The Bushmen are the indigenous peoples of southern Africa. Largely hunter-gatherers, their territory spans several nations and they have called the region home for tens of thousands of years.
The tribes are well-known for the profound connection they have with their land, for their intimate knowledge of the natural world, and the delicate balance they have maintained for millennia with the environment.
The San people or Saan but also known as Bushmen, are members of various Khoisan-speaking indigenous hunter-gatherer people representing the first nation of Southern Africa, whose territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa.
There is a significant linguistic difference between the northern people living between the Okavango River in Botswana and Etosha National Park in northwestern Namibia, extending up into southern Angola; the central people of most of Namibia and Botswana, extending into Zambia and Zimbabwe; and the southern people in the central Kalahari towards the Molopo River, who are the last remnant of the previously extensive indigenous San of South Africa.
The ancestors of the hunter-gatherer San people are considered to have been the first inhabitants of what is now Botswana and South Africa. The historical presence of the San in Botswana is particularly evident in northern Botswana's Tsodilo Hills region. In this area, stone tools and rock art paintings date back over 70,000 years and are by far the oldest known art.The San were traditionally semi-nomadic, moving seasonally within certain defined areas based on the availability of resources such as water, game animals, and edible plants. As of 2010, the San population in Botswana numbers about 50,000 to 60,000.
From the 1950s through the 1990s, the San switched to farming because of government-mandated modernisation programs. Despite the lifestyle changes, they have provided a wealth of information in anthropology and genetics. One broad study of African genetic diversity completed in 2009 found that the San were among the five populations with the highest measured levels of genetic diversity among the 121 distinct African populations sampled.
The San are one of 14 known extant ancestral population clusters. That is, groups of populations with common genetic ancestry, who share ethnicity and similarities in both their culture and the properties of their languages.
Despite some positive aspects of government development programs reported by members of the San and Bakgalagadi communities in Botswana, many have spoken of a consistent sense of exclusion from government decision-making processes, and many San and Bakgalagadi have alleged experiencing ethnic discrimination on the part of the government.The United States Department of State described ongoing discrimination against San, or Basarwa, people in Botswana in 2013 as a principal human rights concern.
The indigenous hunter-gatherer people of southern Africa prefer to be identified by the names of their individual nations, for example the:
Khwe (Khoi, Kxoe),
Gǀu (Gwi) and Gana.
Various terms—including San, Bushmen and Basarwa—have been used to refer to them collectively. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by others to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations.In the 1970s, many Western anthropologists adopted the term San or Saan to refer to the people collectively, although some later switched back to the term Bushmen.
Historically San was a derogatory term meaning foragers, applied to them by pastoralist Khoikhoi rivals.The term became associated with people without cattle or people who stole cattle, and is still an ethnic slur in the central Kalahari.The term Bushmen is still widely used by others and to self-identify; however, opinions vary on whether it is appropriate as it is sometimes viewed as pejorative.
The consensus of delegates representing the people at various meetings held in the 1990s was in favour of using the term San to refer to them collectively, as it was considered the most neutral term.These meetings included the Common Access to Development Conference organised by the Government of Botswana held in Gaborone in 1993,the 1996 inaugural Annual General Meeting of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) held in Namibia,and a 1997 conference in Cape Town on Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage organised by the University of the Western Cape.
According to anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee, the term San was in general use by the people themselves by the late 1990s. Representatives of the people from WIMSA and the South African San Institute attending the 2003 Africa Human Genome Initiative conference held in Stellenbosch reiterated that they prefer to be described by either their individual group names or the collective term San.
There are regional variations in acceptable nomenclature:
The term most commonly used for them in Botswana is Basarwa,where it is accepted reluctantly. Being a Tswana word meaning those who do not rear cattle, it also has negative connotations. The term is in a noun class representing people who are accepted while an older variant Masarwa is considered offensive now.
In 1996 the different San language groups of Namibia met and agreed to allow the term San to be used externally to refer to them collectively, and the term has been used in Namibia since then.
There are no official terms for them in Angola, Zambia or in Zimbabwe. In Angola they are sometimes referred to as mucancalas,or bosquímanos (the Portuguese term for Bushmen). The terms Amasili and Batwa are sometimes used for them in Zimbabwe.
The term San has become favoured in South Africa, and is used in the blazon of the national coat-of-arms. The South African San Council representing San communities in South Africa was established as part of WIMSA in 2001.The people are also referred to as Twa by Xhosa people and Baroa by Sotho people.Bushman is considered derogatory by many South Africans, regardless of their race.A 2008 Equality Court ruling nevertheless found that the use of the Afrikaans equivalent boesman by Die Burger newspaper did not amount to hate speech in the context used.
