• 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 2020: Botswana

Botswana is a country of 2,250,000 inhabitants that 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, 3.14% of the population identifies as belonging to Indigenous groups. These include the San (known in Botswana as the Basarwa) who number around 66,000; the Balala (2,150); and the Nama (2,600), a Khoekhoe-speaking people. The San were in the past traditionally hunter-gatherers but today the vast majority consists 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-ǁAni, Ts’ixa, ǂX’ao-ǁ’aen,!Xóõ, ǂHoan, ‡Khomani, Naro, G/ui, G//ana, Tsasi, Deti, Shua, Tshwa, Cuaa, Kua, 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. Of 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). There are no specific laws on Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the country and nor is the concept of Indigenous Peoples included in the Botswana Constitution. Botswana took part in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ (UNPFII) 18th annual meetings in New York (22 April-3 May 2019). 
The Republic of Botswana, Africa’s oldest multiparty democracy, held its 13th election on 23 October 2019. Mokgweetsi E.K. Masisi of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) won the presidential election, thus retaining his position. Two San, Jumanda Gakelebone of New Xade and Xukuri Xukuri of D’Kar, were elected to the Ghanzi District Council, running under the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) political party. 

Climate change 

As a largely semi-arid country, Botswana is suffering the impacts of climate change. Some of these impacts include warming temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, shifts in the distribution of species, and disease problems affecting crops and livestock, which account for much of the livelihood of many Batswana. A drought was declared by President Mokgweetsi Masisi on 21 May 2019 for the period 1 July 2019 30 June 2020.Over US$90 million was committed to dealing with the drought. 
San organizations noted that San communities were especially vulnerable to the drought because of their geographic locations in the country and the fact that many of them were already in water-scarce areas.2 San community members were active in contributing to Botswana’s efforts to combat climate change. Representatives from San organizations worked with members of other NGOs to support the Botswana delegation to the 25th Conference of the Parties on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) held in Madrid from 2-15 December. Although no San attended the convention, they worked with others to support the Botswana delegation in calling for tougher standards for carbon emissions and support for poor countries affected most severely by climate change. It was reported that San were also involved in assisting researchers by sharing their traditional knowledge of climate science.

San activism 

Many San were engaged in working toward solutions for their communities’ problems in 2019. The Botswana Khwedom Council (BKC), a group representing the interests of Botswana San, has been working to secure land rights for San living on Chief’s Island in the Okavango Delta, a prime destination for high-end international tourists. The chief of the BaTawana tribe recently claimed sole ownership of the island but BKC intervened with the Tawana Land Board to block the claim. The land in question “...belonged to the San communities of Gudigwa, Khwai and others who used it for hunting expeditions before the arrival of the BaTawana Tribe,” BKC said in a letter to the Land Board.
Meetings between San from various parts of the country and the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development were held on 12 July in Gaborone and 18 August in Maun. The San recommended improvements in services to San communities and the need for mother-tongue education for San children.5 In spite of these and other efforts by the San community, however, there were no changes in government policy toward the San in 2019. The Ministry of Local Government has not yet responded to recommendations from San who attended the meetings and there have been no changes in its policies and procedures regarding the San living in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).The Botswana government’s representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Slumber Tsogwane, reiterated the government’s position that all Batswana are Indigenous, undercutting the San’s claim to indigeneity. 

