This Has To Be Remembered

MARIKANA: the word is now part of the lexicon of history: the remote area that saw the bloodiest use of force by the South African Police against the people since the Soweto uprisings in 1976.

Marikana, also known as “Rooikoppies” (Red hills), is a town between Rustenberg and Johannesburg, and forms part of the Bushveld Igneous Complex, colloquially known as the “Platinum Belt”, of South Africa. Through 2 billion years of molten rock being forced to the surface through long vertical cracks in the earth, the area has some of the richest ore deposits in the world – platinum, palladium, iron, titanium, tin, are just some of the metals that are produced here.

South Africa accounts for 80% of the world’s platinum deposits, and because of its scarcity, only a few hundred tonnes are produced annually for commodities as diverse as silicone rubber and gel components, medical prosthetics, and jewelry.

One of the largest mining corporations in the area is Lonmin. Originally formed in 1909 as “Lonrho” – London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Limited – they split into two companies in 1998 with Lonmin focusing its attention on mining the riches of South Africa, with Marikana their flagship operation. Claiming a commitment to “zero harm and the environment” on their website, that rang false in August 2012.

What began as a wildcat strike became a complicated and violent confrontation – and speaks to a deeper issue that has plagued South Africa, and many other countries, regarding workers’ rights and trade unions.

During apartheid, the organization most involved with fighting the system was the African National Congress. Formed in 1912, and banned from 1960, days after the Sharpeville Massacre, until 1990 (although it and its members, including Nelson Mandela, remained on the US Terrorist Watch List until 2008), the ANC found itself needing a legal partner inside the country. COSATU – the Congress of South African Trade Unions – was an affiliation of 21 trade unions, with 1,8 million workers, and formed part of a strategic alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party to work towards political transformation.

Born in 1952, Ramaphosa had graduated with a law degree, and started work representing the National Council of Trade Unions, and a year after that, in 1982, was asked to form the National Union of Mineworkers. The NUM won a major victory in 1983 by ending job reservation, which guaranteed the higher paying jobs went to whites in the era of apartheid.

As COSATU’s first General-Secretary, his profound skills as a negotiator, strategist, and leader built membership from 6,000 to 300,000 in ten years. His role in negotiations to end apartheid and bring about the first democratic elections in 1994 went a long way towards being considered a possible successor to President Nelson Mandela. Despite being passed over in favor of Thabo Mbeki, his ambitions have never wavered.

As a businessman his interests are wide and global, and he is one of the country’s richest men with a wealth purported to be around $675 million.

He is also on the Lonmin board. And that is important to remember as the events of Marikana unfolded.

I spoke to Rehad Desai, director of the exceptional documentary, “Miners Shot Down”, who told me, “The Trade Unions were indeed a powerful force for motivating change in the move towards democracy, but what we saw is what people have called the “triangle of torment”: communications between union and management are bureaucratized so leaders of the trade unions are forced to discipline their membership to keep them in line with their agreement, in return for the employers holding their line – and in return the employers ensuring that all their side meet the agreement.

“Now, the deeper thing was the – in (South Africa’s period of) transition – the alliance with the trade unions as far as the ANC goes was really premised on the ability for them to tamper wage demands- to ensure that wage demands that were over and above the inflation rates or productivity were not demanded; that trade unions start taking responsibility for an economy which they had no control over. This was the beginning of the problems and so you saw the unions getting very close to management – far too close, particularly in the case of the NUM where they’re labelled by mineworkers as the National Union of Management. They’ve really become an extension of management and not much more.”

I asked Rehad if the changes we saw in Ramaphosa were a result of his being “in the establishment” too long, and perhaps forgetting his roots as a representative of the people.

“I think the issue of Cyril Ramaphosa is a complex one – certainly he’s had huge investments in Lonmin, hundreds of millions of Rands – and he was seeking to protect them, and I think this typifies the arrangements of politically connected individuals and businessmen with these corporations: where they seek out such people in order to provide a level of protection to attempt to guarantee their economic and political interests, and they saw it fit to turn their backs on their workers, to stop negotiating, even though that’s against their own stated policy, and criminalise this strike.

“But there are also political considerations that I think stood at the forefront of Cyril Ramaphosa’s mind and that is the fact that his baby, the NUM, certainly then the most powerful union in COSATU, is an important ally in the alliance – the contrived alliance – with the ANC, and that was being increasingly questioned in the run-up to Marikana. Certainly we’ve seen what’s happened post-Marikana. But the fact that 21 000 workers 6 months prior had signaled their decision to leave the NUM following the strike which happened at the second biggest platinum producer in the world and in South Africa, Implats (Impala Platinum), they were worried that this would happen at Lonmin and spread further on to Anglo American – the largest platinum producer.

