Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Truth a casualty in the war for the CKGR

In private conversation, a senior wildlife officer tells the story of a Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve experience at a time that members of the House of Lords were visiting to get a first-hand appreciation of what by then had become an international scandal. It had been agreed that in order that the Basarwa could freely express themselves, government officials should stay back and out of earshot as the British delegation walked around settlements meeting residents.

Express themselves Basarwa did and often in loud enough voices for the officials to hear. At one settlement, a Mosarwa activist led the British delegation towards a tree and blurted out upon reaching it: “This is where they killed my father. Right here!” He then described in graphic and excruciating detail how the government’s security agents did the killing. Details of the killing were a little too much for one House of Lords member (a lady) who later went up to the group of the government officials and asked in a voice full of anger and disgust: “How do you people manage to sleep at night?” These people slept soundly because the alleged murder had never happened: the alleged victim is actually still alive and kicking and stays in New Xade. Around the time of this visit, Basarwa leaders inside the game reserve had radio contact with their main European backers.

They would relay information about actions of the government to Survival International (SI) which would then broadcast this information to the world. The London-based pressure group felt comfortable publicising this information even though it didn’t have people on the ground who could verify the information they were getting. The writer’s personal experience is that some of the allegations from the CKGR need to be taken not with a pinch but a really large grain of salt. In 2004, a fact-finding mission made up of journalists, NGO leaders and civil servants visited the CKGR ahead of a conference on Basarwa that SI leader, Stephen Corry, would attend. At Metsiamanong settlement, one old man claimed, with a serious face and much finger-pointing, that “the Gantsi District Commissioner stole my wife” (“molaodi o ntseetse mosadi”) and was clear about the fact that he was not speaking figuratively. A mild-mannered man, the DC looked on helplessly as the self-declared cuckold held court about how his forced wifelessness. On close questioning, it turned out that the man remained behind when government trucks relocated residents out of the CKGR. With Btv cameras rolling, the old man launched into another story about how he was struggling to make ends meet because he was getting absolutely no assistance from the government.

The DC whispered to a journalist that only four days earlier, the man had been in Gantsi to collect his old-age pension from the government. Confronted with this piece of information, the Metsiamanong man stopped in his tracks and attempted to nervously laugh off his embarrassment. Some Basarwa leaders have also been implicated in this sort of deception. Four years ago,Sunday Standard chanced upon a YouTube video of the First People of the Kalahari (FPK) leader, Roy Sesana, telling a western audience that he lost P200 000 in 2002 during the forced relocation. “I want the United Nations to help me,” Sesana says in the video through an interpreter. His Setswana is simultaneously translated into English by an unidentified and off-camera Motswana woman. The video was shot by Rebecca Sommer for Earth Peoples. To an extent, Sesana garners the international support he has on the basis of statements he makes. For a detail that astounding, the alleged theft of a sum of money that substantial was neither reported to the police nor shared with the local media which Sesana has a very good relationship with. The theft did also not form part of his affidavit when he led a court case against the government to challenge the forced removal of Basarwa from the CKGR. When asked if he knew anything about the missing money, an FPK acquaintance of Sesana asked in a tone of voice laced with incredulity: “Roy? P200 000?” Last Thursday, SI published a report titled “The Persecution of Botswana’s Bushmen 1992-2014: They Have killed Me.” The report contains a catalogue of serious human rights violations but nowhere does it state what fact-checking protocols it used to verify stories it published. Some allegations are incredulous and have been refuted by at least one person who grew up in the CKGR himself. The report says that in either 1992 or 1993, one “Xawaxlao Kgoteng was allegedly caught with a steenbok (small antelope) and castrated.”

Kuela Kiema, the first CKGR resident to obtain a university degree and author of a book that recounts the forced removal of reserve communities, says that this claim has never been backed up with solid evidence. “Like everybody else in the CKGR, I heard that story from the FPK people and never saw the alleged victim,” he asserts. As hard to believe is the story of Bantlogetse Motsoko who, on September 22, 2007 was allegedly “arrested and his arm was cut ‘to make him talk.’ All of his food was thrown into the sand.” However, some of what the report states is factual and backed up by documentary evidence. Non-CKGR residents are required to obtain a permit to go into the reserve and in January 2011, FPK spokesperson, Jumanda Gakelebone, was arrested in the CKGR by the police because he did not have such permit. A senior police officer told Sunday Standard then that Gakelebone was born in Gantsi and not the CKGR. This turned out to be false because Gakelebone was born in Metsiamanong. The report also recounts the ordeal of Xoroxloo Duxee, a woman who died of dehydration after the government stopped providing CKGR residents with water. “Dehydration was confirmed as the cause of Xoroxloo’s death in a postmortem report,” SI says. Another medical report is of Nkemetseng Motsoko who was taken to a health clinic by the police after he was badly assaulted during interrogation.

The medical report’s photocopy forms part of the SI report. The introduction says that “numerous lies were employed by the government to justify the evictions … But, in September 2014, the true motive behind the evictions was revealed, as a $4.9bn diamond mine opened within the reserve, just 3.2 km from the Bushman community of Gope.” The first stop of the 2004 fact-finding mission was Gope where government officials said that exploration at a site there had yielded commercially non-viable diamond deposits. They were adamant that the Basarwa were not being relocated to make way for mining. Diamonds take millions of years to form but only 10 years later and by some miracle, Gope has enough diamond deposits to be commercially viable and is being mined. Understandably SI can’t resist telling the world: “We told you so.”

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