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Racist of the year, Ian Khama: Not Botswana’s Finest

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Photo: Survival International.

Nominating a “Racist of the Year” may seem like a strange thing to do. Nevertheless, Survival International has been doing this for several years for one key reason: To draw attention to the genocidal violence, slavery, and racism that tribal people around the world face on a more or less daily basis.

The award is not intended as a comprehensive survey of racial discrimination around the world. There are of course, appalling instances of prejudice against non-tribal peoples, and we do not seek to demean those experiences and the terrible impact they can have on individuals and communities.

We do however believe that discrimination against tribespeople is a singularly urgent and horrific crisis, because it goes beyond simply hating people for who they are. Racism in any form, whether based on pseudo-scientific theories, the desire to assert dominance, or simply knee-jerk hatred is a disgraceful thing. However, there is something particularly dangerous about a racism that says that entire peoples; their ways of life, their cultures, their traditions, and their desire to determine their own futures, are illegitimate and have to be wiped out.

General Ian Khama, the President of Botswana, and his frequent outbursts against the Kalahari Bushmen are among the most horrifying instances of racism of recent times. His sentiments were extremely troubling.

Khama said that the Bushmen live lives “of backwardness,” “a primitive life of deprivation” and “a primeval life of a bygone era.” In an interview in 2014, he further stated that the Bushmen have an “extinct form of life, a very backward form of life” suggesting that they were innately inferior and that it was his government’s duty to “modernize” them, if necessary by force. In practice, this has meant opening up their land to diamond mines and luxury tourist lodges.

Meanwhile, his government continues to ignore its own high court’s 2006 ruling that the Bushmen have the right to live and hunt on their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. They languish in government camps where HIV/AIDS and other diseases are rife. Families are separated under a brutal permit system that has been compared to South Africa’s apartheid era pass laws by veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Michael Dingake. The Bushmen are persecuted when they hunt to feed their families, and even face shootings, arrest, beatings and torture for trying to feed themselves as they have for generations by hunting antelope with spears or bows and arrows.

This is, in effect, the destruction of an entire people. Khama and his government haven’t herded the Bushmen into extermination camps or shot them en masse, but they have made it all but impossible for them to continue to live. The discovery of massive diamond deposits in the Kalahari in the ‘80s and ‘90s made the very existence of these “backwards” and “primitive” hunter gatherers an inconvenience. They had to be shunted aside for the sake of “progress.” Now the president of their country says they must move away from their so-called “primeval life of a bygone era,” or die.

It is essential that this attitude is recognized as what it is: racism. There is a suggestion in Khama’s words that the Bushmen are innately inferior, lower down the evolutionary ladder than other people simply because their communal ways are different. At his most grandstanding, he and other Botswana politicians try and claim that they have moved the Bushmen to camps and banned them from hunting for their own good, that the loss of land and integration into industrialized society it is an inevitable process that “primitive” tribespeople must go through for their own survival.

This ignores their autonomy, it rides rough-shod over their human rights, and completely robs them of their capacity to determine their own futures. It is tragic that a government so praised for aspects of its post-colonial history can demonstrate such a colonial attitude that echoes the policies of British, Dutch and German imperialists in southern Africa.

Seretse Khama, General Khama’s father and Botswana’s first president, would be ashamed of his son’s attitude. He was praised by anti-racism campaigners, for his taboo-defying marriage to a white English woman, and for his enlightened attitude towards the first people of the Kalahari.

It was his sincere belief that unlike other racist regimes in his region of Africa, notably those in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and what is now Namibia, that people of different ethnicities could co-exist peacefully. As far as he was concerned, every group, whether urban and educated or tribal hunter gatherers, should have the right to self-determination within the new republic of Botswana.

He said that: “Our guiding principle… is that every national group has a right to self-determination, that the essence of democracy is that minorities and ethnic groups should not be subjected to any form of discrimination.”

The first President Khama has just been immortalized in a biopic praising his progressive racial attitudes. His son has just received Survival’s dreaded “Racist of the Year” gong, in an effort to highlight his government’s appalling betrayal of that guiding principle. At Survival, we hope that future governments of the country will return to respecting the Bushmen’s rights, regardless of what valuable resources might happen to be under their land. Tribal peoples are contemporary societies and deserve our respect.

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Lewis Evans is a campaigner at Survival International.

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