The Disappearing Bushmen of Botswana

Bushmen of Botswana

An ancient people being forced off native lands - Photo by Eclyps19 for Reddit

The diamond trade has been good to Botswana. What used to be one of the poorest countries in Africa, now possess the second fastest growing economy in the world. However, the area also holds one of the world’s most ancient cultures. When the evictions began, many pointed fingers at De Beers and the diamond trade, but the actual truth is not quite so cut and dry.

The controversy lies around the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, an area of 52,000 sq km (aprox 32,000 sq miles), established to protect not only the wildlife, but the people that lived there. The Bushman have lived in the area for over 40,000 years, making their culture one of two oldest continuously existing in the world, the other being aboriginal Australians.

Bushmen of Botswana

When the Reserve was founded in 1961, public outcry called into question whether it was being setup as a type of anthropological zoo, putting these tribal people on display. The British colonial officer in charge at the time, George Silberbauer, argued that the Bushman already had extensive contact with people outside the reserve, and would be allowed to come and go as they please.

The discovery of gem-quality diamonds started a massive push towards modernization. From the mineral wealth, Botswana now has one of the greatest social welfare programs in the world. The government had a partial stake in De Beers, and nationalized all the diamond mines, in turn using the resulting wealth to provide free schooling, services and modern conveniences for all of Botswana.

“The government says we are bad for the animals, but I was born here and the animals were born here, and we have lived together very well,”

Accounts began to arise of Bushman being pushed off the Game Reserve and being forced into modern society. Many waterholes were sealed up, and accounts of families being forcibly removed arose. At the De Beers Gope mining site mass evictions occurred in 2002. The government has always maintained the reallocations were voluntary, however a group of the Bushman took the government to court later that year.

Four years later, a judge finally declared the evictions ‘unlawful and unconstitutional’ and the Bushman should be granted access to their land. However, the ruling was interpreted by the Botswana government to mean only a limited number of Bushman could return.

Bushmen of Botswana

The Bushman have lived in the area for over 40,000 years - Photo: Joao Silva

Today, only a few hundred Bushman live in the reserve, and for many this is where they prefer to stay, in the lands their ancestors inhabited.

“The government says we are bad for the animals, but I was born here and the animals were born here, and we have lived together very well,” said Gana Taoxaga, a Bushman leader who has resisted relocation.

Gem Diamonds bought the Gope mining site from De Beers in 2007, calling it a “problematic asset for De Beers”. This year, mining is set to resume in the Gope mine, which has sparked a massive campaign by London based Survival International, calling for the boycott of Botswana diamonds. The Survival boycott has gained popular support, including endorsements from celebrities Gillian Anderson, Quentin Blake, Sophie Okonedo, and Mark Rylance.

The Botswana government dismisses the campaign as ‘propaganda’. Said the the environment minister, “Survival is on a fund-raising campaign at the expense of a whole people.”

Regardless of motive, the boycott has raised the awareness of the issues at hand. How does an ancient culture survive in an area of increasing modernization?

For its part, the Botswana government is slow to accept that the Bushman will always be a part of the game reserve, and should be allowed to live off the land as they have for thousands of years. Those that choose to incorporate with society should do so, but who are we to say this ancient culture cannot live harmoniously with the land and wildlife of Kalahari?

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