Tourists called to stay out of Botswana: What’s behind the boycott and its possible consequences for San tribes

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Rhino wading through yellow flowers

International aid and tourism organisations are calling on tourists to boycott Botswana over the treatment of the Kalahari San people. Tourism is Botswana’s second largest industry and advocacy groups such as Survival International hope this action will push the government to restore the rights of the San people which they have violated for the sake of the tourist-drawing reserves and diamond mining. A diamond boycott has also been called for, and protesters have been active in San Francisco and London, where a protest was held outside De Beer’s main diamond store.

For decades there has been a battle waged by the government of Botswana against the indigenous San people of the Kalahari, Africa’s “first people” who have lived off the land for tens of thousands of years. The San have fought for access to their remaining land, but to this day they do not enjoy the right to live freely in their ancestral home.

Court cases have been won and lost over the right to hunt in reserves and to collect water from boreholes or drill for water. The San living in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve were forcibly relocated to settlement camps, starting from 1997. The majority of them are still in those camps, living in a way that is at odds with their culture and traditions.

Even though they won victories in court in 2006 and 2011 granting them the right to enter the reserve and to gather water, the government still restricts access as much as possible. Permits are required in order for them to enter the reserve and not many are given out. Only those whose names were in the papers submitted for the court cases have been allowed to return to the reserve, and this has resulted in families being divided.

Some return illegally to hunt, but they face arrest if caught. The government says that the ban on hunting is there to support the reserve’s wildlife, but human rights groups say the reasons have far more to do with the sale of diamond mining rights in the San people’s traditional land.

Resettlement camps are far from the reserve, because recent diamond mining activities have started on its borders. Adjusting to a new life where they can no longer live off the land remains difficult. San in camps kilometres outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve complain of new problems such as alcohol, AIDS, TB and a developing culture of living off government hand-outs. The government has provided some dwellings and even schools and clinics, but the San prefer to sleep in the open or in the huts they build themselves in their yards. Another problem is that they must journey farther and farther from settlements in order to allow the land around them to recover from their foraging practices – whereas in reserves they were able to move from place to place when necessary.

Emphasising their marginal status in the country, education has not been adequately supplied. Schools do not provide teaching in their indigenous languages, only in Tswana or English. One Tswana teacher reported having 40 children in her class who spoke Naru, a common San language in some parts of Botswana, and she was unable to communicate with these children. International aid organisations are trying to address this challenge, but most children who were relocated have had to learn English and Tswana before they can actively attend school.

The San tribes have unique cultures and languages with characteristics not seen anywhere else on earth. A well-known example is their complex use of many different clicks, such as the Juǀʼhoan language with 48 separate click consonants. Many fear that their extensive knowledge of the land as well as their unique languages will continue to disappear, and now at an accelerated rate in this new environment.

The rights of the different San tribes as well as their languages and cultures deserve to be protected. The many thousands of people who have pledged to join the Botswana travel boycott believe this strongly.

Yet today there are numerous private reserves and landowners who have allowed San families to live on their land in exchange for educational tours provided to tourists. They receive money and access to land where they can live largely according to their traditions. Any large-scale boycott could severely affect the fates of these families, most probably driving them back to government-built settlements where hunting and foraging are difficult, if not impossible.

If all goes well, the Botswana government will feel the pinch and decide to restore rights to the San tribes. Yet a boycott always hurts more people than those specifically targeted. Here we could see a detrimental effect on the livelihoods of San families who depend directly on the revenue they receive from the tourism industry. And any long-term impact that the boycott may have remains to be seen.

By Jennifer van Dorsten

(Kwintessential Africa Translation Agency has years of experience working with language experts, translation and interpretation in South Africa and Africa and believes in the protection of indigenous languages and cultures)

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