The San kinship system reflects their interdependence as traditionally small mobile foraging bands. San kinship is comparable to Eskimo kinship, with the same set of terms as in European cultures, but also uses a name rule and an age rule. The age rule resolves any confusion arising from kinship terms, as the older of two people always decides what to call the younger. Relatively few names circulate approximately 35 names per sex, and each child is named after a grandparent or another relative.
Children have no social duties besides playing, and leisure is very important to San of all ages. Large amounts of time are spent in conversation, joking, music, and sacred dances. Women have a high status in San society, are greatly respected, and may be leaders of their own family groups. They make important family and group decisions and claim ownership of water holes and foraging areas. Women are mainly involved in the gathering of food, but may also take part in hunting.
Water is important in San life. Droughts may last many months and waterholes may dry up. When this happens, they use sip wells. To get water this way, a San scrapes a deep hole where the sand is damp. Into this hole is inserted a long hollow grass stem. An empty ostrich egg is used to collect the water. Water is sucked into the straw from the sand, into the mouth, and then travels down another straw into the ostrich egg.
Traditionally, the San were an egalitarian society.Although they had hereditary chiefs, their authority was limited. The San made decisions among themselves by consensus,with women treated as relative equals.San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts regularly rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.
Villages range in sturdiness from nightly rain shelters in the warm spring when people move constantly in search of budding greens, to formalised rings, wherein people congregate in the dry season around permanent waterholes. Early spring is the hardest season: a hot dry period following the cool, dry winter. Most plants still are dead or dormant, and supplies of autumn nuts are exhausted. Meat is particularly important in the dry months when wildlife can not range far from the receding waters.
Women gather fruit, berries, tubers, bush onions, and other plant materials for the band's consumption. Ostrich eggs are gathered, and the empty shells are used as water containers. Insects provide perhaps 10% of animal proteins consumed, most often during the dry season.Depending on location, the San consume 18 to 104 species, including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and termites.
Women's traditional gathering gear is simple and effective: a hide sling, a blanket, a cloak called a kaross to carry foodstuffs, firewood, smaller bags, a digging stick, and perhaps, a smaller version of the kaross to carry a baby.
Men hunt in long, laborious tracking excursions. They kill their game using arrows and spears tipped in diamphotoxin, a slow-acting arrow poison produced by beetle larvae of the genus Diamphidia.
A set of tools almost identical to that used by the modern San and dating to 44,000 BCE was discovered at Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal in 2012.
Historical evidence shows that certain San communities have always lived in the desert regions of the Kalahari; however, eventually nearly all other San communities in southern Africa were forced into this region. The Kalahari San remained in poverty where their richer neighbours denied them rights to the land. Before long, in both Botswana and Namibia, they found their territory drastically reduced.
Various Y chromosome studies show that the San carry some of the most divergent (oldest) human Y-chromosome haplogroups. These haplogroups are specific sub-groups of haplogroups A and B, the two earliest branches on the human Y-chromosome tree.
Mitochondrial DNA studies also provide evidence that the San carry high frequencies of the earliest haplogroup branches in the human mitochondrial DNA tree. This DNA is inherited only from one's mother. The most divergent oldest mitochondrial haplogroup, L0d, has been identified at its highest frequencies in the southern African San groups.
In a study published in March 2011, Brenna Henn and colleagues found that the ǂKhomani San, as well as the Sandawe and Hadza peoples of Tanzania, were the most genetically diverse of any living humans studied. This high degree of genetic diversity hints at the origin of anatomically modern humans.
Recent analysis suggests that the San may have been isolated from other original ancestral groups for as much as 100,000 years and later rejoined, re-integrating the human gene pool.
A DNA study of fully sequenced genomes, published in September 2016, showed that the ancestors of today's San hunter-gatherers began to diverge from other human populations in Africa about 200,000 years ago and were fully isolated by 100,000 years ago, well before the first archaeological evidence of modern behaviour in humans.
Much aboriginal people's land in Botswana, including land occupied by the San people or Basarwa, was lost during colonization, and the pattern of loss of land and access to natural resources continued after Botswana's independence.The San have been particularly affected by encroachment by majority peoples and non-indigenous farmers onto land traditionally occupied by San people.
Government policies from the 1970s transferred a significant area of traditionally San land to White settlers and majority agro-pastoralist tribes.Much of the government's policy regarding land tended to favor the dominant Tswana peoples over the minority San and Bakgalagadi.Loss of land is a major contributor to the problems facing Botswana's indigenous people, including especially the San's eviction from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The government of Botswana decided to relocate all of those living within the reserve to settlements outside it. Harassment of residents, dismantling of infrastructure, and bans on hunting appear to have been used to induce residents to leave.The government has denied that any of the relocation was forced. A legal battle followed.The relocation policy may have been intended to facilitate diamond mining by Gem Diamonds within the reserve.
