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Diamonds, Genocide and Resistance: A Story of the People of the Kalahari

By Theresa Wolfwood

 “ the day we die/the wind comes down/to take away/our footprints/the wind makes dust/to cover up/the marks we left/while walking …”    
Poetry from Bushmen in  A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz.   Harcourt Brace & Company.

Mongwegi Thobogelo
Mongwegi Thobogelo, one of the people who launched the court case.Survival photo
The First People of the Kalahari, an organization formed by dispossessed Bushmen, won a major victory, December, 2006 in the Botswana High Court. It was the end of the longest and most expensive case – it opened in July, 2004 – in the history of this diamond rich African nation.  The court ruled that the Botswana government acted unlawfully when it evicted the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and that the Bushmen have the right to hunt and gather in the reserve, and should not have to apply for permits to enter it. One judge said that this forced exile and denial of hunting rights ‘was tantamount to condemning the residents of the CKGR to death by starvation.’

Roy Sesana, founder of the First People of the Kalahari, said outside the court, ‘Today is the happiest day for us Bushmen. We have been crying for so long, but today we are crying with happiness. Finally we have been set free. The evictions have been very, very painful for my peopleI hope that now we can go home to our land.”                                  

There are only 1000 of them left, the Gana and Gwi, these resourceful and hardy hunters and gatherers, who have made their home for millennia in the area of Botswana called the Kalahari Desert. They live lightly on the land, their footprints disappear in the wind; their ancestors are present in voices, not monuments. For many years they have appealed to the world to support their cause and they finally launched a case against the government to seek justice and the right to survive as a distinctive people.

The court ruled that the Bushmen have the right to live on their ancestral land inside the CKGR (Central Kalahari Game Reserve). They had been evicted from their traditional land in 1997 and 2002 and forced into slum-like resettlement camps. People became sick and dispirited when deprived of the land which they call home. In the camps, they had neither hope nor economic means to support themselves; some turned to prostitution and alcohol, some became HIV+, others committed suicide. These brutal attempts to destroy a unique culture and a small group of people can only be described as genocide.

Many of these Gana and Gwi tried to return to their land, it became official government policy to prevent them. They were beaten, tortured, imprisoned and some died as a result of the harsh treatment. Yet many other tribes in Botswana have communal lands; this singular and exceptional treatment of the Bushmen has been called racist and genocidal.  President Festus Mogae of Botswana once described them as ‘Stone Age creatures’ for whom there was no place in the modern world. The Botswana government claimed this enforced removal was for ‘development’ and ‘their own good’.

Diamonds make all the difference. First discovered in 1967, the glitter of the precious gem led the Government of Botswana and De Beers, the diamond giant, to form a joint company, Debswana, in 1969, to develop and market this country’s diamond deposits. It is now the largest private employer in Botswana.

While other African countries have been branded as sellers of ‘blood diamonds’, using profits for arms to oppress people and fight bloody civil wars, Debswana has helped make Botswana the poster child of Africa (with the hired assistance of Hill and Knowlton, the infamous public relations firm used by the Chinese government for “damage control’ after Tiananmen Square and which lobbies for tobacco companies. It also advised the Kuwaiti girl who told the lies about babies being thrown out of incubators by Iraqis). l infrastructure for most of its citizens, giving them the high, for Africa, per capita annual income of more than 3,000 Euros. ( Which makes me wonder why, if things are so good, Botswana should be the site of International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) – a USA military-type training school “for advancing our common fight against international crime and terrorism and promoting the rule of law that is essential for development and prosperity” that sounds very much like the hated School of the Americas).

Botswana officials claim the present high income level is 10 times the per capita income when Botswana gained its independence from Britain in 1966. The government and De Beers are proud to market their clean diamonds and claim they are never mixed with blood or conflict diamonds from violence-wracked countries.

But when De Beers wanted to prospect for more diamonds in the CKGR, the Gana and the Gwi became the victims of government persecution. There are diamonds there and one day a proposed mine operation that would cover more than 5000 square kilometres of the Reserve may become a reality. It is hard to imagine what we think of as unspoiled wilderness with the kind of development now existing in Botswana.  The world’s largest open-pit diamond mine, as big as 52 football fields and more than 20 stories deep, is operating at Orapa, Botswana.

We know how powerful the De Beers Corporation is; throughout Africa and the world it is the undisputed ruler of diamond production. To oppose De Beers is a classic David and Goliath tale. The treatment of the Bushmen is surely one of conflict and Botswana diamonds are stained with the blood of these people.

