• 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 2021: Botswana

Botswana is a country of 2,317,233 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 such. 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 68,000; the Balala (2,350); and the Nama (2,750), 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.

 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, nor is the concept of Indigenous Peoples included in the Botswana Constitution. Botswana normally takes part in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) but its 19th annual meeting in New York, scheduled for April 2020, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.


Policy issues


 There were no changes in legislation involving Indigenous or minority communities in Botswana in 2020. Botswana did draft a mid-term review of its progress in implementing the recommendations received from other nations in 2018, when Botswana took part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. Ditshwanelo, the Botswana Centre for Human Rights, convened representatives from over 30 stakeholder NGOs to prepare a response to the government’s review.

According to Ditshwanelo’s report, Botswana had accepted 93 of the 207 recommendations made by other states. The stakeholder’s review found that only three had been fully implemented. Of the remainder, some progress had been made on approx. 54% of the recommendations, while 43% had not been implemented. No progress at all had been made in implementing four recommendations on incorporating human rights conventions that Botswana itself has ratified into national legislation. Progress had been made in implementing recommendations for the protection of orphans and vulnerable children, for the prevention of AIDS and of human trafficking. Although some improvements had been made in access to health care, the stakeholders reported that San children who were not born in hospitals lacked birth certificates and San adults often lacked identity cards, both of which are required for free access to health care and other government services. The reviewers found that there was “a gap between programmes and policies, and poor outcomes in relation to the health of children—over half of the under-5 children die before their fifth birthday”.1




The Botswana government declared a COVID-19 emergency on 31 March 2020, resulting in a lockdown and travel restrictions. The lockdown was extended in late September 2020 and reimposed at the end of 2020. It was estimated by the World Health Organization that Botswana had one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in Africa. The main impacts of COVID-19 included a reduction in incomes and employment in the country, tied in part to the substantial decline in the number of tourists entering Botswana. The government shifted its budget priorities, increasing funding for the Ministry of Health and Wellness to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts.

The income from minerals, including diamonds, which dominates the Botswana economy, declined some 6% according to the Botswana government’s economic figures. There were no recorded deaths due to COVID-19 in Botswana among the San, Balala or Nama during 2020 but income levels and employment declined due to the pandemic. The San Youth Network organised a programme to provide food, hand sanitiser and masks to Ghanzi communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also supplied information on social distancing and other recommendations in mother-tongue San languages, prepared by the Kalahari Peoples Fund, to community members.2


Hunting issues


Several issues loomed large in Botswana with respect to Indigenous and minority peoples in 2020. President Mokgweetsi Masisi did away with the country-wide hunting ban and opened auctions for elephant hunting licenses in early 2020. As a consequence, San communities such as Khwaai and Mababe made bids for the licenses, and Mababe was allocated a total of 20 elephants. However, when they sought to allocate them to potential safari hunters, they found that a former Department of Wildlife and National Parks official had allegedly colluded with an American safari company operator to obtain the licenses at a low price of 1.5 million Pula for his clients. These incidents caused a huge rift in the Mababe community and led to calls for an official investigation by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism.3

Beginning in May 2020, a spike in the number of elephant carcasses was seen near the village of Seronga in the Okavango Delta.4 Eventually, the number of elephant deaths totalled some 400. It took several months of testing to determine the likely cause, which was probably cyanobacteria or toxic algae.5 The elephants’ tusks were not removed, so poaching was ruled out. However, three Tsexa San people at Mababe were found with elephant tusks and were arrested on 14 August 2020. Their actions were condemned by the Mababe Zokotshama Community Development Trust.

No San, Nama or Balala were shot by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) in 2020 but members of other groups, some of them from Namibia and Zambia, were shot and killed during anti-poaching operations. The “shoot-to-kill” policy of the Botswana government was called into question by the Namibian government.6 On 24 March 2020, four G//ana San men were arrested by the Botswana Police for illegal hunting in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). Their Magistrates Court trial in Ghanzi set for 10 June was postponed7 and had still not been held as of 31 December 2020. Smith Moeti, a San activist, said the charges were just one indication of a recent increase in government harassment and persecution of San and Bakgalagadi in the CKGR.8

The issue of trophy hunters and their relationship with communities continued to be important in 2020. In some cases, community-based organisations felt that they were benefitting from the safari hunting operations but that those benefits had declined significantly with the imposition of the hunting ban. In response, community trusts were attempting to diversify their income sources and forge links with companies and NGOs working in ecotourism. They were pleased that the trophy hunting was being allowed again in 2020 because the economic returns were high compared to other activities.9


Botswana extractive industry issues


The main issues with mining and prospecting from the perspective of Indigenous minorities are: (a) employment (few San, Nama or Balala have obtained jobs); (b) benefits from the mining operations are not shared with communities but rather paid as royalties to the government or kept as profits for the mining companies; and (c) in some places, San have been excluded from mining sites, as occurred in Letlhakane in Central District, the Gope (Ghaghoo) area of the CKGR, the Khoemacau mining site on the Toteng River in North West District, and in the northern Ghanzi District.

In 2020, moves were made by the company that had bought the Gope (Ghaghoo) mine in the CKGR, ProCivil, to refurbish the mine’s workings. Former employees of Gem Diamonds, the mine’s former owner, said that they had not been hired by ProCivil. Ghagoo community members complained that the mine’s new guards were harassing their domestic animals and that the company had failed to supply water to the communities around the mine. When it was owned by Gem Diamonds, Ghaghoo had provided standpipes outside the mine area for use by local people.

Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica), a Canadian oil company that is exploring for oil and gas in the North West District of Botswana (License 001/2020), has already begun drilling in adjacent Namibia.10 There were worries among northern Botswana communities relating to ReconAfrica’s explorations and the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the water table and the effects of the drilling operations on local vegetation and wildlife. The Village Development Committee in the Tsodilo Hills stated that they had been told by company and government officials that they would probably have to be resettled to an unknown location to the south of Tsodilo.11 Tsodilo Community Development Trust has plans to dispute the resettlement possibility by legal means.

There were continued complaints by San communities in 2020 about the disturbance of San graves in mining areas, and individuals were told by mining company officials in Central and North West Districts that they could not visit their ancestral graves in those areas.12 


Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) issues


Communities in the CKGR continued to bring their concerns before the Botswana government and the Ghanzi District Council in 2020. In late October, several government ministers flew into the CKGR and told the residents that there would be six boreholes drilled there. No specifics were provided to the communities on where the boreholes would be placed, nor were community members asked for their input.13 They specifically asked the ministers whether there were plans to resettle them but the ministers did not address this question. The community members raised concerns about the Ghanzi District Council’s plans for a wildlife (game) farm. This was to be a farm containing wildlife that is either sold by auction to farmers or is kept for hunting purposes by fee-paying clients. This farm, much to the communities’ chagrin, was far from the reserve, a point made by CKGR community members to a sub-committee of the Ghanzi Council when they visited the reserve.14 The communities also requested that the government allow British barrister Gordon Bennett to return to Botswana to advise them on how to ensure their legal rights to land and resources in the CKGR.15

The government’s plans to build an elephant-proof fence from the Namibian border to the east across the northern border of the CKGR and down the eastern side of the reserve before heading east to the South African border were questioned repeatedly in various meetings by CKGR community members during 2020, as were government plans for a trans-Kalahari Railway from the Morupule coal mine near Palapye traveling west across the CKGR and Ghanzi District south of the Ghanzi Farms to Walvis Bay in Namibia. In both cases, the people of the CKGR asked the government if an Environmental Impact Assessment had been carried out for the fence and the railway. The government has yet to disclose the EIAs for either planned activity.

At least four diamond prospecting companies were operating in the CKGR in 2020 and, during community consultation meetings, community members questioned whether the companies were following the government’s environmental regulations. People in the CKGR wanted to know more about the Kgalagadi-Ghanzi Drylands Ecosystem Project (KGDEP) and what benefits and risks were anticipated for the CKGR community members, especially because project plans included expanded anti-poaching operations.16 Finally, CKGR community members were told by government officials they had no right to grow crops in the Central Kalahari, something that they strongly disagreed with.17


New water system for the Bere settlement


With a grant from the World Bank, the Government of Botswana is planning to construct a new water system for the Bere settlement in Ghanzi District, a San settlement that has existed since the 1960s. A new reservoir and pipes will be constructed, and the existing borehole will be improved.18 The population of Bere has doubled in the past decade, from 778 in 2011 to 1412 in 2018,19 partly due to the resettlement of 100 individuals from Ranyane, after Ranyane’s borehole was dismantled by the Ghanzi District Council.20 It is unclear where the additional 500+ residents came from.


