• Indigenous peoples in Botswana

    Indigenous peoples in Botswana

    The San, the Balala, the Nama, and their sub-groups are the indigenous peoples of Botswana. Although Botswana has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country's indigenous peoples are not recognised by the government. The indigenous peoples are among the most underprivileged in Botswana.

Indigenous World 2019: Botswana

Botswana is a country of 2,250,000 inhabitants which celebrated its 50th year of independence in 2016. Its government does not recognise any specific ethnic groups as indigenous, maintaining instead that all citizens of the country are indigenous. However, 2.9% of the population identifies as belonging to indigenous groups. These include the San (known in Botswana as the Basarwa) who number about 65,000; the Balala (1,950); and the Nama (2,400), a Khoekhoe-speaking people.1

The San in the past were traditionally hunter-gatherers but today the vast majority consist of small-scale agro-pastoralists, cattle post workers, or people with mixed economies. They belong to a large number of sub-groups, most with their own languages, including the Ju/’hoansi, Bugakhwe, Khwe-Ani, Ts’ixa, ‡X’ao’aen, !Xóõ, ‡Hoan, ‡Khomani, Naro, G/ui, G//ana, Tsasi, Deti, Shua, Tshwa, Danisi and /Xaise. The San, Balala and Nama are among the most underprivileged people in Botswana, with a high percentage living below the poverty line. Among the San, only an estimated 300 people are full-time hunter-gatherers (0.5% of the total number of San in Botswana).

Botswana is a signatory to the Conventions on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and it voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). However, it has not signed the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169 (ILO 169). Botswana took part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) meetings of the Human Rights Council’s 29th session, from 15-26 January 2018.2 There are no specific laws on indigenous peoples’ rights in the country nor is the concept of indigenous peoples included in the Botswana Constitution.

During 2018, indigenous peoples in Botswana continued to face difficulties in their efforts to remain on their land and to have access to sufficient natural resources to sustain themselves. Botswana, which is known for its human rights record, with the notable exception of how it treats indigenous and marginalised communities, continued to prevent human rights defenders Gordon Bennett and Steven Corry from entering the country to work on behalf of indigenous peoples.3 Fortunately, there were no members of indigenous communities who lost their lives in 2018 as a result of government actions.

A new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, took power in Botswana on 1 April 2018. He appointed the former Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Slumber Tsogwane, as Vice President. Mr. Tsogwane had attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) 17th annual meetings, from 16–27 April 2018 in New York along with several Botswana San.

The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) ranked Botswana number five out of 54 African countries, noting that in its abuse index no journalists had been jailed or killed in 2018. At least a dozen journalists, however, were still on the list of those who had been declared Prohibited Immigrants (PI).4 Transparency International ranked Botswana 34 in its corruption index, the best ranking for a Sub-Saharan African country.

Conservation, hunting and anti-poaching issues

Debates about the impacts of the no-hunting and anti-poaching policies in Botswana intensified in 2018.5 There were indications that the new government under President Masisi might reverse the hunting ban and allow for citizen and safari hunting to take place in Botswana, which had been banned since 2014. This was especially good news for the San, who have a greater dependence on wild animals for subsistence than other groups in the country. However, as of the end of 2018, no change in policy has occurred regarding the anti-poaching or the hunting ban, and impacts of the hunting ban on San communities in Botswana continued to be felt.6

Indigenous people of the Okavango Delta, a world-class tourism area and a World Heritage Site in north-western Botswana, are concerned that wealthy tour operators will soon gain rights to a large portion of the Delta and push them out of their ancestral lands. This is particularly true in the case of the billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who has applied for rights to large areas of the Delta.