Central Kalahari Game Reserve 

Representatives of the NGO Natural Justice (NJ) visited Ghanzi and Gaborone in February 2019 in an effort to gain permission to work in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) to carry out consultations with the San residents regarding their needs, a request which was denied by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. 
A National Geographic Society research team visited the CKGR in March and April. The team visited four of the five San communities in the CKGR and spoke with a total of 140 people. Four of the issues highlighted by community members in the Central Kalahari during the visit were: (1) the need for additional water supplies in the Central Kalahari; (2) the hope for the restoration of Special Game Licenses (SGLs) for CKGR community members; (3) the desire for CKGR communities to be able to establish their own community trusts and to have a greater say over tourism in the Central Kalahari; and (4) the communities’ wish for the government to allow British lawyer, Gordon Bennett, to obtain a visa in order to work with the CKGR people on the preparation of legal documents. Subsequently, in December, a petition was sent to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development formally requesting that Mr. Bennett be allowed to return to Botswana to help the people of the Central Kalahari.
Particular concerns were expressed by the people of the CKGR regarding unevenness in the coverage of the Remote Area Development Program and the country’s Destitute Policy and other social safety net programs. Communities living below the poverty line and vulnerable groups such as pregnant and lactating mothers, orphans and people with disabilities are provided with food and other support. In some areas, such as the CKGR, the San and Bakgalagadi are reporting that insufficient food supplies are being provided. 

The Botswana hunting ban 

In 2019, President Masisi moved to end the hunting ban that had been imposed by his predecessor, President Lt. Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama, in 2014. The decision to revoke the ban was taken in May 2019 and, by the end of 2019, hunting licenses for elephants and other species were once more being issued, albeit with a certain amount of confusion as to who qualified for such licenses.8 It is important to note that no subsistence hunting licenses were issued, which has had serious implications for remote area communities. In the past, these communities received such licenses to hunt “for the pot”. Since their hunting rights were terminated, it has been difficult for residents of these communities, consisting mostly of Indigenous people, to obtain sufficient protein in their diets. 

Botswana was one of the leading southern African countries calling for the opening up of elephant ivory sales at the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meetings held in Geneva, Switzerland. Such sales would have provided much-needed funds for wildlife conservation in the country. This meeting, held from 17-29 August 2019, was attended by two San from Botswana. However, CITES members voted not to approve the legal sale of elephant ivory. It was reported that elephant poaching in Botswana had increased significantly in 2019, although the causes of the increase were disputed.9 Villagers complained of elephants invading their crops and destroying their water points, and they were dissatisfied with the compensation policies for wildlife damage offered by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Indigenous Peoples were often blamed for participating in the poaching, although no hard evidence was ever presented to support this argument. 

An unfortunate incident occurred in the Dobe area of western Ngamiland, which contains majority-Ju/’hoan San communities. On 24 November 2019, a hunting party, led by two Botswana-licensed professional hunters, killed five elephants, one of which was wearing a radio collar. There were complaints about this hunt from the Ju/’hoansi of Dobe, including a Ju/’hoan Village Development Committee representative, Dahem Xixae, who said that the community had not been consulted about the hunt by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, and nor had the professional hunters informed the community that the hunt was to take place. The Ju/’hoansi maintained that they did not benefit from safari hunters operating in their area, and that they had not received any compensation despite the fact that this area was a community-controlled hunting area (CCHA).10 On 15 December, the two professional hunters involved in the illegal elephant killing had their licenses suspended by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.11  

Indigenous land rights 

No San communities or individuals were granted land tenure rights under Botswana’s Land Policy in 2019, and at least one San community was deprived of these rights. Qarin//axo, a large area in western Ngamiland north of Dobe, inhabited mostly by San, was illegally allocated to a non-San individual by the Nokaneng Sub Land Board in North West District. Appeals to the Tawana Land Board, the North West District Administration, the Ministry of Lands and Housing, and the Office of the President (OP) had gone unanswered as of the end of 2019. 12 

On a positive note, a Khwe San community near Kareng in North West District was granted the right to move to Xhorotshaa, which the 300 Khwe saw as being on their ancestral land. The government provided housing and a borehole in anticipation of the resettlement, of which the community was largely in favor.13 This was a positive development for the San in question. It increased their tenure rights and was a return to the ancestral lands from which they were removed some decades ago. 
In Ngamiland, another Khwe community said they were told by the North West District Authorities that they were going to have to relinquish their rights to use firewood, grazing, fish and other wild resources inside the Okavango, which is a UN-designated World Heritage Site. The World Heritage Site committee, however, guaranteed that people should be allowed to retain their rights inside World Heritage Sites, something that is also true for the other Botswana World Heritage Site, the Tsodilo Hills. 

