The San People
Kalahari Travel Journal

The San of the Kalahari

The Cry of the Kalahari

The recent ruling by the Botswana High Court (December 2006) entitling the Basarwa (San or bushmen) of the Kalahari to live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and practice their traditional ways is the result of years of rallying and negotiation by various organizations and individuals.

For people not familiar with the story surrounding the decision it may seem strange to allow people to live and hunt in a game reserve. A brief history of the CKGR is necessary to understand the controversy surrounding the issue.

Set up in the early 1960's by the British colonial powers as a reserve for the Basarwa to continue their traditional way of life, the CKGR was at the time the largest protected area in the world. The Basarwa lived their traditional way of life in relative peace in settlements situated throughout the park but the need to expand the economy of the newly independent, and very poor, Botswana became priority - and the San became a hindrance.With the discovery of diamonds in 1967 the race was on to find more deposits and the large, untouched wilderness area of the Kalahari beckoned prospectors. Researches Mark and Delia Owens were based in Deception Valley studying predators and in their book Cry of the Kalahari they record activity by prospectors. The Owens' were ultimately given 24 hours to leave Botswana when their protests about the erection of the veterinary fences in the wilderness areas were deemed too much.The Botswana government's next step was to establish villages outside the park for the Basarwa to be moved to. As part of the 'deal' schools and clinics were erected and the promise of employment was added. The government of Botswana explained the relocation as providing opportunities for the Basarwa, but it was suspected by many that the relocations were part of a plot by the government to gain access to the park to allow unhindered prospecting for minerals.

Stories of forced removals and intimidation filtered out of the wilderness and people started taking notice. Hunting licences were withdrawn and the promises of employment never materialized. Many of the people in these new villages turned to alcohol and a severe social problem arose.

The Basarwa that remained in the park became victims of harassment by government officials intent on making things uncomfortable. The Botswana government has denied any underhand tactics, insisting that what they have done is for the benefit, and betterment, of the Basarwa people.

The Basarwa are the original inhabitants of the area stretching from South Africa to the Zambezi Valley, dating back more 20 000 years. About 1500 years ago black tribes moving south from west and central Africa came into contact with the San and so began the first known oppression of this peaceful civilization. The San were pushed south into the drier regions.

About 350 years ago European settlers arrived on the southern tip of the continent and the oppression increased. The San were considered stock thieves by early settlers and as such were classified as vermin by law in South Africa. This meant that they had to be exterminated on sight.

The stock thief label stemmed from the San belief that everything on earth is provided by the creator - ownership of the Creator's creation is something the San do not understand - and as such cattle and sheep were there for the use of all. It was only in the 1920's that the law was changed but by then there were very few San living in South Africa.

Cases of oppression of the San can be found throughout recent history. As a peaceful people they did not resist violence - they just moved elsewhere and that is how they came to survive the twentieth century in the dry reaches of the Kalahari. As the area is dry it was not suitable for settlement so the settlers stayed out and the San lived in relative harmony with nature until the discovery of diamonds in Botswana.So the Basarwa have finally won their legal battle. The Botswana government has since announced that they will stand by the courts decision. There are many who believe however that this reprieve has come too late and the culture has been changed forever.
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