a democracy anybody can refer to their fellow citizens as “Masarwa or Lesarwa”.

When Gape was BCC’s secretary general, Joseph Matsheng was the president, and together they were in the eye of the storm.

Matsheng describes how rampant the derogatorily reference to “Lesarwa” and “Masarwa” was when BCC decided to fight in Basarwa’s corner.

“Basarwa were demeaned, and we felt that, as citizens of this country, they had as much right as anybody else to be accorded respect and dignity befitting all human beings,” Matsheng tells FPN.
He says Mogwe’s findings convinced them even further that Basarwa had a special spiritual bond with their ancestral land that needed to be respected.

He says given the magnitude and far-reaching implications of the relocation, government needed to consult extensively with Basarwa.

“You cannot consult with the village elders and claim that you have consulted with everybody,” Matsheng says.

“It’s possible that in Setswana culture you may consult with the man or head of the family and leave the wife out, and claim to have consulted. But you must remember that we are talking about the law and therefore the government had to genuinely consult with everyone in the CKGR.”

He does not understand why some people make an issue that Roy Sesana ÔÇô leader of the Basarwa pressure group, First People of the Kalahari ÔÇô chose not to live in the game reserve, but in the township of Gantsi.

“I don’t see any double standards at all,” says Matsheng. “I have no problem with Roy Sesana staying in Gantsi as long as he remains true to his principles. It’s the same story as other people who decide to move to different parts of Botswana such as Gaborone for work or other personal reasons. He doesn’t have to be living in the CKGR to be part of his people. The only concern I have with Sesana is his involvement with Survival International.”

The same sentiment is shared by Gape, who quipped, “The man is entitled to stay wherever he pleases.”

After the High Court ruling, Matsheng feels that President Festus Mogae’s recent visit to New Xade to plead with Basarwa to remain in the settlement was a waste of time.

“Basarwa can make their own decisions on whether they want to remain in New Xade or return to CKGR, and they should be allowed to make those choices without pressure from anybody,” says Matsheng.
“Enticing them to stay in the settlements by saying those who remain would enjoy government largesse is really unwelcome.”

So, what does he make of the verdict?

“The case turned out as we expected,” he says. “I feel the outcome of the court case is a victory for justice, Botswana and Basarwa. It is proof that the law ultimately takes its course. Botswana’s judiciary once again proved its independence. We had waited for this time for far too long.”

Gape shares the sentiments expressed by his former boss.

“It was inevitable that Basarwa would return to their land,” he says.


Read this week's paper