• 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 2023: Botswana

Botswana is a country of 2,359,659 inhabitants,[1] having celebrated its 56th year of independence in 2022. Its government does not recognize any specific ethnic groups as Indigenous, maintaining instead that all citizens of the country are Indigenous.

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 71,791; the Balala (2,481); and the Nama (2,901), a Khoekhoe-speaking people. The San were traditionally hunter-gatherers but today the vast majority consists of small-scale agro-pastoralists, cattle post workers, or people with mixed economies. Only an estimated 300 San people are full-time hunter-gatherers, but many others hunt or gather as a supplement to other food sources. The San 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.

 Botswana is a signatory to the Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and it voted in favor 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 People included in the Botswana Constitution. Botswana’s census does not include information on ethnicity. Botswana took part in the 21st Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held in New York from 25 April-6 May 2022 and the meetings of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva on 21 and 22 November 2022.


Poverty and policy issues

The year 2022 saw COVID-19 exacerbating poverty, inequalities and unemployment in the country. Like many southern African countries, Botswana was faced with high fuel and food prices, resulting in a rising cost of living. In the past year, largely due to COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and the global economic situation, food insecurity and hunger have increased, incomes have declined, crime rates have gone up, and Indigenous people have become more reliant on government support systems. These include Ipelegeng, a labor-based public works program that provides employment opportunities, cash, food, and skills training.[2]

A Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Review of the Constitution was put in place, and it reported its findings on 29 September 2022.[3] Its 19 members discussed the rights of the Basarwa San at length but the Commission made no recommendations specifically related to these people.

In 2022, Botswana established a new National Language Policy that includes the teaching of mother tongue San and Nama languages – a policy that was welcomed by Indigenous women, men and youth. The Botswana Language Policy has been accepted but not yet implemented.


Community-Based Natural Resource Management and Community Trusts

The Botswana government has been engaged in a number of projects that involve wildlife and natural resources, including a Government of Botswana-United Nations Development Programme effort entitled the “Kgalagadi-Ghanzi Drylands Ecosystem Project”, which includes integrated land-use planning, anti-poaching enhancement, and human-wildlife conflict (HWC) mitigation. Land-use planning will be used to establish wildlife corridors between two of Botswana’s largest protected areas: the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). New policies on game farming and income generation relating to natural resources has been developed, and a new National Anti-Poaching Strategy promulgated.

With regard to Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), while discussions were ongoing about devising an enhanced CBNRM policy, many existing community trusts and community-based organizations that have rights to wildlife were finding themselves in difficulty, particularly since tourism declined so precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of these belong to Indigenous Peoples. At least half a dozen community trusts in North West District (Ngamiland) and Ghanzi District, all of them San-dominated, were taken over by private safari companies, resulting in a reduction in benefits and incomes for Indigenous community trust members. Some of these trusts wanted to file grievances with the government but the Grievance Redress Mechanism that was supposed to have been designed in 2022 was yet to be in place by the end of the year.[4]

The number of arrests of members of Indigenous communities for contravening wildlife conservation laws declined in 2022 but six San children were arrested in the CKGR in July by Department of Wildlife and National Parks game scouts for being in possession of wild game meat.


Government continues its tight control over the lives of people in the CKGR

As reported in the Indigenous World for the past two decades, the Government of Botswana has been involved in efforts to relocate hundreds of San and Bakgalagadi involuntarily from the CKGR, arguing that their needs would be better met in resettlement sites outside of the reserve.