“Now in total, this is the Crown Prince of the mining sector and they represent 100 000 workers – that would have seen the loss of 100 000 members from the NUM to the other union on the block – the new kid on the block, so to speak. That’s a third of their membership and represents a severe weakening of their membership and the ANC’s presence inside the trade union movement and I think in hindsight, maybe this was the consideration that was pushing Ramaphosa, rather than simply his money. This is the consideration which allowed him to justify his intervention with the Minister of Police and the Minister of Water Resources – both of them who, in political terms inside the African National Congress, were his juniors.”


On August 10, 2012, rock drillers – the job usually reserved for the unskilled, illiterate, and under-educated – initiated a strike in protest of low wages. Rock drillers were paid an average of aroundZAR12 500 a month, at the time worth roughly $500, and they demanded to meet with mine management to discuss an increase.

Poverty breeds anger and resentment. The Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit, faith-based organization owned by South African churches, lobbies and monitors social responsibility in the corporate sector, basing their standards on the international, “Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility”, commented after the events at Marikana: "The benefits of mining are not reaching the workers or the surrounding communities. Lack of employment opportunities for local youth, squalid living conditions, unemployment and growing inequalities contribute to this mess.”

Critical of the ongoing exploitation and low wages of the miners, they warned about the dangers the workers faced, including significant health hazards, proclaiming “something is very wrong with mining” and warning about the potentially dire consequences of an unequal distribution of wealth.

Certainly, South Africa’s memory doesn’t need to be long to remember what upheavals that can wring from society. Apartheid was a system of inequality and founded originally on economic distribution towards the white Afrikaner, before it extended to whites generally.

Miner and strike leader, Tholakele Dlunga says in the film, “We were complaining that rock drill operators only earn R4 000 a month. We should at least get an increase looking at the work we do. But we know our employer. He won’t have the exact amount we’re demanding. Whatever he offers, we’ll negotiate on that, because we have very little money.”

After being turned away by the company’s security when attempting to approach another mine to encourage workers who belonged to a competitor union, AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) to join the strike, around 3,000 workers headed to the local offices of the NUM, staffed by around 30 union workers, shop stewards, and officials.

A survivor of the massacre, Mzoxolo Magidiwana, explains, “What made us angry as Lonmin workers was the hypocrisy of the union we elected. We were fed up because they were not pushing our demands, especially for wages, and we decided to go sort it out ourselves, as Lonmin workers.”

As the strikers approached the NUM offices, the union staff started shooting at them, without warning, from inside the building. The men dispersed, with one driller testifying to the Commission of Enquiry, “As I was walking through passages of the hostel, I felt my back turn cold. I tried to run and told the guys I was with that I had been shot.” NUM has insisted it was acting in self-defense.

The NUM shooting at its members was shocking enough, but then the politicians stepped in, including Cyril Ramaphosa. For a person with his background, having spent much of his life fighting for workers’ rights, it came as a surprise that when called on to get involved, he instead distanced himself from the workers, calling the strike, “dastardly criminal.”

Between the 12th and 13th of August, 8 mine workers were injured; two mine security officers killed by the protesters; 3 mineworkers killed in a skirmish with police that also leaves 2 policemen killed and 1 injured.

In Desai’s documentary, containing extraordinary footage of the events that unfolded that week, one of the moments that stays with the audience is of the miners returning to the koppie – a small rocky hill they had deemed their sanctuary –armed with their traditional weapons of pangas and sticks. They are stopped by police, led by General Mpembe, the Deputy Commissioner of the North West Province, who pleads with the miners to put down their weapons – never a match for sophisticated arms or bullets, but rather a badge of traditional courage – in order to return to the koppie. The miners are adamant: “We’re not fighting with anyone. We just want to get to the mountain.” One worker points out that when they went to their union representatives, they were shot at.

In a quite remarkable show of submission and respect, the workers, all kneeling or sitting on the ground, their weapons down as the police surround them, a strike leader addresses the General, “My elder, you are genuine police. We are from Lonmin, we are trying to fix our financial problems. We work underground. We are not fighting with anyone. We are just trying to solve something.”

I asked Desai about the inherent, fundamental certainty of the workers at this point.

“It’s clear that the miners were ready to hand over their weapons and cooperate with the police but they wanted to do that at the koppie. Someone says - I think it’s Antonio Gramsci - that everyone is a philosopher whether you’re educated or not. These worker leaders were chosen because they have intuition – they’re naturally intelligent. Education and intelligence don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and yes, they know their rights when it comes to strikes. They knew that they were embarking on a strike – an unprotected strike – which could have seen them dismissed.

