Sunday, November 27, 2022

The pump attendant and the government’s degradation of the Basarwa

Director of Survival International Stephen Corry recalls and recounts his experiences in Botswana. Despite Government’s treatment of Basarwa, he found Batswana a great people who alwayshad compassion for the plight of their countrymen – Basarwa.

I first visited Botswana’s High Commission in London nearly 30 years ago, at the time when the government first talked of removing Basarwa, following its diamond discovery in the CKGR. I explained Survival’s position, upholding international law and supporting tribal peoples’ rights to their traditional lands, all of which merely followed Sir Seretse Khama’s original policy.

Disappointingly, it was received with derision. However, a visit years later to another High Commissioner was different. It was some time before the 2002 Basarwa evictions. Botswana’s representative defended the disastrous ‘relocation’ policy, as he was duty bound to, but I also had the impression that he saw some force in our argument.

I explained that we wanted to help those ÔÇô both inside Botswana and more widely ÔÇô who opposed the arrogance still held towards the country’s first inhabitants; in other words, we supported Batswana efforts to shift public opinion. Many in the ruling elite thought that tribal peoples who chose to live some distance from mainstream society, were by definition ‘backward’, and should be forced to ‘modernise’, regardless of what the people actually wanted, and whatever the effects which invariably followed. This view is really little better than those who are openly disdainful of Basarwa. It is easy to see how such narrow-mindedness led to the topsy-turvy notion that kicking Basarwa out of their lands for diamonds would actually help them: after all, two hundred years ago some Europeans argued that slavery really benefitted slaves, through giving them contact with ‘civilisation’.

Policies of forced ‘integration’ held prevalence in other parts of the world much more recently, for example in South America in the 1960s, but things have progressed there a great deal in recent decades. There are still terrible problems of course, but the conviction that human rights and free choice take precedence over enforced ‘development’ (which is really always impoverishing) has grown to be much more widely accepted, at least amongst the intelligentsia. This change was happening at the same time as global condemnation of South African apartheid grew. By the 1980s, Botswana’s policy of removing indigenous peoples from their land supposedly for the ‘greater good’ began to look like another tragic legacy left behind by colonialism (leaving aside that the real reason behind the evictions was brushed under the carpet).

At our meeting, the High Commissioner seemed to suggest that ingrained ideas about the Basarwa could not be changed. I could have misunderstood him, but he certainly wasn’t defending them. Anyway, I hoped he was wrong, and I now know he was. Attitudes┬áhave┬áimproved enormously, and quickly.

Survival had always been heartened by the support some Batswana gave to the CKGR Basarwa, but this has now grown deafening. Batswana commentators are outspokenly critical of government policy in a way which used to be much rarer (though they were often scathing confidentially).

It is true of course that many, such as the South African luminary, Desmond Tutu, spoke up for Basarwa rights years ago, and that many other important voices joined him, notably the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, but comment in the Botswana press has gone much further over recent weeks. The treatment of Basarwa was a ‘national disgrace’ according to one editor, who went on to say it was, ‘about justice and human rights ÔÇô and also our humanity as a people’. In a long article, describing the history of the evictions in some detail, another writer described it as, ‘plac(ing) the profits of a small minority (the government) before the lives of ordinary people.’ Another wrote, ‘There must be a sense of deep shame that the very poorest people in this country have been obliged to take the government to court in order to win the basic rights which are accorded to everyone else.’ ‘The San’, the article went on, once, ‘had poverty, land and harmony. Now they have poverty, no land and no harmony.’┬áAn editor called the government, ‘grossly disingenuous, vindictive and horribly dishonest,’ and pointed out, ‘Basarwa of the CKGR had been wronged and persecuted,’ pleading, ‘Government should avoid the condescending arrogance with which it has in the past treated Basarwa.’ Government was described as showing a ‘vindictive streak’ by a further editor who asked, ‘Was government so thirsty for Basarwa blood that it did not mind spending so much to defend its indefensible position?’

Yet another Motswana went further, ‘Denying Mosarwa access to water is treason against God, man and the nation.’ The same writer continued, ‘Mosarwa is a good fellow while he is a pauper and toils for nothing; but the moment he claims his rightful place he is a most intolerable creature. The problem as regards Basarwa of CKGR is that their interests are in clash with those of the ruling faction.’ ‘What have we come to as a country?’ asks another, ‘We used to give water to our enemies and strangers… and yet we fail to give simple drinking water to the Bushmen in the CKGR?’ ‘Is it unpatriotic to deny some citizens of Botswana simple drinking water, is it because Basarwa are despised in this country?’

Yet another writer thinks it is, ‘a sad story about a democratic government which is uncompassionate and very uncaring… a pitiful story of a selfish government.’ Another article asserts, ‘In a society which prides itself on equality such as ours, it is a matter of a tragic national failure that a whole section of our own people could be so systematically, so brutally, so deliberately and so heartlessly marginalized with the explicit consent and participation of an authority no less than the Head of State.’

Although not all writers are named, they seem to be largely Batswana. In any event, they are nothing to do with Survival, which knows none, and has stopped attacking the government since the court ruling. I could go on: there have been literally dozens of pieces, all written in Botswana, all echoing the same sentiments. But I won’t labour the point for there is another, perhaps even more inspiring, side to the story.

From the very beginning of Survival’s long campaign ÔÇô which is suspended, let me remind you ÔÇô we have been constantly heartened by the voices of Batswana who have spoken out in support of Basarwa. Not all have the stature of Michael Dingake, famous Motswana anti-apartheid campaigner who spent fifteen of his (so far) 83 years in Robben Island prison, with hard labour. He called for ‘a standing ovation’ for Survival ÔÇô something, incidentally, we think he deserves, not us.

Personally, I would give my own biggest standing ovation to an attendant in a petrol station where I stopped years ago on the way to Gaborone. It was a time of maximum xenophobia, as ministers tried to whip the nation into anti-Survival frenzy, blaming us for their inhumanity. My picture was on the front pages, under headlines like ‘devil’ and ‘liar’. However pointless such hysteria, it did give me an opportunity to ask ordinary Batswana what they thought. The attendant recognised me and addressed me by name, politely enquiring how much fuel I wanted. I asked what she thought of the controversy. The woman replied with great elegance and poise, summing up how simple it really was, ‘What’s the problem? If they want to live in the CKGR, they must be allowed.’

There is some chance she might be reading this today, and may recall the encounter. If so, I would like her to know that I have always remembered her humanity, common sense, and rejection of state propaganda, and found it as inspiring as the words of Desmond Tutu or Michael Dingake. She was a beautiful example of why the peoples of Botswana remain a great nation in spite of, but often not because of, government. In the end, the High Commissioner was wrong: a lot of ‘ordinary’ Batswana are way ahead of many in the elite, and respect Basarwa as grown ups, able to make intelligent choices about their own futures, people entitled to be treated with the same common respect and humanity as everyone wants for themselves.


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