The Botswana High Court decision in favor of the G/wi last December 13 was announced on the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sir Laurens Van Der Post. The famed South African writer had described, and romanticized, the lives of the G/wi, and the other San peoples, nearly 50 years ago in one of his best books, The Lost World of the Kalahari.
His daughter, Lucia Van Der Post, in her own right a prominent writer for various British publications, decided after the court victory to visit Botswana herself and assess the situation. Her story appeared last week in The Times. She opens her article by reminiscing about the San peoples. In the old days, her father wrote, they had enough knowledge of their nearly waterless desert to live there for millennia. They thrived in that environment until about 10 years ago, when government agents forced them off their lands.
She focuses on the government side of the story. The land they were living on with their goats, horses, and dogs in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) “was becoming degraded.” She quotes from a government spokesman that the CKGR had become “a poverty trap that stops them working for a better life and denies them access to health and education.”
But her article is not anti-San. She relates how the government tried to tempt them into leaving, then finally forced them to move into degraded resettlement camps. She does not mention in her story the argument that the G/wi were removed from the CKGR because the government coveted the potential wealth from diamonds that might be found there. She skips over the details of the court case and concentrates on the current living conditions of the San people.
Her description of the conditions at New Xade, one of the major resettlement camps outside the border of the CKGR, is depressing. Her guide, Jumanda, tells her how he had to drop out of school at New Xade because the classes were taught in Setswana and English, languages he didn’t then understand. He was bullied for his lack of understanding. He adds that the land is the focus of his religious beliefs. “The land is our church, it’s our mother earth, we believe we come from there,” he tells her, and he says that their church was destroyed when they were removed from their land.
Van Der Post describes New Xade as nothing like major city slums—the San people have fairly sizeable plots of land, though they do not have running water or electricity in their homes. The outsiders in New Xade—the teachers, nurses, and police—live in much finer homes with the amenities of modern life. Many of the San are unemployed—they have little to do except lay around in the shade of trees, or drink. Few of them have marketable skills, language training, or education enough to obtain jobs. The prejudices against them would probably prohibit them from obtaining jobs anyway.
People sit around feeling despondent. Kaobusetswa Mokubiswe admits to the author that she is “depressed and unhappy here,” even though she realizes that her former home in the CKGR is in the midst of a drought and conditions would be quite difficult out there. Her son is one of the fortunate people who has a job in New Xade. He would like to provide a bridge between their old culture and the new ways of living, but he experiences discrimination everywhere. The people the author meets do not have the funds to attempt the journey back into the CKGR. Many of the younger men have been caught hunting in the reserve—they needed to eat—so after their court appearances they expect to be unable to return anyway.
The author then journeys out into the CKGR to visit the San people who have returned to their homes, the people who are struggling to live there despite restrictions the government imposes on them. She describes the landscape as “beautiful beyond imagining.” She rhapsodizes about the golden grasses, the iconic animals, the trees and the shrubbery.
She finds at Molapo, in the CKGR, a group of people rebuilding their homes. The men were not allowed to hunt, but the women were allowed to gather melons, roots, and tubers, as their ancestors once did. She finds an air of desolation and sadness about the place, but people are smoking and drinking tea, and children, at least, run around playing happily.
The chief at Mopato tells her, “Just looking at the land makes me happy, we are back where we belong. We don’t starve, but life is very difficult and we are still scared that the court ruling is not a permanent thing.” The vegetable food is not too good, and water has to be trucked in from outside the reserve. But the chief hated New Xade, and whatever else happens, he does not want to ever return there.
Van Der Post talks with a beautiful young woman, a 21 year old with a baby, who has returned from school to visit with her family. She is pleased that she is learning to speak English and Setswana, and she has ambitions of becoming a nurse so she can help her people. The father of her child, a Matswana man, has abandoned the family. She wants to help her society move into the future, yet retain their culture, traditions, and identity.
The author recounts her father’s views of the San people many decades ago—the fact that their traditional way of life in the desert appeared, even then, to be doomed. But she feels the Botswana High Court last December was absolutely correct in stating that the case the San brought against the government was, “ultimately about a people demanding dignity and respect.”