Botswana Bushmen Diamonds

Roy Sesana from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana protesting outside the central London De Beer's shop in 2004 

This is a story about Control.

It’s set in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which, in addition to being the habitat to a variety of wildlife including giraffes, gemsboks, and lions, sits atop an estimated $4 billion worth of diamonds. The natural gas coalbed methane is under the Reserve’s sandy ground too, which “fracking” companies are prospecting as you read.

The main players are:

-The Government of Botswana (abbreviated “GOB” throughout this piece), and

-The San, known internationally as “the Bushmen” and among the people of Botswana as “the Basarwa”. They’re hunter-gatherers indigenous to southern Africa who lived on the CKGR for thousands of years. When its commercial value was discovered, GOB Ministers relocated the San to resettlement camps.   

To be clear, what’s happening in the CKGR is very real drama.

In January, Mogolodi Moeti was at his CKGR home, when, in the way-too-early hours of the morning, Botswana’s paramilitary police and a wildlife scout paid him a visit. They wanted to know if Mogolodi had game meat.

(Game hunting has been strictly forbidden in this southern African nation. The President, Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, is a Conservation International board member. Khama’s also cool with Prince Charles who once congratulated him for mobilizing African leaders around the cause of conservation.)

The police didn't find any meat, but they reportedly beat Mogolodi up anyway—careful not to leave bruises as evidence, Mogolodi’s brother Smith says.

“What they do is just cause a pain somewhere, where you have to call for a doctor,” he explained over the phone from Botswana.

Smith Moeti, who currently lives on the New Xade resettlement camp, says he has experienced his own harassment for attempting entry to the CKGR. “What normally happens is… they try to stop me from going in. I’ll just tell them to charge me if I have contravened any law.” He added, “They never do.”

For two decades, the San and GOB have been legally wrangling over the right to control what happens in the CKGR. Their existence depends on it.

Diamonds are Botswana’s number one revenue source. According to DiamondFacts.org, the sparkling stones make up 76% of the country’s export revenue, 45% of the government revenue, and 33% of the nation’s GDP. Unlike other situations involving resources in Africa, Botswana is not a bystander while foreign corporate interests mine, drill, or spill.

As University of Botswana Lecturer and Basarwa Research Center member Dr. Motsumi Marobele pointed out in a paper published on SundayStandard.info, “the government is not merely providing the infrastructure necessary for private sector activity, but participates in profiteering in the mineral sector...”  

But demand for diamonds has slipped in the wake of the global recession, and the GOB is eager to develop and strengthen alternate revenue streams, including tourism. As the World’s second largest game reserve, the CKGR is a popular destination for ecotourists and vacationers hoping for, ironically, a photo op with the aboriginal San.

In 2002, the San took the GOB to court with the funding and legal support of Survival International, a London-based organization committed to protecting the rights of tribal people. In 2006, the San won the case.

“Our main aim at the moment is to get the government to stop ignoring its high court rulings and allow the Bushmen to return to the CKGR,” says Rachel Stenham who has spent the past five years with Survival International campaigning for the Bushmen.

Citing the ruling’s judgment, the GOB will only allow the plaintiffs listed in the 2002 complaint to reside in the CKGR. Relatives must apply for permits. The GOB also sealed the borehole so the San had to travel kilometers away to access drinking water. The GOB would not allow contractors onto the CKGR to sink a new borehole. Gem Diamonds, the mining company that recently bought the CKGR-based Gope/Ghagoo mine from Debswana (the world’s largest producer of diamonds, and a 50-50 venture between DeBeers and the GOB), finally provided a borehole for the Bushmen in 2011.

Stenham adds, “The Bushmen’s lawyer Gordon Bennett has been barred from the country, and so can no longer represent the Bushmen in court. And several Survival staff members have also been banned from Botswana, which is clearly a tactic by the government to make it as difficult as possible for us to continue helping the Bushmen.”

Political activist Michael Dingake likens the GOB’s treatment of the San to that of South African Blacks during Apartheid. 

“[Blacks] had to carry pass[es] where they went,” said Dingake, who shared a cell with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, relating it to the permits the San must have to gain entry to the CKGR.

Communicating from his home in Botswana, Dingake provided additional context. “Even before Independence, that’s 1966, [the San] were always regarded as sort of sub-human.”

Speaking for the San, Smith Moeti insists his people have no problem with diamond mining or fracking on their land, per se. They just want the freedom to live as they have always lived without interference. “In the CKGR, at least we have access to vast land, where we could go around hunting.”

In the resettlement camps, their ability to sustain themselves is limited.

“When they were relocated,” Survival’s Stenham clarified by phone from London, “the government gave them a certain amount of cattle which is something that they’ve never had in the CKGR, and have no real knowledge of how to rear cattle.”

She added, “Then they provided them with absolutely no jobs, but provided them with liquor stores. And so, after the relocation took place, there was a huge amount of people suffering from alcoholism. Diseases were introduced. HIV and AIDS are now apparently rampant in the relocation camps.”

Moeti insists even if the San were to fully integrate into Botswana’s mainstream, they would still be at a disadvantage due to entrenched discrimination. The San, for example, have to form syndicates of five people to get 4km2 plots of land, he says. Meanwhile, individual members of the majority populations are given ranches double that size.  “This is why we are—we will always be behind.”  

Some have positioned the issue as the San’s struggle against progress.

Botswana’s former President Festus Mogae once reportedly said, "How can you have a stone-age creature continue to exist in the age of computers? ...If the bushmen want to survive, they must change, otherwise, like the dodo, they will perish." In 2006, one-time British Parliamentarian Baroness Tonge of Kew also described the San as “primitive,” though she later backpedalled.

“Our lifestyle in the Reserve…means nothing to somebody who is a conventional person,” Moeti realizes, but to focus on whether you can relate to the San way of life is to miss the point. “The issue,” he says, “is who has control of all these things?”

For, Moeti it’s a clear-cut case of the powers that be oppressing a weaker group for their own benefit. A story we’ve seen played out across race, culture, gender, and time, over and over again.

“If there’s nobody who’s poor,” he says, “then who’s going to look after their cattle while they are making money, while they are politicians somewhere?”

Repeated requests for comment from GOB ministries, including Botswana’s Ministry of Wildlife and Parks were ignored.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.