The politics of indigenous people

Thapelo Ndlovu
Wednesday, 14 August 2019
The politics of indigenous people

With national elections around the corner and political parties baying for each other’s blood, the scrutiny of party manifestos has taken centre stage. Party activists traverse the country with charming tongues, spurting buckets of promises; some plausible, most of them empty. The topic of the indigenous people has however become not only insoluble but acerbic to the tongues of these politicians, let alone, their manifestos. 

The same could be said about the name Basarwa, which has won not a single mention in the manifestos of at least the two main players, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and its nemesis, Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).  Used by the local populace as a blanket name under which there are several ethnic groups commonly found in the margins of the Kgalagadi Desert, the Basarwa name is internationally alternated with the seemingly savvier Bushmen or San names.   

Social commentators observe that the Basarwa name, or its derivative, Bosarwa is not organic but a given name, which literally means, ‘those who don’t possess livestock- Basarua’.  There is no indication that it was ever meant to be flattery as it appears to imply anything to do with low life. The Bantu groups, whom the name came from, possessed and reared livestock, which to them, symbolised wealth; the more you have them, the richer and respected you were.

Borrowing from the book, ‘Land filled with flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari,’ a prolific Social Commentator, Keineetse Keineetse, shared the quote, “Bosarwa is not an ethnicity but an economic status,” in his Facebook status. His observation, as it is subsequently unmasked, suggests that, whatever the origin of the name, its usage is synonymous with poverty.

Despite promising to fight poverty, the politicians have not yet accepted that some poverty clings on historical mishaps that can be corrected with specific and direct interventions. The manifestos are however silent on the issue. “They do not talk about the indigenous people,” laments Keikabile Mogodu, an activist at Khwedom Council, one of the NGOs that advocates for the rights of the indigenous people in Botswana. His is an expression from a jilted lover. They, as one of the many groups that have been lumped under the banner Basarwa, have shed off a lot, including their souls, let alone their land. Presenting to a discussion at an international conference way back in 2011, a San activist, the youthful Job Morris had this to say, “Finding appropriate ways to facilitate development is a challenge for many communities, but it is a particular challenge for indigenous peoples.

“These people have often been marginalised and excluded in many ways. Botswana is often seen as Africa’s success case, but the San people have not enjoyed the benefits of this success, in part due to political exclusion.”Quoted in, under the topic, Political participation: autonomy without marginalization, Morris goes further to call for political participation of the indigenous people which will allow them to contribute to emerging global issues such as food security and climate change.

“Increasing the political representation of indigenous communities is one way of helping to get their voices heard in debates about these issues. It also provides a way for indigenous people to contribute to the benefits of society as a whole.” He said then.

No recognition
The state of the indigenous people in Botswana manifestly animates Keineetse. “Basarwa groups were hunted off their lands. Firstly, by us the black people and then by waves of white people, including the Brits,” he asserts.Keineetse believes ‘Basarwa’ have been short changed. Chased from their ancestral dwellings, the tribe, in their different forms and dialects, have been undressed, not only of their indigeneity, but wealth too. He doesn’t see Botswana reversing its position on indigeneity. “We can’t because we stole their land.” He quips in, tongue in cheek. “We would otherwise be opening ourselves to a possibility that some day they fight us for their land. Orapa ke sekai (Orapa is one example), Zoa ke sekai; all places that used to have diamonds.”  Although the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s 2019 manifesto is tight lipped on the issue, it is consistent with the government position that the concept of indigeneity itself is not recognised in Botswana.

Botswana government has repeatedly pronounced its stance that all Batswana are indigenous or on the flip side, that none is indigenous. Recent remarks were made by the then Minister of Local Government and Rural Development and now Vice President, Slumber Tsogwane at the 16th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2017. Botswana has not signed the legal instrument, ILO 169 that details the rights of the indigenous people. This is contrary to the fact that the country is part of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous People.