Hoodia gordonii, used by the San, was patented by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1998, for its presumed appetite suppressing quality. A licence was granted to Phytopharm, for development of the active ingredient in the Hoodia plant, p57 (glycoside), to be used as a pharmaceutical drug for dieting.
Once this patent was brought to the attention of the San, a benefit-sharing agreement was reached between them and the CSIR in 2003. This would award royalties to the San for the benefits of their indigenous knowledge.During the case, the San people were represented and assisted by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), the South African San Council and the South African San Institute.
This benefit-sharing agreement is one of the first to give royalties to the holders of traditional knowledge used for drug sales. The terms of the agreement are contentious, because of their apparent lack of adherence to the Bonn Guidelines on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing, as outlined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).The San have yet to profit from this agreement, as P57 has still not yet been legally developed and marketed.
The San of the Kalahari were first brought to the globalized world's attention in the 1950s by South African author Laurens van der Post. In 1955, Van der Post was commissioned by the BBC to go to the Kalahari desert with a film crew in search of the San. The filmed material was turned into a very popular six-part television documentary a year later. Driven by a lifelong fascination with this "vanished tribe", Van der Post published a 1958 book about this expedition, entitled The Lost World of the Kalahari.
It was to be his most famous book. In 1961, he published The Heart of the Hunter, a narrative which he admits in the introduction uses two previous works of stories and mythology as "a sort of Stone Age Bible", namely Specimens of Bushman Folklore' (1911), collected by Wilhelm H. I. Bleek and Lucy C. Lloyd, and Dorothea Bleek's Mantis and His Friend. Van der Post's work is largely discredited, as it is the subjective view of a European in the 1950s and 1960s.
His opinions branded the San as simple "children of Nature" or even "mystical ecologists". That record was set straight in 1992 by John Perrot and team with the publication of the book "Bush for the Bushman" - a "desperate plea" on behalf of the aboriginal San addressing the international community and calling on the governments throughout Southern Africa to respect and reconstitute the ancestral land-rights of all San.
There are 100,000 Bushmen in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola. They are the indigenous people of southern Africa, and have lived there for tens of thousands of years.
Map of the Bushmen's land, Botswana
In the middle of Botswana lies the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a reserve created to protect the traditional territory of the 5,000 Gana, Gwi and Tsila Bushmen (and their neighbours the Bakgalagadi), and the game they depend on.
In the early 1980s, diamonds were discovered in the reserve. Soon after, government ministers went into the reserve to tell the Bushmen living there that they would have to leave because of the diamond finds.
In three big clearances, in 1997, 2002 and 2005, virtually all the Bushmen were forced out. Their homes were dismantled, their school and health post were closed, their water supply was destroyed and the people were threatened and trucked away.
Those who have not returned to the reserve now live in resettlement camps outside the reserve. Rarely able to hunt, and arrested and beaten when they do, they are dependent on government handouts. Many are now gripped by alcoholism, depression, and illnesses such as TB and HIV/AIDS.
Unless they are able to live on their ancestral lands, their unique societies and way of life will be destroyed, and many of them will die.
Although the Bushmen won the right in court to go back to their lands in 2006, the government has done everything it can to make their return impossible, including cementing over their only water borehole; without it, the Bushmen struggled to find enough water to survive on their lands.
The Bushmen launched further litigation against the government in a bid to gain access to their borehole. Although their application was initially dismissed, in January 2011 Botswana’s Court of Appeal ruled that the Bushmen can use their old borehole and sink new ones in the reserve as well. The judges described the Bushmen’s plight as ‘a harrowing story of human suffering and despair.’
Bushman woman Xoroxloo Duxee from the Metsiamenong community, died of dehydration and starvation in 2005 after the government blockaded the reserve and armed guards prevented her people from hunting, gathering or obtaining water, Botswana.
At the same time as preventing the Bushmen from accessing water, the government drilled new boreholes for wildlife only and allowed safari company, Wilderness Safaris, to open a tourist camp in the reserve.
The Kalahari Plains Camp was opened after Wilderness Safaris entered into a lease with the government. However, the lease made no provisions for the rights of the Bushmen on whose ancestral lands the camp sits, nor were they consulted about the venture.
While Bushmen nearby struggle to find enough water to survive on their lands, guests can sip cocktails by the camp’s swimming pool.