Mining issues in Botswana 

Mining is an important issue that concerns San in Botswana. The Gope (Ghagoo) mine, occupying an area of 760 km2 in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, had been inactive since 2017. It was sold by Gem Diamonds to the Botswana-based mineral company Pro Civil for US$5.4 million in 2019.14 Production had not started by the end of 2019 but at least five San were employed at the Ghagoo diamond mine while it stood idle in “care and maintenance” status, and their current employment status is uncertain. San from across the country expressed concern at the mining industry, arguing that the techniques they were using, such as fracking (hydraulic fracturing), were causing earthquakes and other environmental damage.15 They were also concerned about the granting of prospecting licenses to Botswana-based and international companies without consulting the San and other people living in areas where the leases were being allocated. 
In June 2019, the mining company Sandfire Resources of Australia bought Khoemacau, the copper-silver area stretching from the northern part of the Ghanzi Farms in Ghanzi District to the Toteng area of North West District (Ngamiland). San in the area complained of not being informed of the status of the copper-silver mine nor of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs of Sandfire Resources.16 San make up the majority of the population of the copper-silver block in northern Ghanzi and southern North West District, many of them extremely poor and seriously affected by climate change and mining activities. 

The future

San, Nama and Balala are seeking greater access to land and natural resources, and they are hopeful that the new Masisi government will honor its commitments to Botswana policies relating to remote area communities, marginalised people, minorities, women and children. The negotiations that took place in 2019 with government officials, and the statements that the government has made at various international conferences, conventions and meetings give them some hope that there are prospects for future improvements in human rights and social equity for Indigenous and marginalised communities. 

Notes and references 

1. Office of the President 2019a. Declaration of Drought for 2019-2020. 21 May 2019. Gaborone: Office of the President. 
2. San statements at a meeting with the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Maun, August 2019. 
3. Sunday Standard Reporter 2019. Basarwa Help with Drought Research. Sunday Standard, 13 May 2019. 
4. Kebinakgabo, Tlotlo 2019. Basarwa Halt Kgose Tawana’s Demand for Land. The Botswana Gazette, 22 December 2019. 
5. Minutes of San meetings with the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, 12 July and 18 August 2019. 
6. Report of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve Residents Committee to the Kalahari Peoples’ Fund, 18 December 2019. 
7. Central Kalahari Residents Committee Memorandum, 8 December 2019. 
8. Keakabetse, Bonniface 2019. Botswana – Raffle for Hunting Licenses Leaves Many Bemused After Scramble for Eight Elephant Permits. Mmegi online 27 September 2019. 
9. Harvey, Ross 2019. The Elephants in the Room – the Myths Informing Botswana’s Hunting Policy. Daily Maverick 29 May 2019; Schlossberg, Scott, Michael J. Chase, and Robert Sutcliffe 2019. Evidence of a Growing Elephant Poaching Problem in Botswana. Current Biology 29: 1-7
10. Pinnock, Don 2019. Outrage over “unethical” Botswana elephant hunt. Daily Maverick, 11 December 2019. 
11. BBC 2019. Botswana cancels hunters’ licenses for killing elephant. London: BBC News, 15 December 2019. 
12. Kalahari Wildlands Trust, personal communication, 12 December 2019. 
13. Pelontle, Kedirebofe 2019. Botswana: Xhorotshaa Takes Shape. Botswana Daily News, 21 February 2019. 
14. Jamasmie, Cecelia 2019. Gem Diamonds exits Botswana with $5.4m Ghaghoo mine sale. Africa Diamond, 20 June 2019; Segaetsho, Tsaone 2019. Pro Civil inherits Basarwa curse. Weekend Post, 16 September 2019. 
15. Botswana Khwedom Council Letlhakane representative, personal communication, 26 June 2019. 
16. Bokamoso ranch employee, Ghanzi District, personal communication, 14 November 2019. 
Robert K. Hitchcock is a member of the board of the Kalahari Peoples’ Fund (KPF), a non-profit organization 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. 


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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