Officially, four Survival International activists are on the controversial visa list but as far as the London-based pressure group is concerned, the Botswana government has “banned” it from the country.
For 20 years now, SI has been fighting with the government over its forcible removal of Gwi and Gana communities from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 2002. That set off a long-running battle that is still raging. Throughout this saga, SI combined its efforts with those of the First People of the Kalahari, a San rights group based in Gantsi which now exists in all but name. The latter would not have been able to do much with SI and in ways both figurative and literal, the government has done all it can to cut ties between the two groups. In 2005, it confiscated radio equipment that FPK leaders used to communicate with its international supporters, among them SI. However, the two parties still managed to maintain contact with some SI activists periodically coming to Botswana to meet FPK leaders. Much to the discomfort of his mother-in-law, SI’s leader, Stephen Corry, attended a Basarwa Conference in 2004. Such discomfort would have emanated from knowledge of how some Third World leaders have been known to deal with opponents.
In April 2007, the government put four SI members (Corry, Miriam Ross, Fiona Watson and Jonathan Mazower) on its visa list. Another name to get on this list at that time was that of John Simpson, the world affairs editor of BBC News. The latest addition is Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom fighters, a South African opposition party with a large youth following. Malema, who once called for “regime change” in Botswana when he was president of the African National Congress Youth League, got on the list when he was just days away from visiting to speak at a political rally to launch Arafat Khan as council candidate for the 2014 general election.
With Corry & Co. on the visa list, the only SI-affiliated Briton able to come to Botswana was Gordon Bennett, a London lawyer who has represented FPK for over a decade. In 2013 and in the middle of a case at the High Court, the government put Bennett on the list. The situation notwithstanding, SI says that it still has a working relationship with FPK.
“We have worked with FPK for over 20 years, and have discussed our work with all the Bushmen who were illegally evicted from their ancestral homelands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 2002. Despite being banned from the country by the government, we are in regular contact with many Bushmen, several of whom are part of First People of the Kalahari,” says Michael Hurran, SI’s spokesperson.
To put the officialese in perspective, being on this list doesn’t constitute a ban – for that one has to be declared a prohibited immigrant (PI) by the president. However, when creatively used by rejecting applications, the visa requirement can have the same practical effect of a PI ban. This is the context in which SI interprets the placement of its members on the list.
The government ÔÇô as indeed some citizens, have never welcomed SI’s involvement in the CKGR matter, seeing it as meddling in the affairs of an African state by agents of a former colonial power. In 2006 when the High Court handed down judgement in a case in which FPK and SI were challenging the relocation of the San from the CKGR, Justice Unity Dow (as she then was) dealt with this precise issue.
“As regards the role of Survival International, like FPK, Ditshwanelo … it seems to me that these organisations have given courage and support to a people who historically were too weak, economically and politically to question decisions affecting them. For present purposes, the fact that Survival International is based in the west is neither here nor there. The question is whether or not the applicants had a right to associate with this group in their attempts to resist relocating and the answer has to be in the affirmative. It was always up to the applicants to decide whose arguments, those of the respondent or those of anyone else, including those the respondent considered irksome, made sense to them. Finally, it had to be their decision and that is the only question that matters,” Dow said in her judgement.
A decade later, Dow is in politics and is now the Minister of Education and Skills Development. There is a context in which she can argue the exact opposite of what she said in that judgement when dealing with the CKGR issue that is worth contemplating. If Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi is successful in her bid to become the next Chairperson of the African Union Commission, the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation will fall vacant. If by some quirk of fate, Dow replaces her in a cabinet reshuffle, she will be forced to endorse the official view that SI is meddling.