Bushmen forced out of the Kalahari desert by Botswana’s government won a landmark legal victory today as the country’s high court ruled they had been illegally removed and should be allowed to return.
The panel of three judges ruled 2-1 in favour of the Bushmen, among Africa’s last hunter-gatherers, whose fate has attracted widespread international attention.
Survival International, a British-based pressure group which campaigns for the rights of indigenous and tribal people and has been assisting with the case, hailed the verdict as “a victory for the Bushmen and for indigenous peoples everywhere in Africa”.
The legal battle – the longest in Botswana’s history – has been seen as a major test case in establishing the fundamental rights of indigenous people.
Earlier today, the Bushmen’s campaign seemed lost when the high court’s chief justice, Maruping Dibotelo, delivered his verdict first and ruled in favour of the government. The Bushmen’s supporters assumed the other two more junior judges would follow suit.
However, they disgreed, granting the Bushmen – also known as the San people – the right to return to what is now the central Kalahari game reserve.
Judge Mpaphi Phumaphi, who delivered the deciding vote, said the government had been wrong to force the Bushmen into settlement camps. “In my view the simultaneous stoppage of the supply of food rations and the stoppage of hunting licenses is tantamount to condemning the remaining residents of the central Kalahari game reserve to death by starvation,” he said.