Bushmen win right to return

In a majority verdict, a panel of three judges ruled the Botswana government had not acted unlawfully when cutting off vital supplies to the Bushmen in the Kalahari desert, but had failed to hold adequate consultations with them beforehand and had no right to deny them permission to return after the ouster.

The Bushmen and their lawyers reacted to the verdict with delight, saying their years-long battle for justice had been finally vindicated after presiding judge Maruping Dibotelo delivered the verdict in the city of Lobatse in Botswana.

“Prior to January 31 2002, the applicants were in possession of the land which they lawfully occupied in the CKGR (central Kalahari game reserve),” Judge Dibotelo told the court.

“The applicants were deprived of such possessions forcibly or wrongly and without their consent.”

The government’s subsequent refusal to allow the Bushmen a permit to return to their land “is unlawful and unconstitutional”, the judge added.

Since a group of around 200 indigenous Bushmen first filed an application in April 2002 challenging their eviction from a game reserve, the case has become a cause celebre with the applicants gathering the backing of celebrities including Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and film star Colin Firth.

The case was thrown out on a technicality but the high court agreed in 2004 to hear the complaint.

The Bushmen maintain they were driven out of the Kalahari to make way for diamond mining, a claim the world’s top diamond producer has denied.

Speaking outside the courtroom, veteran Bushmen leader Roy Sesana said he wanted to get back to his homeland as soon as possible after having had to spend the last few years living in a relocation camp.

Asked when he planned to return to the Kalahari, MrSesana said: “Anytime starting from today.

“I think my ancestors need me there. They are waiting for me.

“To me, we have won the case. The court has given me the right to go back.”

The Bushmen’s lawyer Gordon Bennett said the verdict was “a vindication of the position my clients had adopted.”

“Their right to return to the reserve has been unequivocally confirmed by the court,” he told news agency AFP.

Discovered in 1967, one year after independence from Britain, diamonds have catapulted Botswana from poor backwater poverty to middle-income wealth.

Once numbering millions, roughly 100,000 San are left in southern Africa, with almost half of them — 48,000 — in Botswana. Others are spread across Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Botswana government says the brouhaha surrounding the Bushmen is fed by a western view of the “so-called Bushmen as some sort of exotic race living in splendid isolation from other peoples as subsistence hunter gatherers.”

South Africa’s Nobel laureate Tutu last month spoke out eloquently on behalf of the Bushmen saying their ancient culture was “one of the world’s treasures”.

The state however argued that the reserve is located on government land and that the Bushmen were relocated to villages with “better services.”

Mr Bennett said that he hoped that the dispute would now be “resolved by sensible discussion.”

“We want to resolve this amicably, not in a court of appeal but the table of negotiations.”

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