Roy Sesana receives the right Livelihood award from Jakob von Uexkall
Roy Sesana receives the right Livelihood award from Jakob von Uexkall
When Roy Sesana came to the platform in the Swedish Parliament, in December, 2005, to accept the Right Livelihood Award he walked and spoke with quiet dignity; we knew he had recently been released from jail and was suffering from beatings inflicted there. I was moved to tears as I listened to him speak in his melodious click language which I could followed on a printed translation, he said,

“I am a leader. When I was a boy we did not need leaders and we lived well. Now we need them because our land is being stolen and we must struggle to survive. It doesn’t mean I tell people what to do, it’s the other way around: they tell me what I have to do to help them.

I cannot read. You wanted me to write this speech, so my friends helped, but I cannot read words – I’m sorry! But I do know how to read the land and the animals. All our children could. If they didn’t, they would have all died long ago.

I know many who can read words and many, like me, who can only read the land. Both are important. We are not backward or less intelligent… I wear the antelope horns, it helps me talk to my ancestors and they help me. The ancestors are so important: we would not be alive without them. Everyone knows this in their heart, but some have forgotten. Would any of us be here without our ancestors? I don’t think so…Why am I here? Because my people love their land, and without it we are dying. Many years ago, the president of Botswana said we could live on our ancestral land forever. We never needed anyone to tell us that…But the next president said we must move and began forcing us away.

They said we had to go because of diamonds. Then they said we were killing too many animals: but that’s not true. They say many things which aren’t true. They said we had to move so the government could develop us. The president says unless we change we will perish like the dodo. I didn’t know what a dodo was. But I found out: it was a bird which was wiped out by settlers. The president was right. They are killing us by forcing us off our land. We have been tortured and shot at. They arrested me and beat me….the Right Livelihood Award will help… raise our voice throughout the world. When I heard I had won I had just been let out of prison. They say I am a criminal, as I stand here today.

We are not primitive. We live differently to you, but we do not live exactly like our grandparents did, nor do you. Were your ancestors ‘primitive’? I don’t think so.”

It is not hard to feel again the emotional impact of his closing words, “I am now going to play about my ancestors who have protected us for many years. The song says “Please, government of Botswana, let us stay on our ancestral land to practice our culture and enjoy our lives.” He took up his thumb piano and many of us wept as he sang his heartfelt plea; a plea now answered by the High Court of Botswana. These people only asked for the right to live and hunt in their ancestral land; they did not ask for an end to diamond prospecting or development.

The judges heard their plea; they knew the law was clearly on the side of the Bushmen. But it was also a moral victory for people who are connected to all of us. Just as the Bushmen can read the land, scientists can now read our genetic landscape and they theorize that we are all descended from a small gene pool of Africans, the Gana and Gwi live very much as our ancestors, indeed we have common ancestors. It is not a great leap of faith for people in other cultures and places to have felt the connection to the Gana and the Gwi and to be moved to support these people of a threatened distinctive desert culture in their struggle. As Roy Sesana has said, “We are all brothers and sisters and we too have a right to live.”  In their own unique way they combine tradition and modernity in their activism, conviction, organizing ability and their message to the world which can be found on their own website: www.Iwant2gohome.org

They have much support around the world, including Survival International, a UK based group that supports tribal peoples worldwide who provide excellent current and background resources at: www.survival-international , the Nobel Laureate cleric Desmond Tutu, the USA feminist activist, Gloria Steinem, and high fashion models who appeared in De Beers advertisements, but now refuse to work for them; these models also speak out on behalf of the Bushmen. It is too early to end the international boycott on De Beers whose strategies, supporters & successes can be found on: www.boycottdeBeers.com

The victory of the Gana and Gwi must now be realized; the world must watch carefully to ensure that they return and remain in their lands, undisturbed and unthreatened. This case is a precedent and a ray of hope for indigenous peoples around the world who are in similar struggles. Although the Government of Botswana has said it will not appeal the ruling and will implement the spirit of the decision, it is too early to end any vigilance or boycott. And besides – who needs diamond jewellery anyhow?

It is indeed too early to relax our vigilance. The government of Botswana is finding new ways to thwart justice. Survival International reports that The Botswana government has banned the Kalahari Bushmen from using their own water.

Botswana’s Attorney General has written to the Bushmen’s lawyers turning down their request for permission to install a pump, at their own expense, at an existing borehole on their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). The government claims that the borehole is the property of the government.

In London, Jumanda Gakelebone of the First People of the Kalahari said at a press conference on World Water Day, March 22, ‘The court said we could go back to our land, but now we see that the government is doing everything it can to stop us. Why else would it stop us using a borehole that nobody else is using? Without water we cannot live in the Kalahari.’

Botswana prides itself on its democracy and as a tourist destination, including the Kalahari Desert.

Letters expressing concern about the treatment of Bush people will have an effect on their policies. Address them to: Ambassador Mr. Botsweletse Kingsley Sebele, Embassy of Botswana. Fax: (613) 233-1852

Email: emb.macedonia.ottawa@sympatico.ca

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