• 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.

The Indigenous World 2022: Botswana

Botswana is a country of 2,350,667 inhabitants that celebrated its 50th year of independence in 2016. Its government does not recognise any specific ethnic groups as Indigenous, maintaining instead that this applies to all citizens of the country. However, 3.2% of the population identifies as belonging to an Indigenous group.

These include: the San (known in Botswana as the Basarwa) who number around 70,040; the Balala (2,420); and the Nama (2,830), 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 took part in the 20th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held (largely virtually) in New York from 19-30 April 2021.

COVID-19 and its impact on Botswana

As is the case for people throughout the world, the lives of Botswana’s Indigenous people have been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Botswana has now lifted the most recent total lockdown, although vaccination rates in the country are only at 40%. There are high rates of coronavirus infection in some San communities, including Ghanzi, D’Kar and Mababe, although the mortality rates for San in Botswana appear to be relatively minimal. The Sir Ketumile Masire Foundation provided soap and other protective materials to Remote Area Communities (RACs) and information on COVID-19 was provided in mother-tongue languages by the Kalahari Peoples Fund and other organisations.

In 2021, COVID-19 and the Omicron variant caused an 80% decline in tourism, resulting in a drastic decrease in incomes and subsistence for members of RACs. In normal times, communities located in wildlife management areas benefit by subleasing their areas to tour operators through the Community-Based Natural Resource Management and Hunting Licence systems which, until the pandemic, provided an income for 46% of the rural population in general.[1] In contrast, income from diamonds, which dominates the Botswana economy, jumped 73% in 2021 according to the Botswana government and the Debswana Diamond Company economic figures.[2]

Land and language issues

After many years of discussion, it was announced in July 2021 that mother-tongue San languages would be taught in Botswana schools beginning in February 2022. Naro and possibly Ts’ixa will be included. For years, only English and Setswana, the national languages, have been taught in schools.

There were no changes in legislation affecting Indigenous people in Botswana in 2021. The land tenure situation of RACs in Botswana is still very precarious,[3] and new legislation may be needed to ensure that the rights of these communities are protected.

Hunting and wildlife issues

President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks held auctions for elephant hunting licences in March 2021 for the season that closed in September of that year. A few San communities made bids but most were not allocated any elephants. In the North-West, Chobe and Central districts, there were no specifications for distributing benefits to the communities where elephants are shot so community members were not able to benefit from the meat or other elephant products. Some community members did, however, accompany the safari companies and their clients and were able to generate some income in that way.

One of the mysteries in Botswana in 2021 was the continued deaths of elephants in and around the Okavango Delta, which recorded a total of 450 elephant deaths. After months of testing the potential cause was determined, most probably cyanobacteria or toxic algae.[4]

Central Kalahari Game Reserve issues

Residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, both San and Bakgalagadi, continue to suffer neglect from the government, which has not provided the water infrastructure that it promised. Thirst is a major problem for residents of the reserve.

Field work in the Central Kalahari in 2021 revealed that communities in the reserve have not received any benefits since the Memoghamoga Community Trust (MCD) –designed and put in place by the government in 2018– was established there. The five Central Kalahari communities are seeking the right to individual trusts for each community, giving them more flexibility and greater control over their own activities. At present they do not have access to any of the benefits of tourism and tourists are discouraged from going to the communities. Instead, they go to government-sponsored camps or private safari lodges, such as Tau Lodge in the western part of the reserve, and Kalahari Plains Camp in the north-eastern Central Kalahari.[5]

Ranyane (Ghanzi District)

The threat of resettlement still hangs over many San communities, including Ranyane in southern Ghanzi District, where the government has been systematically evicting residents for many years. The Botswana Khwedom Council, a national San non-government organisation, visited the settlement in May 2021[6] with information on COVID-19 and masks for the community. They reported that 165 people were now living there, the majority of them Naro San, along with a dozen Bakgalagadi. Some of the community members were staying temporarily in Matsimantsho (39 km from Ranyane) where they are working in the programme known as Ipelegeng, a cash- and food-for-work programme that was not made available to Ranyane, unlike other communities in Ghanzi District.

Ranyane community has a borehole but the government does not maintain it as it does for other settlements. Residents contribute funds for its maintenance and fuel, including the Chief of Ranyane, Qlarake Pule, who sold some of his cattle for this purpose. No government representatives have visited the settlement since 2013 and the people of Ranyane feel abandoned and neglected. In the words of Kgosi Pule: “Only God cares about us.” Residents feel that the government is punishing them for standing up for their rights and taking their case to court to stop the evictions. There are no health posts or schools in or near Ranyane and the Village Development Committee is not operational.

