On Wednesday 13 December, the Basarwa (Bushmen) of the Kalahari in Botswana celebrated a tremendous victory. After a two-year long court struggle the Botswana High Court ruled in favour of Roy Sesana, the leader of the Basarwa human rights organisation First People of the Kalahari (FPK) and close to 200 other Basarwa, that they were unlawfully forced off their ancestral land.
The 100 Basarwa – who we accompanied when they went by bus to the High Court – were immensely proud, determined and hopeful people. Nevertheless, they approached the courtroom hesitantly. Some asked, “Will they not shoot at us?”
Despite being the people who have lived in Botswana longest, the Basarwa are also the most discriminated against and oppressed. Most of them are used as cheap labour for ruling class business ventures such as cattle herding.
Worse still the government decided to remove them their from their only land – the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), which was officially declared to be theirs in 1961.
Different kinds of intimidation have been used in the attempt remove the Basarwa from CKGR. They have been cut off from basic services such as water, communication and healthcare. The military and police forces used rubber bullets to shoot at some who resisted. Several cases of torture have been reported and some Basarwa activists died as a consequence. Restrictions have been sanctioned to deny the Basarwa free movement in and out of the reserve.
Basarwa activists have always assumed that they were being forced off their land because of diamond deposits. Once they were removed the government would avoid having to pay royalties to the Basarwa for any future mining. During the past year intense prospecting took place by the companies TH Drilling and Petra Diamonds. Behind Petra Diamonds is the multinational BHP Billington.
However, the intimidation never broke the resistant spirit of the Basarwa. In recent years they encouraged their people to fight back and built a magnificent international campaign with the help of the indigenous rights NGO Survival International. In 2005 FPK received the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel price. This international support was important an important part of the challenge the government faced in the longest court case in Botswana's legal history.
For a long time local support from ordinary people in Botswana was lacking. The government has accused Survival International of influencing First People of Kalahari to damage the country. It has falsely accused Survival International of branding Botswana’s diamonds – the economic life blood – as 'blood diamonds' and the president even described it as a 'terrorist organisation' Anybody who disagreed with government’s position in public was labelled as unpatriotic and an enemy of Botswana.
The situation took a dramatic turn when the main opposition party in Botswana, the Botswana National Front (BNF) together with the International Socialists decided to host a national demonstration in support of the struggle of the Basarwa to return to CKGR. The demonstration was held on 2 December 2006 prior to judgement of the case.
International Socialists Botswana formed part of the organising committee for the demonstration and assisted in developing the slogan, which read as “Let the Basarwa Go Home”. We designed and developed the message and logo, which were used throughout the campaign. We participated in issuing leaflets to the general public, attending planning meetings, speaking in the rallies and developing the petition, which was issued to Office of the President.
FPK activists marched with us and gave very moving speeches explaining their situation. 'First I didn’t want to go to that demonstration because I thought they will shoot us, as they did before. But I learned a lesson. They only shoot at the Basarwa, not at your kind. You see how low the Basarwa are regarded', said one Basarwa activist.
'Land and Diamonds to the people, not to multinationals,' was one of our slogans. For a whole week our demonstration raised the public debate in numerous front pages of local papers and the radio about Basarwa rights, development and who should control land and natural resources.
Interestingly one of the judges, Unity Dow, took up this point in her ruling: 'Resources do not belong to governments to do what they wish with them. They belong to the people.'
Our demonstration served as a big blow to the government as it robbed them of their main weapon – the declaration that everyone in Botswana supports the government against the Basarwa in the interest of the nation.
The victory of the Basarwa will change the political situation in Botswana. They have shown how to organise, to fight and to win. If the Basarwa, the most marginalised section of society can do it, so can do others.