Botswana’s High Court announced its decision on December 13: the government must allow the G/wi and G//ana San people the right to return to their traditional homes in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Evicting the San from their land was “unlawful and unconstitutional,” the court ruled. Furthermore, the people must have the right to gather and hunt in the CKGR without any need for permits.
The San people, whose evictions began in 1997 and continued through 2002, have maintained that they were removed from their traditional home territory because the government does not want to share any royalties from diamond mining with them. The government has denied the claim, stating that its only reason for removing the people was to restore the health of the land, the wildlife, and the San themselves.
One of the three judges, Mpaphi Phumaphi, commented that the government of Botswana had erred in forcing the San people out of their homes. “In my view the simultaneous stoppage of the supply of food rations and the stoppage of hunting licenses is tantamount to condemning the remaining residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to death by starvation,” he said.
The first news about the long-awaited decision came on Wednesday morning when the chief justice, Maruping Dibotelo, ruled against the San with his opinion that the case should be dismissed. “The contention of the applicants that the government unlawfully deprived them of their land …must fail,” he said.
The second judge to weigh in, Unity Dow disagreed. She said that the government had “failed to take account the knowledge and the culture” of the San when it expelled them from the CKGR. “In 2002 they were dispossessed forcibly, unlawfully, and without their consent,” she said.
She added, “the respondent [the government] did not inquire into the consequences of the relocation. In some cases, wives who wished to relocate were turned against their husbands who did not want to do so, and children were also turned against their families.” Judge Mpaphi Phumaphi, the third to issue a decision, was even more forcefully in favor of the San, and his ruling gave them the victory they so desperately needed.
Roy Sesana, head of the First People of the Kalahari, a pressure group advocating their cause, was so happy after the decision was announced that he literally danced as he left the courtroom. “My heart today is nice!” he commented in English, and then he said, in his own language to an interpreter, “I’m very very much happy at the outcome. I’m going to greet my ancestors at home. My ancestors told me I was going to win.”
He added, “Today is the happiest day for us Bushmen. We have been crying for so long, but today we are crying with happiness. Finally we have been set free. The evictions have been very, very painful for my people. I hope that now we can go home to our land.”
The lawyer for the San, Gordon Bennett, was also pleased at the outcome. “It’s about the right of the applicants to live inside the reserve as long as they want and that’s a marvelous victory,” he said. He added that the court had made an important decision—that the San could return to the lands they had lived on for 20,000 years.
The director of Survival International, the British human rights group that has helped the San with the court case and with an international media campaign on their behalf, also issued a very positive statement. “The court’s ruling is a victory for the Bushmen and for indigenous peoples everywhere in Africa. It is also a victory for Botswana. If the government quickly enacts the court ruling, then the campaign will end and the country really will have something to be proud of.”
The verdict did indicate that the government had no obligation to provide water or other supplies to the San people, many of whom may soon move back onto their lands. The government had indicated in previous statements that it might appeal a negative decision, but at this moment its intentions are not yet known. The trial, the longest in Botswana’s history, has been dragging on since July 2004. While this website has had a number of news stories about the case over the past two years, the news file available at the Survival International website is far more extensive.