Massive assault on Bushman rights

September 12, 2005

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The Bushmen are facing a new and severe assault on their rights since the resumption of their three-year court case against the government for evicting them from their ancestral lands in the central Kalahari. Although the court is now sitting, the authorities have launched a massive clampdown, clearly designed to end the Gana and Gwi Bushman way of life and to destroy them as distinct peoples.

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1) The government announced last week that it is putting guards around their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to blockade the area and stop Bushmen going in.

2) More Bushmen have been arrested for hunting. Xhatshoe Xhose, Maiteko Digotlhong and Gothata Digotlhong were arrested on 2 August.

3) The wildlife department has barred entry into the reserve to the Bushmen's lawyers, stopping them consulting with their clients, even though the high court specifically asked them to do so.

4) The radio authority has refused to renew licences to Bushmen who were using community transmitters to contact each other when they needed help.

5) Officials have gone as far as stopping the Bushmen's own organisation, First People of the Kalahari, from talking to those in the reserve.

6) The government is on the point of changing the country's constitution, removing protection for the Bushmen.

All this amounts to the most serious assault on Bushman rights since their eviction in 2002.

Selelo Tshiamo, one of several Bushmen severely tortured by officials in June, died earlier this month. He had been repeatedly beaten on the chest to the point where he coughed blood. His chest pains increased until he finally succumbed to his injuries.

Recent investigations show that the Bushmen in the forced relocation camps have started to die after contracting HIV/AIDS. At least thirty-seven Bushmen have the infection in just one of the camps. Drunkenness and prostitution are spiralling out of control.

The government attack is being launched at the same time as De Beers has characterised these abuses as a ’debate' about ’models of sustainable development'. The company relies on Cambridge University anthropologist, Dr James Suzman, to legitimise its position.

The Natural History Museum in London continues with its De Beers-supported diamond exhibition, rejecting Bushman calls to mention the conflict in Botswana.

De Beers's repeated assertions – that there is no connection between the evictions and diamonds – was undermined in court last week by government witness Akolang Tombale from the ministry of minerals. Under cross-examination he admitted that over 30 exploration permits, covering most of the Bushman reserve, were applied for just a few days before the Bushman ’relocations' in 2002, when the head of De Beers in Botswana welcomed the evictions. The company, which has made legal threats against Survival, has described the NGO's work as ’cynical' and ’dishonest'; Botswana officials have called Survival ’a terrorist organisation' and threatened its officers.

Foreigners in Botswana who draw attention to the Bushman oppression now face expulsion. The legal appeal of Professor Good of Botswana University against his deportation was rejected last month, and a Zimbabwean journalist has been thrown out for reporting on the Bushmen.  

Both the British government, and the recently ennobled Liberal Democrat peers, Lord Jones and Baroness Tonge, continue to back the evictions, relying on 19th century colonialist models of ’development'. Three prominent fashion models, on the other hand, have declared in favour of the Bushmen: Iman quit as the ’face' of De Beers; Erin O'Connor said, ’I would make that stand, and say no' to De Beers; and last month teenage model, Lily Cole, announced that she will no longer model for the company.

Another positive note this week is that South African development worker, Elijah Molahlehi, saw his first play open at the Oppenheimer Theatre in Welkom. Entitled, ’Survival in the wilderness', the work depicts the evictions in the face of the Bushmen's deep spiritual attachment to the lands they have lived on for tens of thousands of years. The theatre is named after the grandfather of De Beers's chairman, Nicky Oppenheimer, an irony not lost on the enthusiastic African audience. The play has already attracted the attention of ’Woman in white' playwright, Charlotte Jones, who welcomed this use of theatre to spotlight the dispossession of the Bushmen.

Veteran newscaster and author, Sandy Gall, who witnessed previous evictions in 1998 today criticised De Beers for not intervening on the side of the Bushmen and called for a boycott of tourism to Botswana. He said, ’The last hunting Bushmen in the world are now on the edge of destruction, only international support can save them. Botswana's friends in the UK parliament won't help them, nor will the European Union or the United Nations. Unless ordinary people make their voices heard it will be too late and our 21st century world will add the Gana and Gwi Bushmen to the long list of Indigenous peoples destroyed by racism and greed? Have we learnt absolutely nothing? Are we really going to allow yet another government to exterminate its tribal peoples?'

Survival International, which has a history of running campaigns for several decades, has made it clear that it will support boycotts of Botswana tourism and De Beers until the Bushmen get their land back. Gloria Steinem attended the organisation's demonstration at De Beers's new store in New York in June, and Julie Christie spoke at the protest at London's Natural History Museum the following month. Survival is launching a ’boycott De Beers' website, and is about to market merchandise with the same message. About 250,000 people supported Survival's Bushman petition and many have pledged ongoing help.

Survival's director, Stephen Corry, said today, ’The tragic destruction of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen reaches into the very roots of humanity and touches not only every human being alive today, but the generations yet to be born. The Gana and Gwi call themselves ’first people of the Kalahari', they might as well say, ’first people of the world'. They have been here longer than any of us. They are the last survivors of the world's first modern humans. It is not up to the Botswana government to wipe them out of history, with nothing more than an arbitrary and cruel presidential directive in favour of just more wealth for the country's elite – and of course the fantastically rich owners of De Beers. We will fight for the Bushmen's right to survive however long it takes. If they lose, then we will make certain that the crimes which brought their end are not expunged, but written large into history. Twenty-first century governments can no longer destroy Indigenous tribes with impunity.'

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