Magazine article New African

Botswana: Voices of the San (2)

Magazine article New African

Botswana: Voices of the San (2)

Article excerpt

Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), at 52,000 sq kms, is one of the world's largest conservation areas. It was set up in 1961 to safeguard the Kalahari ecosystem and to provide security for the most persecuted--the 3,000 San people who lived there. But it has all gone pear-shaped now. Nick Hordern concludes his piece on the voices of the San (part one was published in the last issue).

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In the 1960s, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) was virtually government-free. The San (the click-speaking hunter-gatherers Glwikhoen and Gllanakhoen) and their Bakgalagadi neighbours hunted and gathered as they had for millennia. Yet progressively, in the period leading up to the San's forced removal 40 years later, increasing numbers of wild game were quitting the conservation area thereby diminishing its attraction for tourists.

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In 1997, the Botswana government, employing heavily armed wildlife guards, began to evict the San from their 20,000-year-old ancestral lands. In March 2002, the government declared that the last of the San had voluntarily agreed to leave the CKGR for new, better-equipped but soulless resettlement camps where a viable traditional hunting and gathering way of life was substituted with health problems, alcoholism and prostitution. The accusation was levelled that the forced exodus was purely for commercial reasons.

Was there any truth in this? The British-based Survival International, a high profile European lobbyist for the rights of indigenous peoples, had no doubt. The body became the self-appointed defenders of the CKGR San, campaigning vigorously against what they saw as ruthless exploitation.

Survival's director, Stephen Corry, dismissed claims that the expulsions were necessary because the San hunted the game and their continued existence in the CKGR cost too much. "The excuses given were ludicrous, and the government changed its arguments several times." But the local group Ditshwanelo and the Botswana Centre for Human Rights said that Survival International had harmed the San's cause. It was claimed that the San's best options of remaining in the CKGR were scuppered by Survival's blaze of adverse publicity.

The Botswana government, from being on the brink of rescinding the evictions, could not now be placated. The government held fast, declaring that, anyway, the CKGR had changed radically since 1961 when hunting and gathering was the sole pastime.

Unlike other parts of the Kalahari, in the 1960s there was no year-round readily available water in the CKGR. Yet when storm clouds burst during the Wet, the beauties of nature instantly appeared as a dazzling colourful array of plant life, the once dried gulches or pans filled with water, and wildlife thrived. This was seasonal, however. For most of the year, the CKGR had more in common with another African desert, the Sahara. Green grass turned dun-coloured, and the wildlife temporarily migrated north beyond the CKGR to more verdant pastures. At this time, the San re-grouped into smaller units and extracted water from plants (tubers, melons) and animal carcasses.

A fundamental change to a millennia-long hunting and gathering pattern in the Central Kalahari occurred in 1969 when the bushman survey officer, George Silberbauer, sunk a borehole at Xade. This was for his personal use--but the upshot would change the CKGR forever. The perpetual availability of fresh water in this once remote area caused an increase in Xade's population from one family and kin to 1,000 people within a decade. In 1982, the government built a school and medical centre. By 1984, Xade's San began growing crops, and hunted on horseback with spears and dogs, virtually abandoning bows and arrows to the scrapheap. Mostly centred around Xade, CKGR's mid-1980s entire population reduced from 3,000 to 1,300. There was a dry season seepage to outlying Tswana homes or cattle ranches that later became an annual exodus, despite often exploitative terms and conditions. …

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