In addition, the government has:
Refused to issue a single permit to hunt on their land (despite Botswana’s High Court ruling that its refusal to issue permits was unlawful),
Arrested more than 50 Bushmen for hunting to feed their families,
Enforced restricted access to the reserve for the majority of Bushmen, who must now apply for a one-month permit to visit their families.
Its policy is clearly to intimidate and frighten the Bushmen into staying in the resettlement camps, and making the lives of those who have gone back to their ancestral land impossible.
In 2002 the Bushmen took the government to court. They wanted the court to rule that their eviction was illegal. Due to procedural wrangling, evidence did not start to be heard until 2004.
Although the Bushmen are Botswana’s poorest citizens, the case became the longest and most expensive in the country’s history.
239 Bushman adults put their names to the case, and another 135 adults asked to be added to it. Together with their children, they represented around 1,000 people. (Of the original 239 Bushmen, 12% died awaiting justice.)
While the case continued, many Bushmen tried to return to their homeland in the reserve. Nearly all were evicted again by the government, some of them for the third time. During the case, the key clause protecting Bushman rights in Botswana’s constitution was removed by the government.
Through the generosity of its supporters, Survival helped the Bushmen bring their case.
On 13 December 2006 the Bushmen won an historic victory. The judges ruled that their eviction by the government was ‘unlawful and unconstitutional’, and that they have the right to live inside the reserve, on their ancestral land.
The court also ruled that the Bushmen have the right to hunt and gather in the reserve, and should not have to apply for permits to enter it. Read more on this landmark ruling.
Although the government quickly announced that it would not appeal the judgment, it has since done everything it can to obstruct it.
In 2010 the Bushmen took the government to court again in a bid to access water inside the reserve. The judge dismissed their case, but in January 2011 Botswana’s Court of Appeal overturned the decision and condemned the government’s ‘degrading treatment’ of the Bushmen.
Two successful court cases have not deterred government attempts to uproot the Bushmen from their land. In 2013, the Bushmen again returned to the court to demand free access to the reserve, abolishing the government’s one-month permit policy.
But at the last minute, the Bushmen’s long-standing lawyer, British barrister Gordon Bennett, was barred from Botswana. Their case was subsequently dismissed, and the Bushmen are now left without the legal representative of their choice, in stark contravention of international law.
The Bushmen, Survival and many other observers believe that the Bushmen were evicted because their land is rich in diamonds.
Their reserve lies in the middle of the richest diamond-producing area in the world. There is known to be at least one major diamond deposit in the reserve, at a Bushman community called Gope. Many other ‘kimberlites’ (volcanic rock in which diamonds are found) are present in the reserve.
In May 2007 De Beers sold its deposit at Gope to Gem Diamonds, for $34 million. Gem Diamonds’ chief executive called the Gope deposit ‘a problematic asset for De Beers’ because of the Bushmen campaign.
The Botswana government approved the mine, and previously stated that Gem would not be allowed to provide the Bushmen with water. The government has, however, reserved the right to use water boreholes drilled by Gem for wildlife. Gem Diamonds claims that the Bushmen are in favour of the mine, but the Bushmen have had no independent advice on its probable impact.
Gem Diamonds has stated publicly that the Gope mine (now renamed ‘Ghaghoo’) contains a diamond deposit worth an estimated $4 billion.
The mine officially opened in September 2014.
Other companies are also involved. Petra Diamonds is exploring throughout the reserve and has identified the Gope and Kukama areas as priorities.
Tourism is Botswana’s most important market, after diamonds.
Glossy images of Bushmen hunters are unashamedly used by Botswana’s Tourism Board to promote tourism to the country, while government authorities are doing everything they can to wipe out any last trace of the tribe.
Tourists are openly encouraged to enjoy a ‘Bushman experience’, taking trips with Bushmen to learn about their hunting and gathering survival techniques and watch them perform ‘trance-dances’. At the same time, the Bushmen are prevented from hunting and the majority are forced to live outside their ancestral land.
Survival is calling on tour operators and tourists across the globe to show their support for the Bushmen by boycotting tourism to Botswana.
Public pressure is the only way to ensure the government respects the Bushmen’s rights.
Reaction to the tourism boycott
Former Robben Island prisoner, Michael Dingake, accuses President Khama of despotism, calling on him to stop the ‘genocidal’ war against the Bushmen.
Mmegi, 12 November 2013
Richard Madden, sponsored by Wilderness Safaris, comes out against the boycott.
Daily Telegraph, 1 November 2013
Christopher Booker describes the ‘ruthless persecution’ of southern Africa’s original inhabitants.
The Spectator, 26 October 2013
The BBC’s John Simpson asks why an otherwise enlightened government treats its Bushmen so obscenely.
The Independent, 25 October 2013