“They believed that they could independently achieve more – which they had been doing for over the course of the last years prior to the massacre. Their defiance, their willingness, the bravery that it took to continue that strike, despite the huge numbers of arrests and killings that took place on the 16th, I think, is a standout characteristic of the determination and the courage and human tenacity in the face of a giant corporation, in the face of a hostile government, and hostile majority trade union.”

Magidiwana tells Desai in the film, “Black workers are exploited. We work like slaves, even our fathers were rockdrillers. Either they die or go back home still as rockdrillers.  Poverty forces you to forget your ambition, leave school and work as a rockdriller at the same mine, where your boss will be the son of your father’s boss.”

At this point, Lonmim has spent massive amounts of money on expanding their operations, and is financially vulnerable, so talk of higher wages is seen as a threat to their very existence, and they resist the workers requests to talk. They also could not afford a massive, extended strike, and with no rock drillers, there will be no platinum. On the day of the massacre, Lonmin, in a somewhat tone-deaf statement, complains that it has lost six days of production, or 15 000 ounces of platinum, and will be unable to meet target of 750 000 ounces by year end.

It remains somewhat unclear as to the level of collusion between police, political and union leaders, and Lonmin, with all claiming no responsibility to what happened next.

By August 14, ten people had died, with no clear idea who had the guns, apart from the police.

NUM’s competitor, AMCU, led by Jeffrey Matunjwa, whose members had joined the strike days earlier, stepped in to play a pivotal role in trying to ease the tensions and end the strike, but on 16 August, it all came to a head.

It remains unclear who gave the order to send in 4,000 rounds of live ammunition to the police stationed at the site. Nor was there a clear answer when reporters asked why coroners vans had arrived, but no ambulances were there. To this day, nobody has admitted to giving the order to fire on the workers, but what does seem clear is that the mine, and the police, were determined to bring things to an end.

Police vehicles started to herd the miners marching back to the koppie into a razor-wired temporary corral. And at that point, things went horrible wrong.

One eyewitness says some strikers were crushed by the vehicles, and chaos ensued as the shooting began. Police reports say someone, a worker, fired a gun at them, although it’s impossible to say whether that was proven, or whether such gun was ever found. What is known, and the video evidence is clear, is that the police fired on workers running from charging vehicles, teargas, and confusion, into a hail of bullets.

17 men were killed at the scene, pushed by the vehicles towards the armed police, and into a situation which if managed differently, could perhaps easily have resulted in arrests being made with no loss of life. But the chaos continued, and 17 more miners who had already found their way to the koppie, were later found dead from bullets fired at close range.  The relatively few shells found after the dust had settled indicated that this was not a scene of extended fire, but looked more like the miners had been assassinated, one a time.

The documentary includes almost everything that happened during that week. I asked Desai about the extraordinary amount of footage available.

“Well, we got footage from wherever we could. The police had to, by regulation, film everything. They didn’t or much of the stuff that they did was certainly disposed of – it was not handed over to the Commission of Inquiry, but they had to hand over something, they had to. So, a lot of footage was police footage. Lonmin wanting to distance themselves from this police operation, which in many ways they led, also handed over footage to show policemen out of control – and particularly in the instance of the railway line on the 13th.

“The key footage that shows the mine workers leaving peacefully from the koppie – contrary to the police’s narrative which claimed they were attacked twice - I managed to argue quite vociferously with Al Jazeera to release that to me, which they did and which I then handed over to the Commission of Inquiry and the local and international press. That helped shift the narrative from one of police acting in self-defense to one of a police ambush and plan to violently break the strike. There were other sources of footage from Reuters and SABC – it took some time to get into SABC to get everything I needed.”

The shockwaves that rippled through the country put pressure on President Zuma to appoint a Commission of Inquiry. Retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Honourable Judge Ian Gordon Farlam took his seat on August 23, 2012, and for more than 2 years would hear the testimony of all the parties involved, including that of Cyril Ramaphosa, who entered the hall to the cries of “blood on his hands” from the audience. While the Commission cleared him of wrongdoing, easing the now-Deputy President’s way to a possible promotion, the lawyers representing the miners continue to demand he be held responsible, most recently with the attorney representing the miners serving him with a summons, demanding he apologise for the massacre and to compensate those who were affected.

