afrol News, 28 January - The Botswana government is frustrated about yesterday's Court of Appeal decision to allow the indigenous San ("Bushman") people of a Kalahari reserve drill for water. Human rights groups celebrate the ruling.
The final ruling, from which there is no appeal, may put an end to almost ten years of struggle for the San communities living in Botswana's large Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which were evicted by government in 2002.
An earlier court ruling had decided the San people had the right to return to their ancestral lands, but government since then has denied returning groups access to a well which it capped during the evictions. In a new High Court ruling last year, government policy regarding the borehole was confirmed.
The denial of water to the Kalahari desert San communities however created an international outcry. Among others, the UN, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights - and more discretely, the US government - condemned the Botswana government.
The international outrage became only greater as government drilled new wells for wildlife only in the reserve and gave the go ahead for Wilderness Safaris to open a luxury tourist lodge with swimming pool on San land. Government has also given the go ahead to Gem Diamonds for a US$ 3 billion diamond mine at one of the San communities.
Following international pressure and campaigns by Batswana human rights groups - and a local press increasingly favouring the San's case - yesterday's Court of Appeal decision overturns last year's High Court ruling.
The unanimous panel of five judges ordered government to "refrain from inflicting degrading treatment" of the San communities. It further ordered government to release the old borehole to the communities and allow the San to sink new boreholes on their ancestral lands in the reserve.
The judges said the San had "an inherent right" to extract drinking water from their land. "Lawful occupiers of land such as the appellants must be able to get underground water for domestic purposes, otherwise their occupation would be rendered meaningless," the ruling said, noting that it was already established that the San were the lawful occupiers of the reserve's lands.
The San communities yesterday evening celebrated the ruling. A spokesman was quoted by the UK pro-San group Survival as saying, "We are very happy that our rights have finally been recognised. We have been waiting a long time for this. Like any human beings, we need water to live. We also need our land. We pray that the government will now treat us with the respect we deserve."
Botswana human rights groups such as Ditshwanelo also have welcomed the ruling. The group had earlier called government to change its policies and ensure "sustainable, meaningful, people-centred development for the communities of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve."
Also in the Batswana press, the San communities' victory is widely accepted. The country's leading independent newspaper, 'Mmegi', already during last year started defending the San's case in editorials and articles. Today, even the state-owned news agency 'BOPA' gave wide coverage of the court ruling, saying it had "rubbished" arguments raised by government.
Botswana's presidential spokesman Jeff Ramsay however was not amused by the court decision. In a statement forwarded to afrol News, Mr Ramsay said "While we do not agree with certain aspects of the basis on which the decision was reached, we recognise that this is a decision of Botswana's highest court."
"As such, the government of Botswana will, in line with its established policy of respect for the decisions of the courts and the rule of law, facilitate implementation of the decision of the court as reflected in the order," the government spokesman added.
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