The Executive Director of Identity Development Junction, Lebogang Mabotho traces this position from independence when the country was wary of divisions.  “Botswana’s failure to acknowledge, recognise, include, accommodate, provide for and protect the rights of indigenous populations, stems from the government views of the idea of Indigenous Peoples as ‘separatist.’” Mabotho lends credit to the fear that the government stance is a fertile ground for unmonitored suppression and oppression of the ‘indigenous people.’ To follow Mabotho’s line of reasoning, denying them recognition, under the pretext of national unity has, in fact, the effect of a smoke screen.

It conceals negligence of the specific needs of the indigenous people or in the extreme, the atrocities they may be subjected to.  “While Botswana’s stance to view all Batswana as indigenous may on the surface wear the face of equality and inclusion, it, in reality, enables continued violations that threaten to systematically erode the democracy, social, economic, cultural and labour rights of Indigenous populations.

“Indigenous people, having pre-inhabited other occupants of the region or state, and also being culturally distinct, yet remaining non-dominant in society, having little political or economic power, and lagging behind the majority population on many major indicators, such as health or educational outcomes, often get the short end of the stick in as far as national developments is concerned,” argues Mabotho.

In fact, Morris, in his San youth network blog, emphasises that, “this denial of recognition is a significant barrier to political participation.” The BDP manifesto, whilst themed around economic inclusivity, does not disaggregate the rural demography according to economic classes nor recognise the uniqueness of the indigenous people.  For instance, blanket policies such as banning hunting of wildlife do not factor in survival dynamics of different people. Nothing in the manifesto gives a sign that the country has, among its citizens, people of an internationally acclaimed indigenous status.

Unlike the rest of the nation, these people, by creation, are not stationary but nomadic and hunting is entrenched in their ecosystem. Mabotho explains: “As a result of Botswana’s non-recognition of indigenous populations, even national frameworks such as the National Development Plan (NDP 11), have no provisions for and lack an intentional focus on the unique aspects of indigenous populations, such as their distinct patterns of land and resource use.”
However, in their report to the 29th Session of the United Nations Periodic Review in January 2018, Cultural Survival, an international advocacy group, also on the case of indigenous people, acknowledges that despite its hard stance, Botswana has been responding positively to previous recommendations to mitigate the situation.

Policy interventions such as creation of Remote Areas Development Programmes and Community Based Resource Management projects are an acknowledgement by government that these communities are or were previously disadvantaged.

The alternative
The leading opposition coalition, and self-professed government in waiting, Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) raises pertinent issues in their manifesto, but they too, skate around the matter.  Nowhere does the manifesto become explicit and specific to the ‘Basarwa’ and their cause. This perhaps, does not differentiate them from the incumbent on this particular issue, since to magnify the indigenous people’s inflictions, one needs to identify not only the origin but the location of the tumour; to do ‘target bombing’ as their leader, Duma Boko often says.

Unlike the ruling party, UDC does not have the burden of history. It can cause the review of the constitution and feel good about it. It has the luxury to explicitly recognise the indigenous status of Basarwa when it finally causes the review of the constitution.
Although, seemingly without guts to mention indigenous people by name, it aptly observes, “Sadly, Botswana’s democracy is flawed. It fails to protect the weakest members of society and the marginalised and vulnerable groups.”

The minority party in parliament, Alliance for Progressives (AP) is also silent in its manifesto. The party missed an opportunity in their section of Diversity and equal opportunities, which only recognises women, youth, sport and disability as some of the potential beneficiaries of empowerment and does not mention indigenous people.

Perhaps, ‘Basarwa’ are victims of their declining numbers. They are estimated to be only 3 percent of the national population although spread across the country. This, has not only spoiled their bargaining power but has laso been used by the government to justify relocating them to populated areas for resources.  The last time Government tried this it got burned. With Basarwa refusing to move, government applied aggressive measurers such as closing down portable water sources. Government lost dismally when this matter was brought before the High Court. 

It was however, not the end of the matter, as government refused to throw in the towel and resorted to dirty tricks by restricting the Basarwa’s internationally based lawyers, access into the country.  Their leading lawyer Barrister Gordon Bennet SC is now expected to apply for a VISA into the country, despite coming from a jurisdiction that would normally be exempted, the United Kingdom.
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