One of the legacies of this event was a closer examination of the decision-making level of the SA government – something Mandy Tomson delves into elsewhere in this publication. One of the major players in the Marikana massacre was Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega, aka Riah Phiyega, the Police Commissioner of the South African Police Service. Appointed to the position in June 2012, Phiyega is but one example – but an important one – of the cronyism run rampant in the current government.  Placing unqualified, or at best under-qualified, people in positions of power played its own role in the catastrophe that was Marikana. With degrees in social sciences and business administration, and a career in the corporate sector, including large banks and transportation, including a stint as “well-being consultant” at the Chamber of Mines, Phiyega had no experience as a police officer. She claimed her background as a manager would serve her well. Despite coming under some scrutiny when she would appear in public wearing full police uniform, decked with an array of medals and honors – many of which were not awarded to police officers who were actually qualified to wear them - her Amin-esque appearance was generally overlooked.

Her testimony to the Farlam Commission, which advised on an investigation into her fitness to hold office, claimed the police had been attacked by the workers, saying, “The militant group stormed toward the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons.” It is still unclear where that version originated, since the video evidence show a very different picture. She has also claimed that, as she was only in that position for 2 months at the time of the massacre, it was really her predecessor’s fault for militarising the police, and she had trusted her senior management to handle the crisis.

Phyega was suspended from her position in 2015, following an investigation into her practices as Commissioner by the country’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, aka “Scorpions”, whose job it is to investigate organised crime, economic crime, and corruption cases referred to it by SAPS.  

As of publication date, there is a dust-up between Phiyega and Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko and we will be keeping an eye on how that plays out going forward.


Shortly after the massacre, 17 miners were charged with the killing of the 10 who lost their lives prior to the day of the massacre - charges that were withdrawn pending the findings of the Commission, but in October 2015 were reinstated. The pretrial is scheduled to come before the courts around time of publishing.

The 270 workers directly involved in the massacre were originally charged under the “common purpose doctrine”, but those charges were dropped. Common purpose is a legal doctrine that states all participants in a crime are responsible for the consequences, even if it is not their intention. In a previous high profile case in South Africa – the Sharpeville Six- common doctrine came under fire by the international community as unlawful and racist, with two jurists calling it a “crime against humanity”.

I asked Rehad Desai about the situation for the miners following the Commission:

“Lonmin did go before the Commission, as did the unions. The final report states that there is a case for criminal negligence on behalf of the directors of Lonmin. The parties, whether the state or the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority), will follow up in another question but the legal representatives of the injured and arrested have served papers for private criminal prosecution against Cyril Ramaphosa and it’s also recommended with the Farlam Commission that the NUM – those people who fired at the mine workers - be investigated. Again, whether that happens is a case to be seen.

“The government has asked the legal representatives of the families of the slain miners and the injured and arrested to enter discussions which will be happening at the end of this month.

“I think the willingness of workers to step outside their trade unions; the framework they’ve set up to deal in so-called legitimate manner with workers, was certainly not working for them. The workers went on to win significant increases.”

Lonmin agreed to increase salaries by 22%, with a one-off payment of R2 000 to help cover the weeks they were on strike. The miners got less of an increase they wanted, but as for their actions, and the consequences, as Desai says, “This has to be remembered.”


The extraordinary system changes South Africa experienced through the decades leading up to full democracy in 1994, were as a direct result of grassroots democracy, and the events at Marikana were emblematic of this.  The people, in this case poor, uneducated, and largely illiterate rock drillers, stood up and demanded their rights in a show of strength and certainty one doesn’t often see. How the government chooses to deal with this will reflect whether the establishment is so because it has inherited the systems created by the colonial powers, followed by the apartheid governments… or whether they remind themselves how they got into that position – and whether the people they used to represent will allow them to stay there

Rehad Desai: “I think what’s happened to the African National Congress stewarding party is essentially being captured by black tycoons – created through BEE (the “Black Economic Empowerment” programme created by the government to redress racial inequalities) and therefore they will not act counter to those interests which have become dominant around the sitting President, Jacob Zuma, who is surrounded by a number of securocrats, as they’re labeled, and these tycoons who are now the dominant faction in the ANC. The grassroots activism will now have to come from those outside of the ANC – we can see that happening with the students, in the townships, and it’s often led by the good old freedom fighters. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (“NUMSA”), the biggest trade union in the country, is now forming a new trade union federation. We also have the United Front, which is composed of 240 civic-based organizations and a few NGO’s, working together with the likes of Section 27 (a public interest law center) and Equal Education (a movement of educators, parents, and community members), as well as other mass organizations, around corruption. These are important developments and they need to be noted.”


Rehad Desai’s film, “Miners Shot Down” has won 21 awards, including an International Emmy. It has featured, and won awards at, nearly 100 film festivals around the world. International screenings number into the hundreds and attention to this issue continues to grow.

