- It will take another few months, but then Botswana's 'First People', the San, will know whether they have won their marathon legal battle to remain on their traditional lands in the Kalahari Desert.
The high court in Lobatse, about 70km south of Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, this week heard closing arguments from lawyers representing the Gana and Gwi San (earlier called "Bushmen") of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), concerning government evictions that lawyers say were "unlawful and unconstitutional".
Gordon Bennett, the lawyer representing the San, told the UN media 'IRIN' in a telephone interview that "the [Botswana] government had shamefully abused it powers".
The CKGR is a reserve about the size of Switzerland. Created in the last days of British colonial rule before Botswana's independence in 1966, it guaranteed the San continued occupation of land their ancestors had used for thousands of years.
The San "have a right of use and occupation", Bennett told the court, pointing out that neither the British colonial system nor the Botswana government had passed legislation to remove this right.
According to documents put before the court by Bennett, San in the reserve had stated they did not want to leave the reserve a number of times - in 1990, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001.
He argued that lawyers acting on behalf of Botswana's government had produced no evidence in court to suggest that the San had decided otherwise by the time evictions forced them off the reserve in 2002.
Bennett said the state had not brought before the court, any testimony from a Gana or Gwi Bushmen saying they had agreed to relocate. This was a "telling omission", he said. The San had moved off their land because of "intolerable pressure by the government to leave the reserve".
Bennett told 'IRIN' his clients had been subjected to a government strategy that had "left them with nothing". Water tanks and livestock had been confiscated, he said, and they had been prevented from hunting, making them “trespassers on their own land".
After the water tanks were removed, the San had used donkeys to ferry water, but these had also been taken away because the government said the donkeys threatened wildlife with disease.
On a visit to the reserve last year, Bennett said he had seen "rope burns" caused because San were dragging water barrels long distances to the settlement the government had allocated them.
The government had withdrawn services it admitted were "basic" and "essential" for the San, including pensions, Bennett said. "That cost must have paled into insignificance compared to the millions and millions spent on infrastructure, roads, water supplies and so on at New Xade and Kaudwane [the government's resettlement camps]."
Survival International, an advocacy group, has said the San’s evictions from the game reserve in the Kalahari, are driven by the Botswanan government's desire to get at diamond deposits. The government has denied this.
"The test of a mature democracy is its ability to tolerate and respect the choices made by its minorities, and to resist the temptation to impose upon them a way of life they may not want and do not seek," the rights group said.
Outside the courthouse in Lobatse, Roy Sesana, a San spiritual leader, said, "We are so happy that after such a long case the court is finally hearing why we must be allowed to go home. We all hope the judgment comes soon, so that we can go back to our land."
A verdict will be handed down after the panel of three judges has reviewed all the documents presented, and about 19,000 pages of trial transcripts.
Should the panel find in favour of the government, Bennett's clients will appeal and extend the "the longest and by far the most expensive case in Botswana legal history for the [country's] most impoverished people."
The Botswana government was unavailable to 'IRIN' for comment.
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