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Botswana’s San culture perseveres despite pressure from the outside world


By Gcotyelwa Jimlongo

Village elder Ncgabe Taase sitting in her backyard. Credits: Terjo Aaltonen, Location: D’Kar, Botswana.

The San can be considered as one of the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa. Much like in the rest of Southern Africa, the San of Botswana have consistently been marginalized, negated, and relegated to the margins of society.

The San, the Nama, the Balala and their subgroups are the indigenous people of Botswana, who are reported to have existed in the region for at least 20,000 years. The San have various subgroups and most of these speak their own languages. Although there may be similarities in ways of being, there are some distinctions in language as well as minor cultural differences.

However, even with this multitude of subgroups, the San continue to find themselves at odds with the government of Botswana. Although indigenous to Botswana, and Botswana having voted in favour of, and adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the San are not recognised by the government and lead some of the most disadvantaged lives with many being forced to live below the poverty line.

Rich history demonstrates that the San have always been hunter-gatherers and that their essence of life has lied in a sacred treatment and relationship with the earth. With the forced shift towards modernization which is exclusionary to other modes of being, the San have increasingly been relocated from their land by the government of Botswana. This poses a threat to their ways of living, their health, and environmental sustainability.

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Village elder Xgaiga Qomatca showing how to make a trap. Credits: Terjo Aaltonen, Location: D’Kar, Botswana.

Although shocking, but unsurprising for the capitalist society in which we live; it is the interests of those who possess economic capital that prevail. Fracking carried out by oil and mining companies lead to a contaminated water supply, furthering the limitation of access to clean water.

As a group that has historically been relegated to the periphery; the San are disadvantaged and disenfranchised in various ways. One such area of disenfranchisement is education. The San possess their own indigenous epistemologies. However, through formal education systems in the name of modernization, the San have been forced to adjust to learning and belief systems that are not their own. This has caused a grave mass eradication of the San’s indigenous hunting and gathering culture, their knowledge of herbs and plants (i.e. their medicinal and harmful properties), as well as various ways of living, which have been considered uncivilized.

This too, is a product of one of the many legacies of colonialism. In Botswana, the San’s indigenous epistemologies have been undermined and devalued whilst privileging those of the hegemonic Batswana (the people of Botswana). As such, the current discourse on formal education overlooks the fact that the Batswana were in a similar position as an indigenous group in Botswana, being exposed to an alienating form of education that was dehumanizing in nature.

However, albeit in the face of constant negation and discrimination, the story is not all doom and gloom for the San. Much like many historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups in the Southern African region, with a complex history with colonialism and further factional politics within ethnic groups; the San have made strides to solidify themselves and express their own sense of ethnic pride and identity.

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It is important to caution against taking this for granted, in the face of a victim versus agent dichotomy. It would be reductionist to oversimplify the complexities of the past and the present, in favour of a single story. In an endeavour to know more about, and understand in greater depth, the lives of the San; their agency as people who can self-identify and create their own spaces of activism must not be taken away.

These such spaces have been seen in the ways in which in 2018, the San Youth Network (SyNet) has been involved in promoting education and training programs for the youth, and the Tane Ko Teemahane Women’s Foundation, which have been involved in seeking support for San women in the fields of crafts and tourism. Recognising the ways in which craft production is an integral source of income for the indigenous women of Botswana. Additionally, The Kuru Family of Organizations (KFO), the Botswana Khwedom Council (BKC), First People of the Kalahari (FPK) and the Kalahari Wildlands Trust (KWT), have made strides in creating spaces of activism for human rights and social justice.

San women making traditional beads from ostrich egg shells. Credits: Terjo Aaltonen, Location: D’Kar, Botswana.

It is a grave injustice that the San continue to fight for the most basic tenets of humanity. Moving forward, particularly with the debates around modernisation, it is important to take the agency of the San to self-identify seriously. The government of Botswana must be able to envision a developing Botswana, which is not singular – but multifaceted in nature. The San must be given voice, as all inhabitants of Botswana are.

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Gcotyelwa Jimlongo is a Political and International Expert, South African Association of Political Studies (Rhodes University)

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