To hear the interview with Rehad Desai, please visit the website at


In The Land of Blood and Honey

There’s something magical about watching a movie on the silver screen. You give permission for the story to envelop you, to get lost in the scenes, to become a character.

And then there are the films where one needs the sanctuary of home, to absorb without being in it, because the intensity of the experience leaves one appreciating the safe comfort of one’s home.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is one such film. Not available in my local theaters, I curled up in an overstuffed armchair and relied on the “One Demand” menu to transport me into Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut.

It’s a tough, emotional journey, drawing one through the tangled, complex love story made even more complicated by the historical reality of the Balkans. The romance between Danijel, a Christian-Serb (played by Goran Kostic) and Muslim-Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjonivic) plays out as a metaphor for a country beset by ancient prejudices, double standards and the universal application of violence against women and one’s own neighbors, to support (in this case Serbian-Christian) male hegemony.

Jolie paints Danijel a complex character – gentle and sensitive, yet victim of an Oedipal complex as he tries to follow his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Serbedzija) into the Serbian army and xenophobic-inspired killing. Danijel is popular with the men he leads, turning into a Muslim killer before our eyes, and we see him constantly wrestle with the conflicting roles he plays. As the viewer squirms away from the violence of neighbor against neighbor, and feels revulsion when faced with the General’s hateful views towards the Muslims of his own community, as we also feel sympathy for the man caught in a situation beyond his control. One aches for the soldier who tries to protect his love, his prisoner, from his own people.

“Why couldn’t you be born a Serb?” he asks plaintively, gently stroking her face.

Ajla is a more passive character – something of a surprise to me, considering the strong, powerful women Jolie usually elects to play as an actress. Ajla is a metaphor for all the women caught up in this testosterone-fuelled war. In the few moments where she shows her inner strength, we can believe she will endure, if she simply stays quiet, submissive. It is this subtlety in Jolie’s writing and direction that is remarkable. Too often, especially with an actor-novice director, the actor cannot help but be the unseen star. But Jolie steps away, allowing the story to speak its own truth.

The film includes a by now well-known scene: a row of Muslim prisoners, emaciated, watching the camera blankly as it pans past them. Those stares sear our consciousness and fuses with the same eyes we’ve seen in footage from Nazi concentration camps, Darfurian refugees, starving East African children.

As politicians try to deny the existence of these situations (Bush 1’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Thomas Niles: “We don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.”), we become increasingly aware of the weakness in our leaders and the international community in dealing with a situation like this, favoring the protection of their political careers over getting involved in protecting fellow humans.

The former Yugoslavia was a complicated beast: a federation of 6 Republics: Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and the larger and more problematic three, Serbia (mostly Orthodox, but with a large Albanian enclave in Kosovo); Croatia (mainly Catholic, but complicated by Serb-dominated Karjina); and Bosnia, with a large Muslim population and nationalistic Serb-Croatian minorities.

Prior to the Ottoman Empire, the majority of Bosnia had been Orthodox Christian, albeit with regular conflicts with Rome. That lack of strict orthodoxy may well have contributed to opening the door to Islam when the Ottoman Empire powered through the region. Conversion of about one-third of Bosnia’s Christians to Islam appears, however, to be more a matter of survival and expediency than any spiritual awakening.

For more than three centuries, Christians were routinely subjected to rigorous oppression: hefty poll taxes, unable to carry weapons, barred from wearing green, the color of Islam. They were required to dismount when a Muslim passed; they were not allowed to build a better residence than a Muslim neighbor; churches were to be built low and modest, and certainly with no church bells. Non-Muslims had no legal status and could not testify against a Muslim. They could be sentenced to death if found guilty of blasphemy – a Muslim’s accusation could not be countered.

By the time the indignity and humiliation resulted in numerous uprisings against the Muslim overlords, the anger had settled blood-deep. As much as the Hapsburgs were seen initially as liberators, their continued pandering to the Muslims did not help the nationalistic fervor that was growing.

In a telling scene in the film, a conversation between Danijel and his father: “This land is soaked in Serbian blood. And now they want us to live here under Muslim rule? In a Muslim state?”

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a time where at least on a superficial level, wounds appeared to have healed. But, in constructing as fair a balance as possible between the groups, the resultant peace merely served as a band-aid to the centuries-long resentment.

Numerous uprisings between the parties, all claiming to be more historically aggrieved than the others unsettled Yugoslavia after Tito’s death, and by 1992, when the European Community recognized Bosnia as an independent state, tensions erupted. As Serbians tried to take control of Sarajevo, and the country stepped closer to the abyss, the cruelty of Serbian anger grew, as they unflinchingly attacked women and children, and bombed hospitals – a signal of what was in store.

