Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Survival InternationaI’s local partner on deathbed

Survival International’s campaign against Botswana tourism could not have come at a worse time for its local partner, the First People of the Kalahari (FPK) which currently exists in all but name. This was certainly not the case during the campaign against Botswana’s diamonds when the latter was alive and kicking and its leaders were rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars.

This was the situation in 2008: the organisations leader, Roy Sesana, had not received a salary since July 2007, creditors were breathing down his neck and FPK itself had been dispossessed of its property including two vehicles, five satellite phones and antennae, two solar panels as well as office equipment including a laptop and two personal computers.

This is the situation in 2013: cut and paste 2008 situation and modify the tenses.

Speaking from New Xade, Sesana confirmed that the board of trustees has not met for six years now. However, as a highly skilled rhetorician who knows how and when to deploy logical fallacies, he finds the right words to counter the assertion that the organisation is all but dead.

“Yes, the money has run out but the brains behind the organisation are still working. FPK is us and for as long as Basarwa are still alive, then FPK is also still alive,” he says.

However, the law is less accommodative of organisations that sink to this level of dysfunction and FPK runs the risk of being deregistered.

This dysfunction has tarnished FPK’s own institutional brand as well as the personal brand of its leaders. When things fell apart, FPK’s leaders engaged in an ugly public spat which is still far from over. Sesana says that the organisation’s woes were brought about “by a certain Mosarwa who is now a headman in Mababe.” The person in question is Kgosimontle Kebualemang, who has now joined the Department of Tribal Administration in the Ministry of Local Government as headman of records at Mababe, a small village near Moremi Game Reserve.

In a letter she wrote Kebualemang in 2008, Gwanxlae Xwigam, the chairman of the last functional FPK board, alleged that the organisation “experienced the highest amount of debt (over P100 000) during your time in office since April 2007. FPK board has learned that you have been borrowing money from individuals and organisations in the name of FPK for your personal use. The board has learned that you are planning to sell FPK vehicle (B501 AEI) and the plot without the consent of the board.”

Subsequently, Kebualemang locked up the organisation’s office in Gantsi and relocated to Maun. This happened at a time that he had been planning to call Sesana for a disciplinary hearing over charges of unathorised absenteeism from work. At this time, Sesana’s long-time translator, Jumanda Gakelebone, had been promoted to the position of Assistant Coordinator. Sesana did not deny the absenteeism charge. He nonchalantly admitted having taken time off to go into the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve to take advantage of good rains by “ploughing two acres” of his farm land. However, he queried how someone he had “found” (like one does a lost coin) at Kuru Development Trust and hired could call him for a disciplinary hearing. He added that as a temporary employee, Kebualemang had no authority to promote fellow employees. In response, the latter made the startling revelation that Sesana was not FPK’s coordinator but “a mere case worker” assigned the relocation issue. Some two years back, the government also questioned Gakelebone’s CKGR credentials and had wildlife officers arrest him when he entered the game reserve without a permit. In terms of the High Court judgement, only applicants in the matter don’t need a permit to enter the reserve. Charges against Gakelebone were later dropped.

For now, Sesana is content to have SI wage the campaign against Botswana tourism because “it is doing that on our behalf.” However, what the London-based pressure group is doing has rankled with the government and some Batswana who think that it is meddling in affairs that don’t concern it. Sesana counters this view by restating the part of a High Court judgement in which then Justice Unity Dow said that Basarwa had every right to seek help from whoever was willing to lend a helping hand.

“What baffles me is why the government barred our lawyer from the country when it is permissible in terms of the law to get any lawyer you want, from anywhere in the world,” he says, referring to the recent incident when a United Kingdom lawyer representing the Basarwa in a High Court case was prevented from entering the country.

The Basarwa lost the case and last month, SI launched an international campaign against Botswana tourism, the second such action against the government having earlier waged one against Botswana’s diamonds.

Whatever legitimate reasons Sesana and his supporters may have to support SI’s latest campaign, the situation is not as simple as the former may want to portray it. Being among the country’s poorest, Basarwa get social welfare benefits from the government – Sesana himself gets old-age pension. Once more, he has a ready explanation when the folly of biting the hand that feeds him is pointed out to him.

“When I worked in South Africa and Zimbabwe, I paid taxes. My grandfather killed wild animals and took their carcasses to the Bakwena traditional leader, Kgosi Kgari as well as to Gammangwato,” he said.

Sesana’s working life began in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) in tobacco plantations where, according to Tears for My Land, a book by Kuela Kiema, “he was treated like a dog.” Thereafter, he worked in the South African mines for eight years. Kgari was Bakwena traditional leader from 1931 to 1962 while Gammangwato is present-day Central District Council.

Sesana contends that the pension he is getting from the government is actually drawn from taxes he paid decades back as well as proceeds from the labour and sales of wild animals that his grandfather killed and gave to his Batswana masters.

Tears for My Land suggests that Sesana’s stewardship of the FPK has been something of a disaster. It turns out that there has long been regional rivalry in CKGR between the Western Group and Eastern Group. Under Sesana, FPK has become “an informal club without professional or managerial procedures”, has “avoided auditors and accountants, and all office-holders are males from New Xade,” it no longer represents the interests of all CKGR Basarwa but “only the interests of the Western Group (people from Molapo, Metsiamanong, Gugamma and Mothomelo).” There are some, the book says, who view FPK as “a duopoly of Roy Sesana and Jumanda Gakelebotse.” Kiema says that Sesana has stated that he sees himself as the “saviour” instead of “voice” of the people.

As FPK’s main sponsor, SI should perhaps have been able to help prevent the current crisis but the latter has no substantive focus of capacity building. In the past, when SI was asked what it was doing to help FPK manage its affairs better, Jonathan Mazower, the campaigns coordinator, responded: “We do not believe it is our place to interfere in the running of indigenous organisations. We support the campaign of the Bushmen of the CKGR to enjoy the rights which the High Court has recognised – to live on their ancestral lands in peace, and to hunt and gather.”

However, a more hands-on approach may have helped FPK use its resources better. In December 2005, both Sesana and FPK won the Right Livelihood Award (the so-called Alternative Nobel Peace Prize) which came with prize money amounting to P400 000. This money was frittered away in no time and afterwards, Sesana alleged that a quite substantial part of it was spent on keeping the fire of a trans-Atlantic romance burning. Using his unique gift of hyperbole, the 73-year old activist claimed that one male staffer “slept with a cellphone wedged between his thighs” in order that he could maintain round-the-clock contact with his new girlfriend in the United States.


Read this week's paper