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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for San Bushmen in Botswana

View Group Chronology

Botswana Facts
Area:    600,370 sq. km.
Capital:    Gaborone
Total Population:    1,590,000 (source: unknown, 2000, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Based on factors identified as encouraging or inhibiting rebellion, the San in Botswana seem to have a moderate risk thereof. Recent government repression, including a 2005 amendment to the constitution taking away the previously guaranteed San reservation, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), has given them a reason for mobilization, and they possess factors that help mobilization including a cohesive group identity and organizational representation. Furthermore, Botswana does not seem interested in reform. Recent governmental action also causes concern. In 2002, the government commenced a forced resettlement program in which they forcibly removed the San from their land located in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This site was originally reserved for the San people in order to protect their hunting and gathering way of life. In 2005 and into 2006, the government confiscated San livestock after fears of a contagious disease outbreak.

However, three factors mitigate chances of rebellion. First, the regime in Botswana is democratic and stable, providing less violent pathways to pursue change. Second, there is international pressure for reform from Survival International and Great Britain. Third, there has been little past protest to build upon. There is a higher likelihood of increased protest. The San encounter significant political and cultural restrictions as well as recent repression that might act as catalysts for protest. In addition, San in Botswana are part of a greater network of San in Southern Africa that could provide resources and support for any protest that takes place.


Analytic Summary

The people collectively known as the San, Bushmen or Basarwa are some of the last nomadic hunter-gatherers on earth. They are very distinct from the majority Tswana ethnic group. San speak a variety of Khosian click languages (LANG = 1) and have a distinctive appearance (RACE = 1). In addition, they have their own customs (CUSTOM = 1) and animist beliefs (BELIEF = 2).

The San in Botswana were previously concentrated in the Kalahari Desert where they had moved to avoid the encroachment of other groups. Until the start of the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, the San occupied most of Southern Africa to the southern part of the Sahara. Then as technological innovations associated with agriculture spread, so did the Bantu blacks from the east and the Nilo-Saharan blacks from the Sahara. Both groups migrated south, and along with whites from Europe, encroached on San land. As a result, San moved further into the Kalahari Desert to maintain their way of life. Since 1997, the government has had a campaign to resettle them from their traditional homelands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Governmental pressures to move the group were increased in 2002, the year in which they were forcibly resettled. In January 2002, the government cut off the water supply to the area and reduced all services as well as the right to hunt, an essential trade to the San. In recent years, there has been continued resettlement of the San Bushmen outside of the CKGR amidst allegations of governmental desire to mine diamonds, though this has been denied. Primarily the San have been resettled in Remote Area Dweller (RAD) locations where the government has set up health clinics and schools for them (GROUPCON = 0). There are about 64 RAD locations in seven of nine districts, many of which house San Bushmen.

The San are disadvantaged from past discrimination as well as current discrimination. Politically, the San encounter social exclusion (POLDIS06 = 3). In fact, while in the past intermarriage did occur, it is now socially taboo to intermarry with the San and they have thus been pushed to the margins of society. Most importantly, traditional chiefs are often denied recognition thus limiting their power and authority compared to other groups. In addition, the San face de facto restrictions on their place of residence and have limited access to the civil service, education and higher office. Furthermore, they have problems with the judicial system in terms of higher arrest rates, harsher sentences and the inability to properly defend themselves because of language barriers. However, this has shown marked improvement recently. In 1995, two San men were sentenced to death for the murder of another man; however, this ruling was overturned by the High Court in 1999 because it was determined that the San could not speak the language well enough to have known their charge nor to understand the confession they signed. They are currently retrying the two. The San have also been successful in bringing a case against the state in 2002 for their forced resettlement from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). In December 2006, the High Court ruled in favor of the San stating that they had been illegally pushed off their land and condemned the treatment of those remaining. The High Court did however note that social services were not required of the government and their cessation in 2002 was not illegal. However, the government has only minimally held to the court case, allowing only those named as plaintiffs back into the CKGR while refusing admission to their unnamed family members. The San do not encounter many cultural restrictions, although teachers at the camps do not speak the San language (CULPO2 = 2). This is a general problem throughout Botswana.