The reign of terror, the rape camps where women, and children as young as 3 or 4 years old, were violated in tens of thousands, left no doubt that nothing short of ethnic cleansing was on Serbian minds. In some areas, a home owner’s ethnicity was painted on his front door – Serb homes were left untouched. Muslim and Croatians homes were destroyed. Non-Serbs were forced out of their jobs. In at least one instance, hundreds were locked in a building which was then burned down; many hundreds were rounded into cattle trucks and left for days, with masses of children and the vulnerable adults dying.

While Serb forces were driving out nearly 2 million Bosnians, the UN relief agencies refused refugees access to safety – acknowledgement of their plight would make them accomplices to the cleansing.

The most powerful weapon in a war is the media. Much of what happened was due to political manipulation of the media from all sides.

Both Muslim and Christians indulged in vampiric hominems, instilling fear and driving all sides closer to war.

One journalist said, “You Americans would become nationalist and racists, too, if your media were totally in the hands of the KKK.”

The propaganda was relentless, and the fear of what could happen became the impetus for what actually happened.

The UN peacekeepers sent to Bosnia in May 1992 were refused permission to use force beyond personal protection. Wagging a finger at a patriot intent on killing is no way to keep any peace, and UN and NATO soldiers were mocked, with some taken hostage in a clear message of contempt for the international community.

DANIJEL: You think the rest of the world will ignore this? I don’t. The UN has already sent peacekeepers to Croatia. They will not turn their backs on all of this.

VUKOJEVIC: Of course they see everything, but they will not attack us. They won’t do anything…. Bolster your men. And finish cleansing this area.

This mirrors a real moment, caught on tape of a Serb Commander of the VRS (Army of Republika Srpska), ordering the shelling of the UN-protected “safe zone” of Srebrenica:

“That’s it, man. I see the hard one. Let’s lash out at them…. Push it now. I want to hear the Wolves howling. Charge! NATO Pact won’t do anything to us… Take your best positions…”

From Radislav Krstic, Chief of Staff of the Drina Wolves, outside Srebrenica: “There are still 3,500 parcels I have to distribute and I have no solution.”

And later, from the Muslim enclave of Zepa, “Kill them all – not a single one must be left alive.”

The infamous assault on the town of Srebrenica has been written by many. The desire by General Mladic to stop the pipeline of arms into the UN-run town, defended by Dutch peacekeepers trying to protect thousands of Muslim refugees, resulted in the shocking genocide that finally catapulted the war onto front pages globally. Non-combatant Serbs, including women and children, were butchered, tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and the fortunate few to escape that horror were brutally raped as peacekeepers stood by, unable to defend the victims.

Finally, the world paid attention. Whether Srebrenica was attacked as a way to score points in the propaganda war, or whether it was resolved ethnic cleansing of Muslims, can be debated. Certainly, neither side had clean hands in the war to this point.

Perhaps the term “ethnic cleansing” is a misnomer. The ethnic groups had been living in relative harmony for a long time, despite the underlying tensions. This appeared to be more cultural, communal, and religious.

Indira Hadziomerovic said in Sarajevo, 1992: “We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other’s babies. What is happening to us?”

Trying to cloak genocide behind a wall neatly labeled “humanitarian crisis” reflects a leadership driven by fear. In an attempt to relegate the Balkans to irrelevance, James Baker described it as a “European problem”. A “European problem” allowed America to divorce itself from the reality of being a part of Europe. A myopic vision of history meant Americans seeing the Balkans as an isolated, European issue, rather than a contribution to the stability of Europe, and by extension, America. The fates of all countries are tied together, and the relationship between Danijel and Ajla is symbolic of that connection.

The film being available “on demand” proves a point: even at the height of the genocide, few in the general public were really interested in what was happening. The disinterest was probably as much from not understanding the complicated scenario of Croats-Serb-Muslim-Christians, and the inability to word what was happening into a soundbite, as it was the near-xenophobic view many embrace by thinking that what happens “over there” is none of their concern.

The unflinching conclusion made me grateful for that overstuffed armchair, as I sat, doing something I never normally do: watching every credit as it rolled past, unable to move, reluctant to return to the world, relieved that I didn’t need to step over empty popcorn boxes, to join the throng of people in a sane, safe shopping mall.

Instead, I sat stunned. Absorbed. Moved. Quiet. Grateful.

This review was first published in MIPJ, Volume 1.