After losing a series of court cases brought by the residents of the reserve, several hundred people were allowed to return although they were not able to access government services or to receive health assistance, food commodities, or educational opportunities for their children inside the Central Kalahari. Some residents of the reserve, notably several G//ana families in Metsiamonong, one of the five communities in the Central Kalahari, refused to leave the CKGR. One of these individuals, Pitseng Gaoborekwe, became ill and his family moved him to New Xade, one of the resettlement sites outside of the Central Kalahari boundaries. Unfortunately, he did not recover, and he passed away on 21 December 2021. His body was placed in a mortuary in the district capital of Ghanzi. Mr. Gaoberekwe’s three children, Lesiame, Keitatotse and Dikakanyetso, sought to have his body returned to Metsiamonong for burial but the Ghanzi District Council and later the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) denied the request, demanding that the family bury the body in New Xade.[5] When the family refused, they received a court order on 9 March 2022 telling them to bury the body outside of the Reserve within seven days.[6]

Smith Moeti, a nephew of the deceased and representative of the family, explained: “In our culture, it is sacrilegious to contravene the covenant we had with the departed. It is a traditional rite.” He continued by saying, “We must at all costs follow the dead’s words because the moment they pass they become our ancestors.”[7]

Much of 2022 was taken up with a legal battle over the right to bury Mr. Gaoberekwe in his ancestral territory. On 25 April, the government brought the case before the Botswana High Court under Judge Itumeleng Segopolo. Lesiame Pitseng, son of the deceased, was named the chief applicant. The family’s attorney, Nelson Ramataona, stated that Lesiame had not only a right but a duty to bury his father in the CKGR and that other families had been permitted to bury their dead inside the CKGR.[8]

Advocate Sidney Pilane, who had represented the government in the original CKGR case, represented it again here. He said of Mr. Gaoberekwe, “He is deceased and no longer exists as a person with rights. He is now a thing. And the question arises whether anybody can assert his right when he is deceased and what right does the applicant have to assert the dead person’s right?”[9] Judge Segopolo ruled against the family, ordering Lesiame Pitseng to bury his father’s body outside the Reserve or spend 30 days in jail.

The High Court’s decision against the burial drew attention both in Botswana and worldwide. A supporter used a social media post to request donations toward the family’s legal bills. Within a few months, 100,000 pula had been raised.[10] A member of the Botswana parliament, Dithapelo Keorapetse, criticized the government’s “systematic injustices against the First People of the Kalahari”. Another MP, Dr. Neva Tshabang, said, “I think the government must relax its stance regarding areas with ancestral linkages.”[11]

Encouraged by this wave of support, the family filed an appeal, which was heard in the Court of Appeals on 12 December.[12] Its decision was essentially the same as that of the High Court.[13]

Coincidentally, during the time the appeal was being heard in court in Botswana, several Botswana officials were in Geneva participating in hearings held by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The UN Committee expressed its regret that “…those groups who were not party to the Roy Sesana and others v. Attorney General case have not been allowed to return to the Reserve to settle there. Furthermore, those who are allowed to return must obtain a permit in advance and encounter difficulties in resuming and conducting their traditional activities.” The report goes on to urge the State party:

to fully implement the High Court’s decision in [the Sesana case], by allowing all ethnic groups originating from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to return and settle there unconditionally. The Committee also recommends that the State party provide them with effective access to basic social services and enable them to resume their traditional activities without hindrance.[14]

After the appeal was denied, the family agreed on an approach to the burial that would satisfy official demands. Smith Moeti sent a letter to the Attorney General stating that the family would not resist the government’s burial of their father in New Xade but they would not participate in it. He wrote:

In a nutshell, the government of Botswana has all along wanted to bury Pitseng Gaoberekwe at New Xade, and their courts granted the government her wish and the family of Gaoberekwe shall not partake in the burial of their father in New Xade or anywhere else, except the CKGR.

The family is considering taking the matter to a higher court such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, or the UN.[15]

By year end, Pitseng Gaoberekwe’s body still remained in the mortuary in Ghanzi.[16]


ReCon plans to explore for petroleum in Botswana in 2023

As reported in the Indigenous World in previous years, the Canadian oil company Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica) has obtained licensing agreements from both the Botswana and Namibian governments to explore for petroleum and gas in the Kavango River Basin where some 40,000 Indigenous people reside. The concessions to ReCon Africa comprise approximately 30,000 sq km (13,600 square miles) in the Kavango River Basin, which is 530,000 sq km in size. The area is defined by the Kavango River, which eventually empties into the famed Okavango Delta in Botswana, a World Heritage site.

