Magazine article The Spectator

The Battle of the Bushmen

Magazine article The Spectator

The Battle of the Bushmen

Article excerpt

Botswana's shame - and ours

For 17 years I have been reporting on one of the most haunting tragedies of our modern world - the ruthless persecution of the last survivors of the original inhabitants of southern Africa, the bushmen, by a policy seemingly designed to wipe them from the earth. Those responsible are not wicked white colonialists but the government of Botswana, which, thanks to its vast diamond reserves, is per capita the richest country in Africa. We in Britain, however, should take a special interest in this story because through most of that time our Foreign Office has given full support to the policy which created this tragedy, in breach of a solemn pledge we gave to the bushmen in the 1960s. And now there has been yet another disgraceful twist to the story.

The outside world was first made dramatically aware of the little bands of bushmen living in the Kalahari nearly 60 years ago, through a series of documentaries made for the BBC by Laurens van der Post. Those films, and his book The Lost World of the Kalahari, gave an unforgettable picture of a way of life which could not have seemed more remote from the modern world. Although these bushman hunter-gatherers were still in effect living in the Stone Age, van der Post showed how their stories, dances and spiritual beliefs gave them a sense of living at one with the natural world and the universe. His book became a major bestseller because it conveyed a spiritual message which struck a deep chord with countless readers.

In 1961, thanks not least to van der Post, the British rulers of Bechuanaland, as it was known, designated an area twice the size of Wales as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, designed to protect the last refuge of a people who had lived across southern Africa for tens of thousands of years until they were gradually exterminated by all the races who came after them. This guarantee that they could live in the reserve unmolested was enshrined in the new country's constitution when Botswana won independence in 1966.

But in the 1980s diamonds were discovered in the CKGR. In 1996 a Botswanan minister entered the reserve to tell the bushmen, despised in the capital Gaborone as sub-human 'remote area dwellers', that they must move out. What the government hadn't reckoned on was that the bushmen had found a remarkable spokesman. John Hardbattle's father had come to South Africa in the Boer War and in his old age had fathered three children by a bushman wife. On his father's death, John and his two sisters were sent to live with an aunt in England, where they were educated and fully westernised.

But John then returned to farm next to the CKGR and became a champion for his mother's people, uniquely equipped to alert the outside world to the crisis confronting them.

In Washington, he addressed sympathetic senators and congressmen. At Sir Laurens van der Post's invitation he came to London, accompanied by a bushman from the reserve, Roy Sesana, and I met them there just before Laurens flew with them up to Balmoral to brief his friend Prince Charles.

Tragically, by the end of that year, 1996, not only was Laurens dead, aged 90, but also John Hardbattle himself, from cancer.

Although the first of several thousand bushmen had been evicted from the reserve, the world had by now been aroused to enough concern for the Botswanan government to stay its hand on more evictions. …

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