The Freedom to Speak... Or Not

When speech can lead to genocide.

By Leigh Barrett, Executive Editor, Perspective Publications

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities – Voltaire

To commit violence against another often reflects the insecurity of the perpetrator’s self-identity and, in countries where people are under socio-economic or political pressure, there is a greater tendency to find reasons to distinguish themselves from those who appear “different”: sometimes from another country, but frequently fellow citizens and often family members, as people look for a way to express that insecurity.

Africa has played host to only a few of the genocides and wars the world has experienced over the millennia – from long before the Ottoman attacks on the Assyrians in the nineteenth century, the infamous Nazi extermination of the Jewish people in Europe, the efforts by some colonial powers to subdue or control their subjects in Asia, the Americas and beyond - the list seems to be endless. But, where does it begin? What is the catalyst that brings a group of people, often groups who have lived in peace with their neighbors for decades and even centuries, to that nadir where they rise up and are prepared to slaughter them in large-scale numbers?

In arguably every case, the violence begins with words.

Perhaps the most familiar to our recent memory is what happened in Rwanda.

People tend to take their history seriously, and the stories of the past are passed through the generations. Rwanda was settled over a period of two thousand years, with Hutu and Tutsi living peaceably under a system that was both complex and highly effective. Small groups based on ancestry or loyalty to their leader would set aside differences in order to share their common history. However, through the 18th century, the pastoralists and agrarians that made up Rwandan society were increasingly led by those who saw great advantage in accumulating wealth and power over their subjects. The mythology attached to some leaders exaggerated their power to the extent that they were thought able to control the rain, or manage pests, and other such grand tales. Over generations, these mythologies served to create deeper divisions between groups – and those divisions broke wide open with the arrival of the colonial powers.

In 1884, the Berlin Conference assigned Rwanda to Germany to manage. They did little with it, but that all changed when Belgium took it over during World War 1, and found themselves faced with a complex state that had developed over the centuries as Twa and Bantu groups settled into their claimed areas, and created several kingdoms.

Belgium changed the hierarchical structures that took too much of their energy to govern, and their lack of interest in understanding complex African tribal governance resulted in their preference to focus instead on the incredible wealth the region offered. Areas where the groups lived in harmony but with minimal governance were seen by the Europeans as a threat to their idea of good order. So, the Belgians started to restructure the country, regrouping chiefdoms and hierarchies, and systematically destroying the power of ancestral leaders. The Rwandan leaders, in many instances, were astute enough to play along - albeit keeping the rural chiefs and royal families in place without letting that knowledge reach the Europeans – and negotiated a lifestyle that benefitted them. It may have worked for the chiefs and rulers, but the ordinary person started to lose the economic battle as the benefits of working within the colonial system never filtered further than the upper echelons of society.

The Belgians then decided that Tutsis should have the power monopoly, establishing the racism that became common policy among all colonial powers. It was sheer ignorance of the African system: the Belgians had no idea, and neither did they care, if these were groups, clans, tribes, or language groups. They quite simply deemed the Tutsis more capable because they looked more like Europeans, being taller, lighter-skinned, and with a more “Roman-shaped” nose. Hutus came in second place, being more “Bantu”, and the Twa, being aboriginal pygmy hunter-gatherers who preferred to live outside the system, lagged behind.

The Belgians then instituted European-style education, cementing a history learned from their Tutsi friends that was wildly inaccurate, and which ignored the contribution the other tribes had made to the Rwandan nation. Africa’s respect for European-quality education meant that generations of Rwandan schoolchildren, regardless of ancestry, learned this revised history until it became their own.

As colonialism crumbled across the continent from the late 1950’s, the majority Hutu started to rise up in an effort to protect their history, and their fight for tribe survival became known as the “Hutu Revolution”, culminating in Rwanda becoming an independent republic in 1961, with Hutu as the dominating government. Retaliatory attacks would flare up occasionally in the decades that followed, with Tutsis taking refuge in neighboring states of Burundi, Zaire, Tanzania, and notably for what came later, Uganda.

When coffee prices fell sharply in the late 1980’s - the commodity that accounted for 75% of its foreign exchange - Rwanda fell into the “debtor nation” listing, required to adhere to strict fiscal measures imposed by the World Bank. Between the fall of coffee prices and a devastating drought, the imbalance of wealth and power in the country was starker than ever. The President, Habyarimana, a Hutu who had seized control in a coup in 1973, had become increasingly dictatorial, deliberately discriminating against the Tutsis, even while his system of quotas was theoretically designed to do the opposite.

