Culture under threat - Special Report on the San Bushmen (II)

With nimble fingers, Sobo Cgara digs around a plant and unearths a calabash-shaped root full of water. Cgara, 24, is a San guide who shows tourists his people's unique knowledge of the Kalahari at a community-owned game farm near D'kar in Ghanzi district, in central-west Botswana.

He is one of the few San youth with education, a job and a future. The estimated 50,000 San in Botswana are "the poorest of the poor", says Alice Mogwe, head of Ditshwanelo, the Centre for Human Rights.

Botswana is rich in diamonds and cattle, with a population of just 1.6 million. But as an ethnic minority, the San experience both poverty and allegedly discrimination. They are called "Basarwa" (those who don't raise cattle, in the Tswana language), a term they feel is demeaning.

The San (or Bushmen), the first people of Southern Africa, have lived in the region for at least 30,000 years. Over time, the hunter-gatherer San were displaced and lost the rights to their ancestral lands and natural resources to farming, cattle herding, mineral exploitation and nature conservation.

"Our problems are poor health, low literacy, inadequate education, bad housing, poor hygiene, TB, AIDS and malnourishment, fragmentation, stigmatisation, social exclusion and lack of participation in mainstream politics," says Mothambo Ngakaeaja, coordinator of the Botswana section of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa.


The government of Botswana provides free education but the San have problems in accessing it. Teaching is done in Tswana and English, which many San children do not speak.

One Tswana first-year teacher in Ghanzi district had 40 San-speaking children in her class, but could not comunicate with them. In despair she went for help to the Naro Language Project (Naro is the most widely spoken San language in Ghanzi). Alongside the NGO umbrella known as the Kuru Family of Organisations, the language project works with the government and San communities to improve literacy and education.

The government has backed the language project's suggestion of having mother-tongue education in the first three school years and hiring Naro-speaking assistant teachers. When classes start, Hessel and Coby Visser, two Dutch linguists with the project, visit every school and show teachers how to write and pronounce San names. Other activities include teaching adults to read and write.

Over the past 13 years, the Vissers have transcribed Naro and have produced reading material like HIV/AIDS information and riddle booklets to encourage literacy. Hessel Visser has mastered Naro's 28 clicks - four main ones with seven modifications each. He has also seen progress: more San children are studying, and a few have even reached university.


The government lists many accomplishments by its Remote Area Development Programme (RADP) since 1978, when the Bushmen-Basarwa-San were renamed Remote Area Dwellers, shortened to RADs. The government argues that the 1974 Basarwa Development Programme was "separatist" and the term "RADs" includes all needy ethnic groups in those areas. However, the large majority of RADs are San.

"Under the RADP, the emphasis is placed on the geographic distances from existing social services, as well as economic marginalisation, rather than on ethnicity," says Clifford Maribe, press secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Operating in seven districts, the RADP has brought roads, potable water, primary schools, hostels and health posts, the latest being a newly completed maternity ward costing P4.4 million (US $912,560)in New Xade.

Its Economic Promotion Fund supports livestock schemes, small industrial projects, income-generation, and training in animal husbandry, among other activities. To acquaint RADs with commercial cattle farming, the Fund has established three community-owned farms.

Driving through New Xade, the controversial village where San residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) have been relocated, one sees people queuing for drought-relief and food-for-work programmes. The government offers free education and health care, old-age pensions, drought aid, free food for AIDS orphans and free antiretrovirals for people with HIV/AIDS.

In spite of these efforts, rural poverty is endemic and the San remain the poorest of the poor, exploited as farm labourers, plagued by alcoholism, perceived as backward, silent in politics.

The government's largesse may be part of the problem. "The government gives but does not empower. Its progress is based on dependency," says Alice Mogwe.

For the resettled San of the CKGR the problem is more acute. In one move, they went from being resourceful to being dependent.

"Government relief is another way of killing a person; in the Reserve we knew how to provide for ourselves," says Daoxlo Xukuri, head of the activist group First People of the Kalahari.

Moreover, many development projects for the San are designed and imposed from the outside, with little input from the San. "Do they really want to plant hydroponic tomatoes, build bricks and weave baskets with reeds trucked in from the Okavango delta because there is no bush around New Xade?" asked an NGO worker in Ghanzi who requested anonymity.

The Botswana government appears perplexed by the criticism of its approach. A statement on its official website notes: "In a world where governments stand accused of many terrible crimes, it does seem strange that the Botswana government should have to defend itself against the charge of improving the lives of its citizens."

However, it goes on to say: "Culture is not static, all of us have a culture and a past. We must treasure these cultural values that help us live prosperously and discard those that retard progress."