Problems with boarding schools for San children


On 4 May 2020, an 11-year-old San girl living with her family on a cattle post in northwest Botswana committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree after seeing a social worker’s vehicle approaching her home. The girl was apparently afraid that the social worker had come to take her back to the Kuke boarding school where she was a student. The school, in Ghanzi District, serves mostly San students and has had very high dropout rates for years. A Ghanzi social worker was quoted in a newspaper article discussing how difficult it was to deal with truant children: “Sometimes we use force and actually chase them down and throw them into the vehicle and take them to school.”21

In July 2020, the Khwedom Council and the San Youth Network held a virtual meeting of 20 San leaders from across Botswana to discuss the incident. They were unanimous in their view that hostels are often overcrowded. Caregivers, few of whom are of San descent, discriminate against San children, failing to supervise them, to attend to their health care or to prevent sexual abuse.

In September 2020, a teacher in the Makgadikgadi Junior School in Central District, whose students are mostly San, complained to school officials that children were being beaten excessively, denied food and even undressed as punishment for perceived wrongdoings. A second teacher added that students, once stripped of clothing, had also been sexually abused.22

An assessment of the capacity of Botswana’s social services to protect children from violence was undertaken early in 2020. The study, funded by UNICEF and conducted in collaboration with the Botswana Department of Social Protection,23 found that severe understaffing in Botswana’s boarding schools was a systemic problem, permitting rampant neglect and abuse of children. A major reason for the understaffing was the government’s freeze on recruitment into the civil service, put in place in 2013, according to the report.24


Calls by Indigenous women and youth


In September 2020, President Mokgweetsi Masisi moved to amend the 2015 Botswana Land Policy in order to give married women in Botswana the right to own land.25 A number of San have certificates to agricultural land, and this policy will therefore affect San women.

Various women’s organisations, including the Gender-based Violence Prevention and Support Centre and the San Youth Network, called in public statements for greater attention to be paid to women’s rights in the country, especially the right to freedom from domestic abuse, something that affects both San and non-San women.26 In September, and again in November 2020, San called on the government in public statements to teach mother-tongue San languages throughout Botswana after hearing that minority languages would be taught in the schools of Ngamiland.27

The Indigenous and minority peoples of Botswana collectively said that they hoped that 2021 would be a year in which coronavirus vaccines were available to all, that the economy would improve, and that Botswana would enhance its efforts to promote human rights and social justice in the country.



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. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Judith Frost is an editor and researcher based in New York who has been involved with Indigenous Peoples’ issues for many years. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references


1 Ditshwanelo. “Botswana Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Civil Society Mid-Term Review Stakeholder Report Third UPR Cycle.” 31 August 2020. Gaborone: Ditshwanelo. Accessed on 2 February 2021. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/UPR/NGOsMidTermReports/CSJointSubmissionBotswana31Aug2020.pdf

2 Morris, Job. Personal communication, 14 October 2020 and Kalahari Peoples Fund. Personal communication, 18 October 2020.

3 Mmana, Francinah Baaitse. “Elephant hunting saga divides community.” Okavango Voice, 10 March 2020. Accessed on 2 February 2021. https://news.thevoicebw.com/2020/03/elephant-hunting-saga-divides-community/

4 K. Ontebetse, Khonani. “Spike in elephant carcasses numbers baffle officials.” Sunday Standard, 16 July 2020. https://www.sundaystandard.info/spike-in-elephant-carcasses-numbers-baffle-officials/

5 S. Azeem, R. Bengis, R. van Aarde, and A.D.S. Bastos. “Mass Die-Off of African Elephants in Botswana: Pathogen, Poison, or a Perfect Storm.” African Journal of Wildlife Research 50(1):149-156.

6 Mowena, Nicholas. “Namibia is not happy with BDF extra judicial killings.” Botswana Guardian, 12 November 2020.

7 Moeti, Smith. Personal communication, 31 March 2020.

Ontebetse, Khonani. “UK based rights group Survival International renews fight against Botswana govt.” Sunday Standard, 15 June 2020. Accessed on 2 February 2021.