San also face economic social exclusion (ECDIS06 = 3). Poverty and unemployment plague the group. More than 50 percent of San live below the poverty line. Those who attempted to remain on their traditional land risked resettlement and many were denied land rights because of the prospect of resettlement. Furthermore, the government had imposed a quota restriction on what they could hunt, and San are often arrested and harassed as "poachers." Basically, the government has limited what they can get from the land, and it is not enough to sustain life and thus the government sometimes had to give out food rations. The resettlement areas are not large enough to sustain hunter-gatherer populations of the current size and are in poor conditions. In general, the socio-economic status of those who have been resettled has declined since resettlement. Alcoholism is rife, and the camps lack access to basic sanitation, health care and even water.

Based on the above discrimination, the San in Botswana have several grievances. First and foremost, they want access to their traditional lands. They also want recognition for their tribes and leaders as an important avenue to attaining more voice and power in government. They would also like their culture and language to be protected and promoted. In general, the San are looking for greater political input and for greater economic opportunity (POLGR06 = 1; ECGR06 = 1).

Since 1989, the San have begun to organize on their own behalf. They are aided by a sense of group identity, albeit a weak one, and a lack of internal divisions (INTRACON04-06 = 0). Several umbrella political organizations (GOJPA06 = 1) promote San interests including the Working Group of Indigenous People in South Africa—Botswana Chapter, the First People of the Kalahari, and the Kuru Development Trust. The percentage of San who actually support these organizations is unknown. These efforts have mostly taken the form of education and lobbying (PROT89-00 = 2; PROT01&03 = 0; PROT02 = 1). The protest in 2002 arose after water was shut off to forcibly remove the San from CKGR. The San have also received international help from Survival International. It has advocated an international campaign on the San’s behalf. Britain has also pressured the government for reform. In 2005, San protested, marching to the recently closed CKGR before being disbanded by police using rubber bullets (REPNVIOL05 = 4; PROT05 = 3).

The current relationship between the San and majority Twsana is cordial. There were no reports of violent conflicts between the two between 1999 and 2006 (INTERCON99-06 = 0). The relationship between the San and Botswana’s government is more strained. There were several reports of government repression in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2005-2006 surrounding the resettlement program. Besides the initial resettlement, there are problems with restrictions on movements from the camps despite freedom of movement being guaranteed by law (REPGENCIV06 = 2). Furthermore, those remaining in the Central Kalahari Game Preserve risk arrest and torture as an intimidation tactic if caught "poaching" In 2005, San suspected of poaching were beaten, and one later died of his injuries (REPGENCIV05 = 5). The situation is complicated by the possibility of diamond reserves in the Kalahari. The discovery sets up a potential conflict between the government’s economic development policies and the San’s claim to their homeland. While it was alleged that the government was seeking to exploit diamond mines in the CKGR, that idea has been abandoned for one of tourism. The government is currently exploring ways of bringing tourism to the reserve in order to generate more revenue.



Amnesty International. Various reports.

Hitchcock, Robert K. 1994. “Grassroots Organizing Among Kalahari Bushmen.” Paper sent by the author to Anne Pitsch.

Hitchcock, Robert K. 1985. “Political Development Among the Basarwa of Botswana.” Cultural Survival Quarterly. 9:3.

Hitchcock, Robert K. 1982. “Development Planning, Government Policy, and the Future of the Basarwa in Botswana.”

Hitchcock, Robert K. 12/2002. 'We are the First People': Land, Natural Resources and Identity in the Central Kalahari, Botswana. Journal of Southern African Studies. 28:4. 797-824.

LexisNexis.Various reports. 1980-2006.

Minority Rights Group. 4/2008. “Botswana: Basarwa.” World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples., accessed 01/26/09.

Parsons, Neil and Glorious Gumbo. 11/16/2002. “Bechuanaland Colonial Administrators c. 1884-c.1965.” University of Botswana History Department., accessed 07/11/08.

"Remote Area Development Program." Ministry of Local Government., accessed 07/11/08.

Stephen, David. 1982. “The San of the Kalahari.” Minority Rights Group Report No. 56.

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks. 1/24/2003. “Basarwa Get Another Chance At Court Challenge.” Africa News.

United States Department of State. 2005-2007. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Botswana, 2004-2006.”


© 2004 - 2022 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006