Thursday, October 28, 2021

Survival International adds CKGR issue to golden jubilee programme

One would have thought that tensions would ease when the government and the First People of the Kalahari reached a deal on the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve residency issue but that is far from being the case.

This past week, Survival International, the London-based pressure group that has been a thorn in the side of the Botswana government since it evicted Gwi and Gana communities from the game reserve, announced that seven British celebrities had joined its campaign to boycott Botswana tourism. The celebrities are Dominic West, Gillian Anderson, Joanna Lumley, Sophie Okonedo and Mark Rylance, Julian Lennon and Sir Quentin Blake. A television and theatre actress, Anderson is British-American.

“They join Survival’s campaign to secure the right of the Bushmen to return to their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, established fifty-five years ago to protect the Bushmen’s rights and ancestral home. In protest at the Botswana government’s ongoing mistreatment of the Kalahari Bushmen, Survival is urging the authorities to allow all Bushmen access to their land,” SI says in its press statement.

Late last year and following 14 years of denial of such services, the government started talks with FPK, the outcome of which was the restoration of services to the CKGR settlement. The saga goes back to 1997 when the government relocated the first batch of 1740 San people from the game reserve. The second batch (of 530) was relocated in 2002 which was when the government stopped providing essential services in the form of water, food as well as health and social services. The official explanation was that the people were being “relocated” to places (New Xade and Kaudwane) where it would be more convenient for the government to continue providing such services. While “relocated’ is the officially preferred term, facts point to a forced removal. SI and FPK have always contended that the people were being moved to make way for a De Beers diamond mine.

The dispute over this issue ended up at the Lobatse High Court in a case that pitted the government against FPK leader, Roy Sesana “and 161 others.” Ultimately, a three-judge panel ruled in favour of the latter with regard to residency rights. One of the judges was Unity Dow, who having left the bench, is now the Minister of Education and Skills Development. In her own judgement, she faulted the government for prioritising its convenience over the culture of the relocatees. 

“Respondent might want to pause and consider whether the disappearance of a people and their culture isn’t too high a price to pay for the gain of offering those people services at a centralised location. It might want to consider, whether with Botswana’s relatively small population of 1.6 million people, regard being had to its land size and its relative wealth, cannot, faced with a unique culture on the verge of extinction as it is, afford to be innovative in its development programmes,” Dow noted in the 2006 judgement.

In a report prepared for the United States’ Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Jeff Townsend, a Research Associate in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division, states that the relocation “is seen by some anthropologists as eroding San social coherence because it has removed them from their ancestral lands and grave sites, which have historically formed a central facet of San spiritual life and social identity.” 

While the court said the relocation was unlawful, the relief it granted was fatefully limited to the litigants only. The result was that the government restored residency rights to the litigants only. The court order also placed no obligation on the government to provide returnees with essential services. The result was that when the litigants returned to the game reserve, they were completely on their own, which condition caused SI to intensify its campaign against the government to compel it to provide such services. The London pressure group demanded that the Botswana government should allow the returnees to hunt game as was the case before the relocation.

Three years ago, SI launched a campaign to boycott Botswana tourism, targeting Botswana Tourism Organisation stands at the 2015 at the Adventure Travel Show in London and the Fitur Travel Fair in Madrid. Its operatives handed 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.  

With the boycott underway and without the involvement of SI, the government started talks with FPK last year. Following such talks, essential services were restored and Sesana hired by the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development to do community liaison work. To SI this is still not enough and the organisation will press on with its tourism boycott campaign.  To Sunday Standard’s question of when the boycott will be called off, SI’s spokesperson, Michael Hurran, says that will happen when the Botswana government starts “upholding” the 2006 court judgement.

“That is, the moment it starts allowing all the Bushmen who were illegally evicted to return to their homes in CKGR and live there freely without having to apply for permits – a policy which has separated families and caused much distress. President Khama can do this at the stroke of a pen and we sincerely he hope he will ÔÇô and end this injustice for good ÔÇô before Botswana’s golden jubilee in September,” he says.

This position guarantees that the stalemate over CKGR will continue unabated because this is a concession the government is unlikely to make. Allowing all former CKGRers back into the reserve would effectively reduce the settlements of New Xade and Kaudwane, which the government established at quite considerable expense, to ghost towns.

The FPK-government rapprochement began with a high-powered delegation that included the Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama and, BTO’s Chief Executive Officer, Thabo Dithebe, being helicoptered to the CKGR to meet residents. That seemed to suggest that the tourism boycott was beginning to bite and indeed it can only be so when companies cancel pending tour requests for Botswana as well as suspend all tours and blocking tour requests to the country. Oddly though, Hurran maintains that SI’s intention is “not to harm” Botswana’s tourism. Instead, “it is to persuade the government to fully uphold the court rulings on the Bushmen’s rights and stop seeing itself as above the law. We can see that the boycott has been widely covered in the press around the world and we’ve found that more and more people are talking about it outside Botswana.”

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