The destruction of the peaceful G/wi society is supposedly the fault of a British NGO, Survival International (SI), rather than the government of Botswana, which was only trying to help them when it forcibly removed them from their homes, argues one scholar. Botswana’s government may have acted in a heavy-handed manner, she writes, but SI is primarily responsible for their suffering. Jacqueline Solway, a professor of anthropology at Trent University in Canada, made a not-entirely convincing argument last year to that effect in an article that she published in the prominent journal Africa.

The author argues that when the government removed the San people, including the G/wi, from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), it was part of a comprehensive plan to resettle many of their minority peoples into new settlements, where it could provide better infrastructures for them, such as boreholes, roads, schools, and agricultural services. Solway herself has done field work for three decades in San communities that border on the CKGR. She knows many San people and she describes how anxious they were before they were resettled—and their satisfaction with their new, better, homes afterwards.

She admits that the situation for the San living inside the CKGR was different from the groups she knows, and the issue was handled badly by the government. Because it became highly politicized, she argues, “the government behaved in an authoritarian manner….[The resettlements] were not voluntary; in some instances they entailed force and they were more disruptive as people were resettled with others with whom they had no history of co-residence (p.330).”

While Solway acknowledges these failings, she argues that the government was justified in most of its actions. In contrast, SI and its collaborating organizations within the country “have done their best to compromise Botswana’s hitherto impeccable human rights record and to threaten Botswana’s economy…(p.324).” The basic problem, she believes, is that SI is working to undermine what the government is doing, rather than working with the government to solve the problem. SI therefore is causing the problem, not the government.

She weaves a lot of useful history and cultural information into a hard-hitting polemic. She describes a group called Reteng, a responsible NGO in Botswana. A grassroots organization of local NGOs that champions minority peoples, it manages to accomplish a lot by acting within the structures of their national society. It successfully appeals to the democratic instincts and traditions of the country to promote cultural diversity in a state where the Tswana people form an overwhelming majority. Reteng works with, and at times against, the government, but it always operates within existing frameworks. Generally, SI does not, she maintains.

The author describes the background to the San controversy. In 1961, the British colonial government established the CKGR as a place to protect wildlife and their natural habitats, as well as a reserve to protect the hunting and gathering people who also lived there. She describes the benevolent assistance the Botswana government provides to the residents, which is designed to assist them in finding alternatives to subsistence activities that, increasingly, appear to the administrators to be harmful to wildlife. Government services, they feel, can be provided more effectively at concentrated settlements outside the CKGR. Resettlement is more convenient for the government.

In 1997, the government constructed two villages for the San people outside the reserve. Solway uses the positive term “villages”; SI, and apparently many of the San people living in them, call them “resettlement camps”—or worse. Most residents were relocated, and, in 2002, the government forcibly moved almost all of the remaining people out of their homes. It also destroyed their sources of water. Opposition by the people themselves, aided and abetted by SI operating on the international scene, hardened the stance of the government.

However, “there is little reason to believe that the Bushmen were moved as a consequence” of the possible discovery of diamonds in the CKGR, Solway argues ingenuously (p.328). After all, a diamond mine would take just a small amount of area, a few square km at most, a trivial parcel compared to the vast area, 52,000 square km., of the entire CKGR. Besides, she mentions that the Botswana constitution allows the government to take land for the public good, as long as the affected residents are fairly compensated. The San people have been paid for the loss of their land, she argues.

She ignores the fact that the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, as much as admitted that the whole controversy over the expulsion of the San people was over diamonds. At a conference in Mumbai in May 2005, Mogae angrily denounced SI for meddling in Botswana’s affairs, defended his decision to expel the San people, and told reporters that Botswana would explore for diamonds all over the country. “We will develop diamonds for the good of all Botswanans,” he stated emphatically.

The government began to harass, and even torture, Bushmen who persisted in flouting the laws and their administration by Botswana officials. “The people who were abused reported that wildlife officials tied one man to a tree upside down and beat him, beat another man in the groin, poured gasoline into the rectum of a third, and forced others to run in front of a land cruiser,” this news service reported in July 2005.

Solway argues that this kind of abuse does not compare to the holocausts in other African countries over so-called blood diamonds. She ridicules SI for making the comparison, which, she says, “is not only absurd, but makes a mockery of events such as the 1994 Rwanda genocide (p. 336).” She has a much greater tolerance for torture than many people. The government’s harassment, and “alleged torture (p. 337)” of the San in the CKGR, plus its other abuses of the people, she says, can all be laid at the feet of the SI campaign to undermine the authority of the legitimate national government.

Solway makes many important arguments, and presents a lot of useful information about the controversy that can hardly be summarized or analyzed in a brief review. But whenever she discusses SI, she undermines her credibility with polemical statements that ignore contradictory facts.

Solway, Jacqueline. 2009. “Human Rights and NGO ‘Wrongs’: Conflict Diamonds, Culture Wars and the ‘Bushmen Question.’ Africa 79(3): 321-346