The Tourism Land Bank (TLB) was created by the government in order to permit potential investors to gain large stakes in tourism concessions in the Delta. According to Leburu Moletedi, a representative of the International Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) “[...] indigenous communities of the Okavango Delta who include Basarwa, Hambukushu and Wayeyi are worried they will lose access to their land [...to…] river reeds, fish and other veldt products”, since the introduction of the TLB. Molatedi went on to say that the TLB threatens to interfere with the Community Based Natural Resources Management Programme (CBNRM), which was designed to enable local communities to remain on their land and benefit from its resources.7

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and other resettlement issues

There were approximately 350-400 San and Bakgalagadi people in five communities in the Central Kalahari in 2018: Metsiamonong, Mothomelo, Gope, Molapo and Gugamma. These communities have been supplied with food, water and other goods by the Ghanzi, Kweneng and Central District Councils. It was still difficult, however, for people living in the CKGR to meet their water needs for themselves and their animals. Water provision was limited to 10,000 litres per month for each location but deliveries were often late and inadequate. Many former residents of the CKGR and their children were denied entry to the reserve.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Ghanzi District Council held discussions with CKGR residents in 2018 about how the reserve’s resources and the communities within it were to be managed. The Ghanzi District Council sent a delegation to the communities in the Central Kalahari from 21-25 May. Ghanzi then had a special Full Council meeting on 27 June on the issues that were raised by the communities in the meetings.8

Promises had been made by government to the CKGR residents that each of the existing communities in the Central Kalahari would be able to develop its own community trust to oversee tourism activities. The problem was that the government, using the Botswana law firm Lecha and Associates, developed a different plan for a community trust: one that would encompass all five of the communities in the CKGR and an external Wildlife Management Area, titled the Memoghamoga Community Trust. A board of trustees was established with two-year terms but community leaders in the CKGR were not represented in the trust.9

The CKGR Residents Committee (RC) wrote to the Botswana government in November 2018, rejecting this plan, maintaining that they wanted to have their own individual trusts and to be able to elect members of the trust management committees, in line with Botswana’s CBNRM Policy.

Hundreds of San whose ancestral land is in the Boteti region in the Central District have been repeatedly relocated since the 1960s, when diamonds were discovered in their territory. DeBeers, the diamond company, which later joint-ventured with government to form Debswana, then developed the Orapa, Letlhakane and Damtshaa Mines, making Boteti the richest and most productive mining centre in the world. In 2018, several of the Boteti San communities were resettled again, for reasons that were unclear. Those living in Makolwane were forced to move to Metsiaela, which has been described as enduring “grinding poverty just a stone’s throw away from where the largest diamond in a hundred years was found [...]”10 Officials plan to move another group from Makgama to Mosu, according to the Botswana Khwedom Council, which has been advocating for the residents.11 The Boteti San “have to travel long distances to access schools and health posts”, according to Banyatsi Salutu of the Khwedom Council. He reported that more than four women had given birth in the open veldt while trying to walk to the nearest hospital.12

Shortly after Botswana’s elections in 2018, a delegation from Boteti, aided by the Botswana Khwedom Council, visited newly appointed Vice President Slumber Tsogwane, to discuss ways of alleviating their hardships.13 By the end of 2018, no follow-up by Tsogwane had been reported. In June 2018, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Boteti East, Sethomo Lelatisitswe, brought the issue of compensation for Boteti residents displaced by mining activities to the floor of the Botswana Parliament. Questioned by members, the Minister of Minerals said that there are no records of people relocated from the land allocated for the mines, but he promised an investigation that he estimated would take about 3 months. At year’s end, there was no word of the outcome of any investigation.14

Another case of resettlement of members of a San community without their consent is the Ranyane community in Ghanzi District. Attorneys for the Ranyane community wrote a letter to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development to request that Ranyane be granted formal status as a community, which would entitle it to government services such as health care, clean drinking water and a school.15 As of the end of 2018 there had been no decisions made by the Central Government or Ghanzi District on the future of the Ranyane community.

Botswana and international human rights

The 17th Session of the UNPFII, held in New York from 16-27 April 2018, saw a statement made by Ghanzi District Councilor for New Xade, Jumanda Gakelebone, on behalf of the San. This statement called for recognition of the rights of the San and other indigenous and marginalised communities.

From 3-5 December 2018, a regional meeting on San and inclusion was held in Windhoek. Titled the “Sub-Regional Workshop on Inclusive Development for San People in the Framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” and sponsored by the United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development, the meeting was attended by Steven Ludick, the director of the Department of Community Development in the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development who presented the Botswana government position at the meeting.

