A culture at odds


The backstory of DEATH OF THE MANTIS is the plight of the Bushman peoples in the Kalahari desert in south-western Botswana, and a really complicated backstory it is too.

The Bushmen comprise many different groups with a variety of languages. They have been nomadic peoples for hundreds of thousands of years. As other population groups crowded them, they moved into the arid regions of southern Africa and developed a very successful if spartan lifestyle. They would dig for water and suck it out of the ground through straws or use Tsama melons for fluid. Sharing was a survival strategy. They moved with the seasons, following game, which they hunted using bows and poisoned arrows. The poisons make a story in themselves – which you can read at The dreaded Bushman poisons.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. (There’s some pretty sickening stuff in the years we’re skipping over, including a period when the Bushmen were hunted like animals.) Today things in Botswana are very different. Much of the Kalahari is declared as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Diamond mining drives the economy. Bushmen numbers have declined with the 2001 census showing a population in the Kalahari of less than 700 and their right to live in the Game Reserve has been challenged.  How you interpret the situation depends on your perspective.

How the Bushmen see it

Here is a superficial summary of the way some of the Bushman leaders see it, and how support groups like Survival International see it:

The Bushmen have always lived in the Kalahari. Fences and private land ownership – which is alien to them – interferes with their nomadic lifestyle, and laws restricting hunting force them to near starvation. Their culture is not respected and is being destroyed by change in environment and by legal constraints with which they don’t agree. In order to keep the Kalahari for tourism and – according to some - for diamond mining, the Bushmen are being forced out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve into settlements little better than concentration camps on the verges of the land they once regarded as their own. Yes, there is some compensation, but this is soon frittered away leaving nothing. Financial investing is completely outside their ken.

How the Government sees it

And here in a nutshell is how the Botswana government sees it:

The government has a constitutional obligation to provide appropriate infrastructure for all its citizens. This includes proper schools (Botswana has a policy that there has to be a school within walking distance of where people live), primary health care, water, and sanitation. Furthermore the Kalahari is remote and inaccessible, an ecological treasure that must be preserved. Discrimination on race is forbidden by the constitution. If the Bushmen live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, how can other population groups be prevented from living and hunting there? And now the Bushmen hunt with guns rather than bows and arrows. Their nomadic behaviour has changed to living in informal settlements where water has to be supplied by road, rather than found in depressions or melons. Crudely put, the traditional culture is already dead; only the inconvenience remains. Thus a group of planned settlements set up in appropriate places with schools and services is the way to go. Appropriate compensation is paid to the people who have to move. They have a new and better life ahead.

Is a compromise possible?

In the wide gap between these two viewpoints is a variety of groups trying to negotiate a scenario that would bring the two sides closer together. Among these is Ditshwanelo, an amazing human rights organisation led by the remarkable Alice Mogwe. (Ditshwanelo is a Setswana word meaning variously: obligations, merits, duties.) Ditshwanelo focuses on a number of issues including the death penalty, and was instrumental in rescuing two Bushmen Tlhabologang Maauwe and Gwara Motswetla from execution. In the case of the Bushmen, its work is largely behind the scenes. But ultimately, with such extreme perspectives, and the muscle behind each side, it was almost inevitable that the matter would end in the law courts.

Legal challenges

The legal challenges went on for four years. One of the three judges hearing the case in the Botswana High Court was the remarkable Unity Dow – the first woman High Court judge in Botswana. Broadly, the judges ruled in favour of the Bushmen. In her summary of the case, Dow had cutting remarks for both sides, but went on to say: “The case being judged, though, is not whether slavery was brutish, which it was, or whether colonialism was a system fuelled by a racist and arrogant ideology, which it was, or whether apartheid was diabolical, which it was. It is not even about how high the Botswana government should jump when a Western diplomat challenges or questions its decision.” She concluded that the issue was “ultimately about a people demanding dignity and respect. It is a people saying in essence: ‘Our way of life may be different, but it is worthy of respect. We may be changing and getting closer to your way of life, but give us a chance to decide what we want to carry with us into the future.’”

That judgment was delivered in 2006. Since then there have been a number of further court battles. In 2010 the High Court was asked to force the government to allow the Bushmen who had returned to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to recommission and deepen an existing borehole. The application failed on legal arguments, leaving open the question of why the government had not allowed them to do so in the first place. The borehole was originally drilled in the mid nineteen-eighties by De Beers for prospecting purposes, so apparently the company had obtained the necessary permissions. The appeals court overturned the ruling in 2011 with harsh words on the government’s behaviour.

Unity Dow has since retired from the High Court, though she is certainly not retired from the law. She has her own practice, and has been a member of the Kenyan Constitutional Court. In addition, she has written four novels and co-authored a searing book on the AIDS pandemic in Botswana titled Saturday is for Funerals. When we met her on a recent trip to Gaborone, we asked her whether she felt the Bushman issues had been resolved by what she called at the time “the most expensive and longest-running trial Botswana has ever had”. She smiled sadly and shook her head.

Two short clips from the BBC’s programme on the issue, The Last Dance of Bushman, can be viewed by clicking here.