For centuries and up to the present, the San have been the losers in the conflict between their need for land on which to forage and the demands of cattle ranching.

In both traditional Tswana culture and the modern Botswana economy, cattle rank high as a source of status and wealth. The government has implemented several plans to promote cattle-ranching, leading to the dispossession and forced relocation of poor rural people (not only San).

The World Bank has estimated that between 28,000 and 31,000 people were displaced by the Tribal Grazing Land Policy, initiated in 1975 to allocate and regulate tribal land where cattle graze. The new National Policy for Agricultural Development and the Fencing Act have the potential to displace many more, mostly in the Western Central District, say analysts.

"Displacement of the landless [has created] an underclass of rural poor who are dependent on the state," says a report by Jenny Clover for the African Security Analysis Programme at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.

The San also face problems in obtaining secure land and resource tenure rights, including water and grazing. "District Land boards and Councils have been unwilling to grant land rights to groups who make claims on the basis of customary rights and traditional livelihoods," anthropologist Robert Hitchcock notes.

The official opinion is that the San are nomadic (although they settle for periods and know their foraging areas) and thus have no rights to ancestral land, as San or by customary law, only hunting rights, and even these are very limited.

The Tribal Land Act Amendment Act of 1993 allowed people to get land anywhere in the country, not just in their home districts, provided they developed the land in two years, including water and fencing. In practice, people with means, mainly the urban-based, outcompete locals for land. The losers are the poor.

As casual workers on the ranches in Ghanzi, the San have reportedly endured a history of abuse at the hands of Afrikaner farmers who settled on the fertile land along the Ghanzi ridge in 1890s. In the process they displaced some 5,000 Naro San, who still suffer the consequences of losing their land. "They turned to casual labour, begging, stock theft and piecework for survival. They were demoralised, drunk and apathetic," wrote researcher Elizabeth Wily in 1972.

The Naro describe their lives with the term "sheta", meaning poverty, unemployment, oppression, dependency, impotence, homelessness and landlessness, despair, sickness and death."


In its documents and policies the government consistently talks of the Basarwa, not as a distinct ethnic and indigenous group, but as poor citizens or welfare-needing RADs, like any other poor rural Batswana.

This is an important distinction, analysts say. If the San's problems stem from poverty, that would require a distinct set of policy responses; if their problems are due to their status as a marginalised minority, a different course of actions would be required.

"Brick-and-mortar" solutions (schools and hospitals) and relief food do not solve social exclusion, low self-esteem and discrimination. In the words of a researcher, the government tried so hard to be culture-neutral that it became culture-blind.

"The Basarwa need a place where they belong. But how do you recognise their need of a sense of belonging if you don't recognise their right to their identity?" says Maureen Akena, actvism programme officer at Ditshwanelo.


At independence in 1966, Botswana declared itself a non-racial state. At the time, for a nation emerging from colonial rule and bordering apartheid South Africa, to stress non-differentiation and non-discrimination was a progressive policy.

Forty years later, it runs counter to a global trend that accepts cultural diversity as compatible with, and not in opposition to, the idea of a nation state.

The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations promotes the rights of the indigenous to reproduce their cultures, maintain their collective identities, pursue their own social norms and enjoy equal social, political and legal status in society.

In force since 1991, Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labour Organisation is a useful tool for governments with ethnic minorities. Countries with large indigenous populations like Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, Fiji and Norway have ratified it.

Among many provisions, the Convention stipulates that indigenous peoples shall not be removed from the lands they occupy, and calls on governments to respect their cultures and spiritual values attached to the land.

Across the world, first peoples are making some progress towards recognition of their land rights and the right to cultural identity.

But the Botswana government does not recognise the San as indigenous people. It strenuously declares that all its citizens are indigenous.

"The concept of indigenous people is a challenge to the African continent," says Mothambo Ngakaeja. "If all blacks are indigenous to Africa, then there are no original inhabitants."

For Sobo Cgara, pointing out the jackal thorn's berries, its roots that cure running tummies and the tiny balls of edible sap on a thorny shrub, is more than a job - it is a way of expressing his spiritual connection with the Kalahari.

"I am proud of my culture and I love the land," he says softly. "I'd like to live in the bush and wear clothes like my ancestors, but the government won't allow me to do it."

His grandmother taught him about plants and animals. After graduating from high school, he was mostly unemployed for seven years, except for casual work operating a road grader. Last year he took a tourism course and this year he was hired by the Dqae Qare (antelope biltong) game farm.

His goals? "To help my community understand the importance of education and to fight alcoholism". His dreams? "That the San community will be respected like all others."

For more details see:

Government of Botswana

Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa