A judge in Botswana has refused to allow the burial of the body of an elderly Bushman on his ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), in a move that threatens to reignite long-running tensions between the Bushmen and the government.
Pitseng Gaoberekwe was a Bushman hunter who spent most of his life in the reserve. But towards the end of his life he moved to one of Botswana‘s notorious deportation camps off the reserve to be closer to his children, and when he died the authorities refused to allow his body to return to the reserve for burial.
His family fought for four months for the right to bury him on the reserve, in accordance with his last wishes. According to Bushman religious beliefs, being able to visit the graves of loved ones is absolutely vital and is often referred to as “medicine”.
Judge Itumeleng Segopolo said in his ruling today that Mr Gaoberekwe’s family must collect his body within 10 days and bury him outside the reserve or they will be jailed.
In 2006, the Bushmen won a historic lawsuit for the right to live on the reservation. Many Bushmen believe the government is using the current legal battle as a way to avenge their defeat in this case, and point to the choice of the authorities’ lawyer in the current case – former presidential adviser Sidney Pilane, who represented the government in its historic defeat in 2006.
Mr Gaoberekwe was so determined to continue living on the reserve as a hunter that he had already suffered assault, detention and a year in prison in 1994 after being arrested by scouts for hunting.
Smith Moeti, a nephew of the deceased, told Survival Today: “This separation of our souls and spirits is like weaning a day old baby from its mother. We believe the courts in Botswana are loyal to the government, so we do not expect justice. This decision is a violation of our indigenous rights as enshrined in international laws and treaties. We have rights to our ancestral lands and no one can take them away from us, no matter what the government says. It was our land long before it was a game reserve.
Fiona Watson, research director at Survival International, said today: “This decision is a huge blow to Pitseng’s family and a big setback for all Bushmen who call the CKGR residence. The fact that he never went to court shows that the government is once again determined to persecute the CKGR Bushmen, in an incredibly vindictive move to disenfranchise a person even in death. The ruling runs counter to the landmark High Court case from 2006, when the court ruled that the government acted unconstitutionally in evicting Bushmen from their ancestral lands in the CKGR. Survival condemns the government and this wrong decision, and will do everything possible to seek justice for Pitseng’s family.