9 Coe, Katherine Kellam. “An Exploration of the Adaptive Capacity of Community-Based Organizations in Northern Botswana in Response to A Hunting Ban.” M.Sc. thesis, University of Montana, Missoula, 2020.

10 Barbee, Jeffrey and Kerry Nash. "Mystery Surrounds Plans to start Fracking New Namibia's Kavango River and Botswana's Tsodilo Hills." Daily Maverick, 16 September, 2020.https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-09-16-mystery-shrouds-plans-to-start-fracking-near-namibias-kavango-river-and-botswanas-tsodilo-hills/ ;  Barbee, Jeffrey and Laurel Neme. “Oil drilling, possible fracking planned for Okavango Oil drilling, possible fracking planned for Okavango region—elephants’ last stronghold.” National Geographic Society, 28 October 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/oil-drilling-fracking-planned-okavango-wilderness

11 Tsodilo Village Development Committee. Personal communication to authors, 14 December 2020.


12 Complaints to the Botswana Khwedom Council, June 2020.

13 Galekhutle, Mothusi. “Govt to Drill Six Boreholes at CKGR.” Daily News, 3 November 2020.


14 Ghanzi District Council. “Central Kalahari Game Reserve Report to Full Council to be held on the 21st – 25th Sep 2020.” Ghanzi: Ghanzi District Council.

15 Ontebetse, Khonani. “Bushmen Resurrect Ancestral Right Fight.” Sunday Standard, 4 October 2020. Accessed on 2 February 2021. https://www.sundaystandard.info/bushmen-resurrect-ancestral-rights-fight/

16 Questions raised with personnel from the UNDP KGDEP personnel, November 2020.

17 Ontebetse, Khonani. “UK Based Rights Group Survival International Renews Fight Against Botswana Government.” Sunday Standard, 15 June 2020. Accessed on 2 February 2021.


18 Water Utilities Corporation, Botswana Government. “Botswana Emergency Water Security and Efficiency Project (BEWSEP): Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and Environmental and Social Management Plan (ESMP) for the Bere Settlement Water Supply Sub-Project.” April 2020.

19 Ibid. p.15

20 Sapignoli, Maria. Personal communication, 21 December 2020; Hitchcock, R.K. “Forced Displacement, Migration, and Resettlement: A Central Kalahari Case.” Presentation to Core 003 - Forced Displacement, Migration, and Resettlement, Department of Psychology, Claremont College, Claremont, California, 2020.

21 Mmana, Francinah Baaitse. “Girl, 11, Driven to Suicide by Fear of School.” The Okavango Voice, 8 May 2000. Accessed on 21 February 2021.


22 Dipholo, Kabelo. “Teachers’ Schoolyard Scrap Leads to Child Abuse Claims.” The Okavango Voice, 29 September 2020. Accessed on 2 February 2021.


23 Child Frontiers. “Protecting Children of Nomadic Groups in Botswana.” May 2020. Accessed 27 December 2020. https://www.childfrontiers.com/features-jun-2020-gt-botswana

24 Child Frontiers. “Mapping and Capacity Gap Analysis: Strengthening the social service workforce to prevent and respond to violence against children in Botswana. Final Report.” March 2020. Accessed on 27 December 2020. https://childfrontiers.app.box.com/s/yr0rkq5t68kj5v6wkzoio7w009bliex5

25 Maytham, Emma. “Women’s Rights in Botswana.” The Borgen Project, 6 November 2020. Accessed on 16 December 2020. www.borgenproject.org

26 San Youth Network. Personal communication, 15 September 2020; see also Kamelhar, Benjamin. “Reforming the Right to Property: How Botswana’s Progressive Judiciary Helps Lift Women Out of Poverty.” Georgetown Journal on Law and Policy. 26 March 2020.

27 Mmana, Francinah Baaitse. “Maun Schools to Use Native Languages in Teaching.”  The Voice, 1 September 2020. Accessed on 2 February 2021. https://news.thevoicebw.com/2020/09/maun-schools-to-use-native-languages-in-teaching/. Chebanne, Andy. University of Botswana. Personal communication, 18 November 2020.




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