The people of Ranyane have asked the Khwedom Council to organise some training on human rights-related matters for the community. The chief (kgosi) of Ranyane, Qlarake Pule, and other community members have said they want their village to be recognised and services made available to them. They also want to have access to livelihood projects under the Botswana government and UNDP “Kgalagadi – Ghanzi Drylands Ecosystem Project” (KGDEP) and to have equal treatment from the Remote Area Development Programme of the Ghanzi District Council and central government.

Botswana seizes land in the Okavango Delta without consulting residents

Several major pieces of land in the Okavango Delta area were seized by the Botswana government in 2021. Botswana has three kinds of land: tribal, State (including protected areas) and freehold, which is owned by individuals. On 9 April, the Office of President Masisi ordered the acquisition of a large parcel of land in the Moremi game reserve which, until the 1960s and 1970s, was Khwe San land. The government plans to use this detribalised land as a government-run tourist facility. The North-West District Council (NWDC) voted against the government’s plan in July, only to be informed that they had no voice in the decision because it was the sole responsibility of the Tawana Land Board.[7] The Minister of Land Management, Kefentse Mzwinila, justified bypassing the council on the basis of the Tribal Land Act, saying: “We’ve done it before where we detribalised land to make it State land.”[8] Some observers were reminded of the expulsion of Indigenous people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the 1990s.[9] The loss of this land will mean a reduction in incomes and employment for local San such as those at Khwai who work for tourism companies operating in the northern part of Moremi and who have a community trust.

In May, the government announced that it had purchased a functioning tourist facility, the Tautona Lodge in Ghanzi, along with a nearby wildlife area, for use as a training facility by the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS).[10] Ghanzi Councillor Kealeboga Gaebase said, “It is shocking that the government has unanimously decided to buy [Tautona] despite its pronouncement that the country is in the middle of an economic crisis.” Jumanda Gakelebone, a San delegate to the council, questioned why the lodge was purchased without consulting the community. He said, “Of course we will not rest until we find answers because for any purchase made by government, especially in our jurisdiction, there has to be consultation...”[11] Naro San in the area had ancestral rights to Tautona, and some of them were employed at the lodge, which will no longer be the case.

These acquisitions by the government have taken place at a time when the Okavango and Ghanzi communities have lost thousands of jobs due to the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s tourism industry. Community members have lost their employment in the Okavango as chefs, professional guides, canoe polers, entertainers and craftspersons, increasing their already severe food insecurity and poverty.

Oil prospecting in the Okavango Delta area

Late in 2020, the Canadian oil company ReconAfrica announced that it had discovered oil in the Okavango Delta area, and that it had obtained licensing agreements from the governments of both Botswana and Namibia to begin exploration, as noted in last year’s report. The licences approved exploration over vast, contiguous areas of North-West Botswana and North-East Namibia, covering a total of 13,200 square miles.[12]

Lefoko Moagi, Botswana’s Minister of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security, stated in February 2021 that the Botswana phase of the exploration would be carried out with careful consideration for the area’s environment and its people’s well-being, and that no fracking would be permitted. The first three years of the Botswana licensing agreement would be used for planning and would not involve any physical activities on the ground. Two UN world heritage sites in the area –the Tsodilo Hills and the Okavango Delta itself– were excluded from the licensing agreement in response to UN concerns.[13] This did not prevent ReconAfrica from sending a representative to the Tsodilo Hills in September 2021 to tell the Ju/’hoansi San and Mbukukushu living there that they would have to resettle away from the hills.[14]

Citizens and environmentalists raised concerns immediately. An international “Save the Okavango” movement began soon after the plans were unveiled. Early in 2021, Gakemotho Khwebe Satau, the Regional Chair of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC) began consulting with community leaders in the affected area of Botswana and called on President Masisi to meet with them. Kgosi Boitumelo Kopano of Dobe settlement said ReconAfrica had not been in touch with community leaders, and he added that: “As a community we need to be thoroughly consulted on the matter.”[15] Failure to obtain free, prior, and informed consent goes against Botswana’s environmental laws.

