The British racist, Sir Harry Johnston, was one of the most important imperialists in the European “scramble for Africa.” When he wrote his description of humankind in 1920, he called it, “The Backward Peoples and Our Relations with Them.” He explained that, “the Backward peoples have mostly stopped in some rut, some siding of human culture, whereas the White man… has gone speeding ahead till he has attained the powers and outlook of a demi-god.” In Sir Harry’s view, of course, the “backward peoples” included all Africans and especially peoples like the Basarwa. Britons today are, or should be, ashamed of what most of their ancestors believed. I know I am.
President Ian Khama’s views about Basarwa now, a century later, are that they live a life “of backwardness”, “a primitive life of deprivation,” “a primeval life of a bygone era.” All these are direct quotations from the president. What’s the difference between that and what British imperialists like Sir Harry used to say about Africans? Yet Khama accuses Survival International of racism.
It’s General Khama that’s going in reverse direction. His father, Sir Seretse, told the Basarwa that the CKGR was their land. So the only Botswana president that has respected Basarwa rights is the first one. Ian Khama has consistently opposed his father’s wishes.
Khama accuses Survival International of “embarking upon a campaign of lies and misinformation.” Let’s have a look at his government’s record. In 2002, when government kicked Basarwa out of the CKGR, it claimed it was a “voluntary relocation”. Botswana’s High Court clearly said the evictions were “unlawful and unconstitutional” and certainly not “voluntary.” Officials in 2002 categorically denied there were any plans for a diamond mine. But the diamond mine is now built. Who concludes that it’s Survival which is disseminating “lies and misinformation”?
Khama says the Basarwa shouldn’t be a tourist project, yet that is exactly what Wilderness Safaris is doing in the CKGR. The company is part-owned and run by Khama’s relatives and associates. There are reports about money laundering, and, for some reason, Wilderness is registered in the tax haven of Bermuda. Why is that?
Khama says he’s “confident” that he will “soon find a solution” to the CKGR issue. Soon? How long does he need? It’s now nearly 14 years since the evictions – over twice as long as the duration of World War II. In spite of the High Court ruling against the government, Khama is still preventing Basarwa from returning to their ancestral lands, and is still stopping them getting food. His “solution” seems to be to do everything he can to destroy them.
How patriotic is it to tear apart the country’s oldest and poorest citizens, the Basarwa, and to drag the country’s international reputation still further down into the mire? All Survival International is asking is that Basarwa be allowed to live on their ancestral homeland if they want to, and as the High Court has ruled they can. The only thing needed is for Khama to issue an order to that effect, and to mean it. It would take less than ten minutes.
If Khama really believes Survival International’s “funding will be dried up” without the Basarwa campaign, as he says, and if he really wants to damage Survival, then why not simply spend the ten minutes it would take him to end it? It’d be a bold way to start the anniversary of Botswana’s independence, but why wait until 2016 when the celebrations will give Survival its best ever opportunity for making its voice heard? There’s no time like the present: President Khama should get his pen out now.
*Stephen Corry is director of Survival international