Gender and children’s issues

San, Nama and Balala women in Botswana in 2018 continued to press for their rights, saying that they wanted equitable treatment before the law, for example in land inheritance cases.16 The San Youth Network (SyNet) was active in 2018 in promoting education training, and programs for youth. The Tane Ko Teemahane Women’s Foundation based in Khwaai was in the process of seeking assistance for San women in tourism, craft production and marketing. Craft production is an important source of income for indigenous women in Botswana.17

Lessons learned and best practices

The activism of the San and the organisations working with them has led to some positive results in a number of areas in Botswana. The Kuru Family of Organizations (KFO), the Botswana Khwedom Council (BKC), First People of the Kalahari (FPK) and the Kalahari Wildlands Trust (KWT) have pursued diversified development strategies in rural Botswanan communities. To take one example, in western Ngamiland, Ju’hoansi from the Dobe area developed a community tourism project at !Harin// axo (Qarinxago) and were seeking to ensure that they had long-term tenure rights over the area. While they faced the threat of outsiders taking over their n!ore (territory), the Ju/’hoansi appealed their case for land rights to the sub-land board, the Tawana Land Board, and the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.

Based on their experiences, Ju/’hoansi and other community members sought to actively raise the issues of human rights, social justice and equity at district and regional meetings and to engage in local-level sustainable development activities.

Notes and references

  1. Data obtained from censuses by researchers and from extrapolations from data compiled by the Central Statistics Office, Government of Botswana, cso.gov.bw/, accessed 24 December 2018.
  2. Human Rights Council 2018. National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 5 of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 16/21: Botswana. New York: Human Rights Council, United Nations General
  3. Sunday Standard Reporter 2018. Bennett’s Visa Ban Pits Khama Against US, UK, Sunday Standard 18 March 2018; B.B. Carril 2018. Conversations about Indigenous Peoples and Adjudication: Interviews with G. Bennett, and S. Corry. ELR no. 1, DOI: 10.5553/ELR 000099.
  4. Mo Ibrahim Foundation 2018. The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). iaiag.online/ accessed 27 December 2018.
  5. D. Nyoni 2018. Killing Poachers: Good or Bad Policy? The Patriot, 18 June 2018; J.E. Mbaiwa 2018. Effects of the safari hunting tourism ban on rural livelihoods and wildlife conservation in Northern Botswana. South African Geographical Journal 100(1):41-61.
  1. E. Mbaiwa, ibid.
  2. Boniface Keakabetse Scramble for the Okavango Delta. The Weekend Post, 9 April 2018. Sunday Standard, “ Sunday Standard Reporter 2018. Meet the New Big Names that Now Owns [sic] Okavango Delta,” Sunday Standard, 18 July 2018.
  3. Ghanzi District Council Secretary, personal communication, 5 December
  4. Khonani Ontebetse, 2018. Government ‘Trojan Horse’ in the CKGR Sunday Standard, 4 February 2018.
  1. Boitshepo Majube 2018. Business Weekly & Review, 10 December
  2. Alfred Masokola 2018. Debswana caught up in displaced communities Weekend Post, 18 June 2018.
  1. “Govt doesn’t care about Basarwa,” The Midweek Sun, 4 September
  2. Nicholas Mokwena Basarwa of Boteti decry state ill-treatment. Botswana Guardian, 20 April 2018.
  3. Alfred Masokola, cit.
  4. Baaitse 2018. Fight for Survival: Lawyers Argue that Ranyane Village Deserves Recognition. The Voice, 21 August 2018, p. 1.
  5. Baaitse, ibid.
  6. Amit Zoran 2018. The ostrich eggshell beads craft of the Ju/’hoansi: A reflection on modern craft theories. Craft Research 9(2):229-253.

Robert Hitchcock is a member of the board of the Kalahari Peoples Fund (KPF), a non-profit organisation devoted to assisting people in southern Africa.

Judith Frost is an editor and researcher based in New York who has been involved with indigenous peoples’ issues for many years.



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