In October, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, Leonardo di Caprio, Forest Whitaker and other celebrities joined local Indigenous and environmental activists in calling for an immediate moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Okavango River Basin. Prince Harry and Reinhold Mangundu, a Namibian activist, wrote in an article published in the Washington Post: “Drilling is an outdated gamble that reaps disastrous consequences for many, and incredible riches for the powerful few.” They asked readers to join them in resisting the drilling in the Okavango.[16]

Women’s and youth issues in Botswana

Rape and domestic abuse increased in Botswana during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. The Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Support Centre and several San NGOs called for greater attention to women’s rights in the country, especially those relating to domestic abuse. Data collected by the Red Cross and UNICEF in 2021 indicated that minority women in remote areas were suffering higher coronavirus infection rates than men, and that their incomes were much reduced due to the decline in tourism. Organisations such as the Tane Ko Teemahane Women’s Foundation and the Kuru Family of Organisations worked with women in craft production, along with individual artists based in Maun, D’Kar and Ghanzi. Palesa Molefe, Miss Botswana in the Miss World contest, met with Ju/’hoan healers in December when they demonstrated their healing powers and provided her with traditional craft items to be worn during her international events.[17]

Indigenous women also reported having more difficulty than men in obtaining legal tenure rights over land for residential, arable or business purposes. This was especially the case in North-West, Ghanzi, Central, Kgalagadi and Kgatleng districts.[18]

A study of 367 San women and their children in Ghanzi District uncovered high rates of anaemia among the women and even higher rates, 50%, among their children, who also tended to be undernourished and stunted. Many of the women lived in households of eight people or more. Two-thirds of the households had no access to toilet facilities, not even pit latrines. A majority of the women were living on less than USD 200 a month and, although most were employed, over two-thirds of them were making less than USD 175 per month.[19] As has been the case in previous years, female-headed households tend to be the poorest in the country, an issue that continues to be a focus of concern for the Botswana government and NGOs.

Robert K. Hitchcock is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico USA, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Judith Frost is a freelance consultant who has done extensive work on San issues in Southern Africa, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Pinnock, Don. “Botswana’s President Masisi buys lodges at government expense amid economic crisis.” Daily Maverick, 26 September 2021.

[2] Reuters, Botswana's Debswana diamond sales jump 73% in first nine months of 2021. London: Reuters, 30 November 2021.

[3] Hitchcock, RK 2021. Social and environmental impact assessment (ESIA) of the project titled ‘Managing the human-wildlife interface to sustain the flow of agro-ecosystem services and prevent illegal wildlife trafficking in the Kgalagadi and Ghanzi Drylands (KGDEP) Botswana.’ Gaborone: Government of Botswana and United Nations Development Programme, November 2021.

[4] Veerman, J., A Kumar, and DR Mishras (2021). Exceptional landscape-wide cyanobacteria bloom in Okavango Delta, Botswana in 2020 coincided with a mass elephant die-off event. Harmful Algae, 102145, ISSN 1568-9883, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2021.102145.

[5] Reports by Job Morris and Smith Moeti on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, 2021.

[6] Mogodu, Keikabile (2021). Report of a Visit to Ranyane, Ghanzi District. Gaborone: Botswana Khwedom Council.

[7] Maketi, Job. “Councilors powerless against Okavango land acquisition.” Sunday Standard, 11 August 2021.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Baatweng, Victor. “The invisible hand denying Okavango residents land rights.” Sunday Standard, 25 August 2021.

[10] Pinnock, Don. Op.cit.

[11] Molelo, Laone. “State purchase of lodge infuriates Gantsi councilors.” Sunday Standard, 15 July 2021.

[12] Stanford-Xosei, Esther, (2021). ReconAfrica; Ecocide in the Kavango Basin. Amsterdam and London: Stop Ecocide Foundation. Barbee, Jeffrey and Lara Neme. Oil Company Accused of Drilling in African Wildlife Reserve, Offering Jobs for Silence. National Geographic Wildlife Watch, 13 December 2021.

[13] Ramatiti, Ketumile. “Dikgosi summon Masisi Over Oil Deal.” Sunday Standard, 15 March 2021.

[14] Tsodilo Hills Village Development Committee, person communication, September 2021.

[15] Ibid, Ramatiti, Dikgosi.

[16] Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry and Reinhold Mangundu. “Opinion: Protect the Okavango River Basin from corporate drilling.” Washington Post, 14 October 2021.

[17] Staff Writer, Cobra Magic: Botswana’s Traditional Doctor hailed for Palesa’s Miss World Magic, Pula 24, 10 December 2021.

[18] M. Bolaane, K. Molokomme, J. Morris, personal communications, 2021.

[19] Leepile, T.T. et al (2021). Anemia Prevalence and Anthropometric Status of Indigenous Women and Young Children in Rural Botswana: The San People. Nutrients 2021, 13, 1105. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13041105



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