A family of Bushmen in the Kalahari, BotswanaAfter 300,000 years in the Kalahari, the Bushmen face the pressures of mining and fracking interests [credit: iStock]


As it prepares to celebrate 50 years of independence this September, the cosy social contract that has made the southern African country one of the west’s poster boys for the continent seems increasingly fractured. For decades, Botswana has been lauded for its political and ethnic stability, relative lack of corruption and consistently high rates of growth. In 2009 the Economist declared approvingly: ‘It is not surprising that Botswana has topped polls as continental Africa’s best-run country.’

But the government’s popularity has waned considerably at home. A key turning point came in 2011 with the first public-sector strike in the country’s history after the government refused newly unionised state employees’ demands for a 16% pay rise. An estimated 70% out of some 103,000 government workers, including teachers, doctors and nurses, stayed out in a bitter stand-off that dragged on for six weeks. After the budget went into deficit for the first time, President Ian Khama was caught between the World Bank’s recommendation to slash the public payroll by a quarter or maintaining the Ipelegeng, a safety net of public works providing relief to 50,000 people. The official jobless rate was 19.5% but the Economist suggested in 2011 that it was in reality probably closer to 30%. With water and power shortages, a four-year drought and the world’s second-highest rate of HIV, according to the CIA World Factbook, the country’s gains in development seemed to be at risk.

Although the country is praised in western capitals for its multi-party elections, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has ruled since independence in 1966. Three opposition parties allied to fight the 2014 elections as the Umbrella for Democratic Change, accusing Khama (son of Botswana’s founding father, Sir Seretse Khama) of authoritarian behaviour. Botswana’s shining image abroad became further tarnished as the BDP ‘resorted to desperate strategies to retain power’, according to a Washington Post analysis, which accused the government of abusing state resources, harassing the media and employing dirty tricks ahead of elections. The UDC secretary-general, Gomolemo Motswaledi, died in suspicious circumstances and the Sunday Standard’s editor, Outsa Mokone, was arrested for sedition. The Monitor reported that a Botswana Congress Party (BCP) leader had been tortured and left for dead in a ditch by suspected agents of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services. ‘As its grip on power is weakening, the BDP is beginning to dabble with repression,’ the Economist said earlier this year.

The BDP held on to power, helped by a first-past-the-post electoral system that gave it 37 of 57 constituency seats (64.9%). But for the first time its share of the vote slipped below half, to 46.7%, as the UDC won 30.9% and the BCP garnered 19.6% (but only three seats). ‘Election day appeared as merely a pause in Botswana’s ongoing power struggle,’ wrote Amy Poteete, of Concordia University.

Hard times for diamonds

To add to Khama’s woes, the mineral bonanza appears to have peaked, with South Africa’s Business Day declaring: ‘The diamond industry that led the world has fallen on hard times.’ The gems still dominate the economy, accounting for about 75% of foreign exchange earnings and 30% of GDP, according to Reuters, but prices have plunged by nearly 30%. It makes the growing reliance on tourism as a driver of growth all the more crucial. Estimates of its share of Botswana’s economy vary: the World Travel & Tourism Council put it at 6.5% of GDP and 45,000 jobs in 2011, but according to the Southern African Development Community (PDF), it is 9.5% of GDP, (with Europeans the fastest-growing group of tourists, according to Euromonitor).

This vital diversification and reorientation of the economy must have made it all the more alarming for the government to see Survival International call for a tourist boycott of Botswana. The human rights organisation launched its campaign to coincide with the 50th anniversary of independence, urging the government to obey a 2006 court order upholding the right of the hunter-gatherer Basarwa people (better known as Bushmen or Khoi-San) to return to ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari reserve. Citing the former Robben Island prisoner Michael Dingake, a Botswanan and founder of the BCP, Survival demanded an end to ‘Botswana’s Bushmen “apartheid”’, likening efforts to resettle them outside the reserve to the white minority regime’s pass laws in South Africa. Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae once called the Basarwa ‘Stone Age creatures’ who had no place in the modern world.

Since 1997, the state has tried on several occasions to remove the Bushmen and Bakgalagadi (a Setswana-speaking people who are relative newcomers, arriving about 600 years ago, compared with the Bushmen’s 30,000 years in the region), claiming the demands of tourism-friendly environmental conservation trumped the ancient right to roam of indigenous hunter-gatherers and herders. Survival and another rights group, Global Witness, argued that the expulsion was partly driven by the search for new diamond fields. As with most governments forcibly relocating indigenous people, Mogae claimed their deportation was for their own good, allowing them to share in the nation’s wealth, despite reports from the BBC and CNN, among others, that the Basarwa felt their culture was being destroyed.

Indigenous rights

In 2002, the government stepped up pressure on those Basarwa holding out in the Kalahari by cutting off access to the only water borehole and sealing it. ‘Death throes of an ancient way of life are being played out in the Kalahari sands,’ the Daily Telegraph wrote as the proportion of Basarwa expelled to camps reached two thirds. ‘One of the police said, “if you don’t move, you will all be killed,”’ according to one Basarwa, Tshatlha Ntwayamogala.

A year later there was a rare legal victory for indigenous people when Botswana’s high court ruled in their favour and said cutting off water supplies was illegal, the BBC reported. But despite signing the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people in 2007, Botswana’s government continues to ignore the ruling—and its own promises. It was, wrote the Daily Telegraph three years later, a ‘further cynical twist to this inhuman policy’ that the government had allowed a tourist lodge—with swimming pool—to open in the reserve.

As reported in Commonwealth Update in 2010, the UN rapporteur for indigenous peoples, James Anaya, strongly criticised Botswana for not allowing re-entry to the reserve without permits, restricting hunting and livestock, and denying services to those living in the reserve, saying the policies fell below international human rights standards.

Anaya’s report said the official line – that indigenous peoples’ presence is incompatible with the reserve’s conservation status – was contradicted by the decision to allow Gem Diamonds’ subsidiary, Gope Exploration, to prospect in the reserve: ‘An operation that is planned to last several decades and could involve an influx of 500-1,200 people to the site, according to the mining company.’

Now the search for coalbed methane has reinforced the government’s conviction that what may be below ground is more valuable than the people above it. Last year the Mail & Guardian reported that people were now being moved out of the park to make way for potential fracking. Referring to a quasi-paramilitary force allegedly deployed to rough up any Basarwa who remain in the Kalahari, one source refused to be photographed: ‘If my photo goes out, they might take me into the bush and shoot me. But our story has to be told.’