The company had not started on-the-ground activities in Botswana as of the end of 2022 but there is every evidence that they plan to start soon, under the name Reconnaissance Energy Botswana (REB). An announcement from REB was posted in the Botswana Gazette in October 2022,[17] stating that it had “only been gathering data” and that it “currently has no on the ground operations in the license area in Botswana” but that they would soon begin seismic surveys performed by lightweight vehicles “about the size of a tractor”. Sources in the area have communicated their understanding that REB is planning to begin drilling in early 2023.[18]

ReCon has stated repeatedly that their license excludes the Tsodilo Hills and the Okavango Delta. However, sources in the Tsodilo area report that they were visited by ReCon representatives and told they would probably have to move.[19] The Okavango Delta contains some 6,000 Indigenous people and there are at least 200 Ju/’hoansi in Tsodilo.

Diphetogo Anita Lekgowa, a Khwe San from Khwaai in the Okavango Delta, attended the COP 27 meeting held in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt in November 2022. While there, she was interviewed by the BBC and spoke about ReCon.[20] “We don’t want this project to happen,” she told the BBC. “We are concerned for the environment and the protection of our natural resources, because once [drilling starts] there will be a whole load of change. The animals will migrate, and we fear losing our Indigenous plants.”

Ms Lekgowa is from the Bugakhwe “River San” people and grew up in the Okavango Delta. “Why is our government interested in oil when there are other things that can be done that can bring in revenue?” She has created an historic village museum for tourism in her home community of Khwai and is a member of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC).[21]

Another San activist, Gakemotho Satau of the Kuru Family of Organizations, said “The planned oil drilling activities pose great liabilities to the lives supported by the water resources”, noting that ReCon will need to consume either groundwater or river water for drilling purposes. [22]

ReCon has drilled three test wells in Namibia, none of which have yielded commercially viable results. Consequently, its stock value has plummeted. Most of the company’s officers have sold off their own stock.[23] Nevertheless, the Botswana government appears to have remained firm in its commitment to the project.


Women’s and children’s issues in Botswana

In his State of the Nation address, President Masisi said that gender equity (Bogaetshe) remains a key priority of his government.[24] Gender-based violence (GBV) appears to have increased in Botswana during 2022, especially among Indigenous communities, an issue that the government is attempting to tackle with new policies and procedures in the Ministry of Gender Affairs. San women and children continue to be the victims of violence and abuse at an alarming rate. “Defilement and teenage pregnancy remain a serious problem in the Ghanzi District, leading to many girls dropping out of school,” according to Seabotseng Befeletse, an outreach officer with the Botswana Gender-based Violence Prevention and Support Center (BGBVC). These problems are especially urgent in the parts of Ghanzi occupied by the Basarwa, Baherero and Bakgalagadi communities, he said.[25]

In December 2022, a child-friendly police station was initiated in Ghanzi, sponsored by the Government of Botswana, UNICEF and the Japanese government. The purpose of the special station is to encourage communities to report cases of violence against children, because children are often reluctant to speak out against perpetrators. Dr. Joan Matji of UNICEF said, “In 2018, we conducted a study that revealed that children are scared of reporting cases of abuse because of how they will be treated when they go to the police station.” Similar programs have been developed in several other locations in the country.[26]

Indigenous children’s status declined in 2022 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, declining incomes and less food availability resulting from global economic conditions. Botswana had one of the world’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rates (64%), which helped to reduce the morbidity and mortality rates from the virus. The intervention of government and non-government organizations to provide soap for hand-washing, access to water, and food in situations where COVID-19 was a major problem proved useful in reducing the impacts of COVID-19 and other diseases.



