Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Outraged Bushmen take on Botswana government in a Kalahari courtroom

20,000 YEARS The famed southern African indigenous group is struggling against a government that wants it to leave its tribal land for good, and all because of 'cost'

AFP , MAUN, BOTSWANA

The plight of southern Africa's earliest inhabitants, the San Bushmen, comes to the fore today when Botswana's high court begins hearing a landmark land case in the Kalahari desert.

A group of 243 San Bushmen are challenging their resettlement from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of the world's largest sanctuaries and an area they have been calling home for the past 20,000 years.

"We are determined to remain on our ancestral land," said Mathambo Ngakaeja, a Bushman and co-ordinator of the Botswana chapter of the Working Group on Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa.

At issue is the decision by Botswana's government in 2002 to cut off water, food and health services to the Bushmen of the Kalahari, due to the cost, and regrouping them in settlements built outside the reserve.

"The government has trampled on our rights, and terminating basic and essential services is tantamount to forced evictions," Ngakaeja said.

"We seek the courts to declare that those who had been effectively forced to move due to the termination of services should be returned to the [Central Kalahari Game Reserve]," he said.

According to the government, there are 20,000 San Bushmen remaining in Botswana but various rights groups estimate their number at closer to 48,000.

The San took the government to court in April 2002 seeking an order declaring it illegal to terminate the services to the Bushmen living in the reserve, which was established in 1961 to protect their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The case was dismissed on a technicality but last month the Bushmen won the right to have their claim heard again.

Botswanian President Festus Mogae has already declared that he is determined to win victory and plans to appeal if the ruling does not go in the government's favor.

Mogae has dismissed the Bushmen's demands as "nonsense," arguing that as the first settlers in the region, the San could theoretically lay claim to the whole of southern Africa.

He also maintains that the Bushmen's nomadic way of life is a vestige of the past and that they now are "settled agriculturalists."

The high court will begin hearing the case on Monday with on-site inspections of San villages in the Kalahari reserve including one that was flattened by the government since the relocation began in 1997.

The government claims that there are now only 17 Bushmen living in the reserve but rights groups say 200 have gone back in defiance of Gaborone's campaign.

South African lawyer Glynn Williams is to begin presenting the defense's case during hearings opening next Monday in New Xade in western Bostwana, a resettlement village outside the sanctuary.

The choice of New Xade as the venue for the hearings has stirred controversy.

"New Xade is the boiling point of our case with the government," Ngakaeja said.

"This is not a generous move but a clear sign of the government's deceit and mockery to have the case heard in a area that doesn't have services, no telephones or accommodation," he said. "The move is aimed at shutting us from the rest of the world but we will accept the judgement."

The British-based group Survival International has supported the San Bushmen in their case and maintains that the indigenous people were driven out of the Kalahari reserve to make way for diamond mining.

Mogae came under fire recently when he made an impromptu visit to New Xade to distribute food and blankets to the resettled Bushmen ahead of the court case.

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