Botswana’s indigenous Bushmen people, which are embroiled in a protracted fight over the eviction from their ancestral territory, are furious over a court ruling that prevents them from burying one of their elders on the disputed land.
In December, Botswana’s Court of Appeal denied a Bushmen family the right to bury their elder, Pitseng Gaoberekwe, on his ancestral land in the Kalahari Desert, from which the community has been evicted to make way for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). Gaoberekwe died in December 2021 but remains unburied after the Botswana government denied the family access to the diamond-rich land.
The Bushmen are the indigenous people of southern Africa who have lived there for over ten thousand years. While over half of the population is located in Botswana, there are 100,000 Bushmen spread out throughout the region, including in Namibia, South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe.
Since the 1960s, the government of Botswana has carried out three major evictions of this hunter-gatherer community to create the CKGR. For more than five decades, and in one of the country’s most expensive court cases, the community has been fighting these evictions.
OUTRAGE OVER LATEST COURT RULING
The ruling, upheld by the Court of Appeals, denied the family the right to bury the deceased on what is now a game reserve. This sparked outrage throughout the Bushmen community and human rights organisations that have been pushing for the restoration of the indigenous group to its ancestral land.
“The government has denied us the right of access to our ancestral land,” the family said in a statement. “Who is it to deny us that right? Who are the courts here in Botswana to deny us this right? Our rights are inherent. They cannot be taken away either by the courts, the government or anybody else. We were there before the creation of the game reserve… therefore this land cannot be left to vultures spreading around trying to scavenge on our land. Our land is precious, full of natural resources and animals, and we will not give it easily to this oppressive government.”
LATEST RULING ROUNDLY CONDEMNED
Survival International, a land rights lobby group, was also critical of the court’s ruling against the community.
“Survival [International] believes this manifestly unjust and inhumane judgement appears to be politically influenced and to reflect a renewed round of persecution of and discrimination against Bushmen by the government,” the group said in a statement.
DITSHWANELO – the Botswana centre for Human Rights – which is the secretariat of a coalition of local non-governmental organisations seeking to stop the eviction of the Bushmen community, issued a statement condemning the latest court ruling.
“We urge the government to ensure that it upholds the principles of human rights which are embedded in our constitution and in the regional and international human rights instruments to which Botswana is committed,” DITSHWANELO said in a statement.
“The CKGR burial case illustrates the challenges faced by our communities when there is failure to address the place, role and respect of their cultural practices and lived experiences. This is particularly challenging for indigenous peoples in Africa. We encourage all to address issues in ways that uphold our value-concept of botho as it is the foundation for human rights protection in our society. We also call for respect for human dignity and of the cultures of all persons, including that of the Basarwa / San peoples.”
DOMESTIC REMEDIES EXHAUSTED
A statement shared with FairPlanet by the spokesperson of the late Gaoberekwe’s family, Smith Moeti, said the family would not conduct the burial of his remains, saying it was up to the Botswana government to bury them.
“The family has resolved that the Government of Botswana will be responsible for the burial of Mr Pitseng Gaoberekwe outside the CKGR and the family will only take over the burial exercise, if and only if, the deceased is to be buried in the CKGR,” Moeti said in the statement.
“In the meantime, the family has resolved that having exhausted all domestic remedies, it is now appropriate time to take the matter to the African Human Rights Commission, African Union Court and the United Nations to ventilate its grievances...”
Pitseng was an applicant in the landmark 2002-2006 High Court case, in which judges ruled that the Bushmen had been illegally and unconstitutionally evicted from their land in the CKGR. He only left the CKGR to seek medical attention.
DIAMONDS OVER PEOPLE
Although the Bushmen won the right in court to return to their lands in 2006, the government has done everything it can to make their homecoming impossible, including cementing over their only water borehole; without it, the Bushmen struggled to find enough water to survive on their lands.
What has complicated the case is that over the years, not only has the CKGR grown to become a favourite destination for tourists from across the globe, but diamonds have also been discovered in the desert. This appears to have strengthened the resolve of the Botswana government never to allow this “First People of the Kalahari” to return to their ancestral land.
The case highlights the challenge that many indigenous communities in Africa face, where their rights are easily trampled on for economic expediency. Diamond sales and tourism are Botswana’s largest foreign exchange earners.
In the past, a report published by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has raised grave concerns on Botswana’s treatment of the Bushmen community. It stated that: “the restrictive execution of the High Court’s decision and particularly the removal of the children from the park at the age of 18 would aim for there to be no more inhabitants after the death of the elders.”
The Committee urged Botswana to allow the ethnic group to return to their lands and to “provide them with effective access to basic social services and enable them to resume their traditional activities without hindrance.”
STATE ACTION’S LEGALITY QUESTIONABLE
Arthur Gwagwa, an international academic who has done research for the Minority Rights Group on African indigenous and minority peoples told FairPlanet that this case raises questions on the legality and legitimacy of state actions and their impact on previously self-determining groups.
“The state control over self-determining groups has been part of an on-going trend by the modern African state as it seeks to assert sovereignty from external and internal threats that seek to destabilise it,” Gwagwa said.
“What is happening in Botswana is part of a wider trend by a state trying to legitimise the legal position that was externally imposed. As I write elsewhere, the legitimacy of the traditional nation-state sovereignty has come into question by minority social movements who claim to be unjustly dominated by states once marginalised groups. For example, the Tigray now demand a seat at the table, and in turn, politicians have found a new audience for old-fashioned appeals to ethnic, religious or national solidarity.”
Gwagwa added that the Bushmen should continue fighting their case through the United Nations and the African commission.
“They should (also) seek the help of international organisations such as the Minority Rights Group. They should seek cross-border solidarity with other similar groups. Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa have created a common game park for animals. The same can be done for humans.”