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. and 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 37th 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 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

[1] Statistics Botswana. “2022 Population and Housing Census; Preliminary Results.” Census 2021, https://www.statsbots.org.bw/2022-population-and-housing-census-preliminary-results

[2] Masisi, Mokgweetsi E.E. 2022. “Botswana State of the Nation.” 14 November 2022. Gaborone: Government of Botswana. https://www.facebook.com/BotswanaTelevision/videos/state-of-the-nation-address-2022/487909020070794/

[3] Republic of Botswana. “Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Review of Constitution of Botswana.” 20 September 2022, https://constitutionnet.org/sites/default/files/2022-12/Final%20Commission%20Report%2028%20Sep%202022.pdf

[4] UNDP Botswana Project Management Unit, personal communication. 31 December 2022.

[5] Thalefang, Charles. “The gods will be mad at us.” Mmegi, 14 April 2022, https://www.mmegi.bw/features/the-gods-will-be-mad-at-us/news

[6] Basimanebotlhe, Taaone. “Fight over burial costs Gaoberekwe family.” Mmegi, 28 March 2022, https://www.mmegi.bw/news/fight-over-burial-site-costs-gaoberekwe-family/news

[7] Thalefang, Charles.

[8] “Government faces backlash over CKGR burial.” The Botswana Gazette, 27 April 2022, https://www.thegazette.news/news/govt-faces-backlash-over-ckgr-burial-court-ruling/

[9] Thalefang, Charles Staff. “High court to rule as deceased awaits burial.” The Monitor, 25 April 2022, https://www.pressreader.com/botswana/the-monitor-4753/20220425/281530819581925

[10] Ontebetse, Khonani. “Patriots bankroll Basarwa of CKGR over right to bury.” Sunday Standard, 12 July 2022, https://www.sundaystandard.info/patriots-bankroll-basarwa-of-ckgr-over-right-to-bury/

[11] Botswana Gazette.

[12] Mlilo, Portia. “CKGR burial saga reaches Court of Appeal.” The Voice Botswana, 5 October 2022, https://thevoicebw.com/ckgr-burial-saga-reaches-court-of-appeal/

[13] Piet, Bame. “The CKGR Conundrum.” The Voice Botswana, 14 December 2022, https://thevoicebw.com/the-ckgr-conundrum/

[14] SEMK Botswana. “Government Denies Family´s Request to bury their Father in the CKGR.” 23 December 2022, http://www.semkbotswana.nl/en/nieuws.php

[15] Basimanebotlhe, Tsaone. “Gaoberekwe family’s burial dilemma.” Mmegi, 23 December 2022, https://www.mmegi.bw/news/gaoberekwe-familys-burial-dilemma/news

[16] “No burial yet for CKGR man.” Africa Press, 1 January 2023, https://www.africa-press.net/botswana/all-news/no-burial-yet-for-ckgr-man

[17] ReCon Botswana. ”Latest Updates on Reconnaissance Energy Botswana’s project in the Kavango Sedimentary Basin.” The Botswana Gazette, 26 October 2022, https://www.facebook.com/TheGazettebw/photos/a.327783877619/10159539224127620/?type=3

[18] Personal communications from residents of the area to author. 16 August 2022.

[19] Tsodilo Community Development Trust (TCDT) and Tsodilo Village development committee. Email to the authors. 18 July 2022.

[20] Diseko, Lebo. “COP 27: Namibia-Botswana oil project being called a sin.” BBC News, 11 November 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-63567513

[21] IPACC. “Meet the IPACC team”, https://www.ipacc.org.za/the-team/

[22] Ontebetse, Khonani. “Massive drilling project could put Africa’s Okavango Delta at risk.” Earth Island, 25 July 2022. https://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/drilling-project-africas-okavango-delta-risk/

[23] “Makoba leaves OP for controversial ReconAfrica.” The Botswana Gazette, 3 November 2022.

[24] Masisi, Mokgweetsi (p 10).

[25] Shone, Irene. “Shocking Revelations.” The Midweek Sun, 25 May 2022, https://www.pressreader.com/botswana/the-midweek-sun/20220525/281646783757783

[26] Kelapile, Tuduetso. “Child friendly police station launched.” Mmegi, 16 December 2022, https://www.mmegi.bw/news/child-friendly-police-station-launched/news

Tags: Global governance



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