Compounding the issues wrought by a destabilizing economy was the growing determination of Tutsi refugees, especially those in Uganda to return home. Efforts made in this direction were halted by the President who claimed that, with current population demands on the weak economy, their return at the time was simply not possible. This denial was arguably the most important series of events leading up to the genocide of 1994.

Paul Kagame’s Tutsi family had fled Rwanda when he was a child, and he spent his years in Uganda, first enlisting in the rebel army and then becoming a senior Ugandan Army officer. After the Ugandan-Tanzanian war which saw the eventual ousting of Idi Amin in 1979, the Tutsi refugees had founded a refugee organization in which Kagame was very active. Frustrated by the President’s refusal to allow them to return, in 1987, they renamed themselves the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a far more militaristic organization dedicated to returning refugees through force, if necessary.

Kagame took command of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (sometimes nicknamed “Inkotanyi” meaning “the invincible”), the military wing of the RPF, and the invasion by the refugees of their home country began in 1990.


One night, the capital city was rocked by heavy fire that lasted hours. Radio listeners were terrified to hear that the RPF had succeeded in attacking the presidential palace in Kigali. Both Tutsi and Hutu rallied around the President, who ordered mass arrests, detention, torture and the killing of dozens in response. The President went on air to warn people to stay in their homes until his army had killed the “cockroach invaders”.

He had, however, staged the entire “attack”: the RPF had been many miles from the city at the time. With this fact still unknown to the world, foreign troops from France, Belgium and Zaire rushed to the country’s aid, pushing back Kagame and the RPF, resulting in the deaths of around 1,000 civilians who were accused of supporting them.

The stage was set.

On 21 September, 1992, Colonel Nsabimama sent a top secret memorandum to his commanders, called “The Memo for the Protection of Human Rights”, which listed people thought to be RPA members or sympathizers. It included a definition of “the enemy”, the principle being, “…the Tutsi inside or outside the country, extremist and nostalgic for power, who have NEVER recognized and will NEVER recognize the realities of the 1959 social revolution and who wish to reconquer power by all means necessary, including arms…”

From 1990, media coverage was relentless, with anti-Tutsi articles and cartoons appearing in the press, and in 1993, a radio station called Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTMLC) started broadcasting, joining Radio Rwanda, the government-owned station, in directing hate-filled rhetoric towards the Tutsis. The transcripts of those broadcasts are freely available, and the theme of many of the conversations settles on pointing out the (perceived) differences between Tutsi and Hutu, serving to “otherize” the Tutsis by pointing out the advantages they’d had in terms of education, appearance, and almost any other distinction the broadcasters could use to send their message. By delving back into the people’s flawed history, the media was able to insert into their propaganda the message that the Hutus had every right to attack the Tutsis.

After 1990, opponents referred to the RPD as Inyenzi, or cockroaches.

By 1993, the calls to violence became more intense and direct, calling blatantly for the killing of Tutsis, even directing people to certain locations where Tutsis could be found.

“(The) cockroaches Inkotanyi who came killing us and eating our things saying that they will take power….asked the assistance of children, white men and sorcerers… So I think that Inkotanyi will continue to die in our potatoes.”

“…usually they came driving cattle in front of them… Then, the cows are killed and the Inyenzi continued to advance.”

Frequently, Radio Rwanda would say the enemy was actually Uganda; foreigners coming to rape and pillage the country. The broadcast would then meander into a clear indication that these “foreigners” were Tutsi, and encouraged listeners to defend their country by “pushing them back”.

When President Habyarimana died in a plane crash in April 1994, radio stations and Hutu-led press blamed the Tutsis for shooting down the plane, and urged their audiences to “cut the tall trees”, a clear reference to the taller, more “European-looking” Tutsis. Hutus were encouraged to “finish the work” (many of the references to killing their fellow citizens came in references to “work”).


As a general rule, the more something is repeated, the more validity it attains in listener’s minds. The role of the “accusation in a mirror” or “human rights inversion” has been used throughout history to incite xenophobia and genocide, or at the very least, violence against one’s perceived enemy. Defaming specific groups to encourage their attack and subsequent death has proved very effective, including during Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. And 1990-era Rwanda was no different.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, a document was found entitled, Note Relative a la Propagande d’Expansion et de Recrutement (“The Note”). It drew from Goebbels, Lenin and others to create a manual of ways to incite ordinary civilians to attack their fellow countrymen. The principal method was called “accusation in a mirror”. It’s very simple: one side spreads the word that the other side is going to enact horrific acts upon them. The falsehoods are spread widely, and as a result of the wording, civilians are thus literally directed on what action to take.

One such example was Rwandan politician, Leon Mugesera who informed his audience that Tutsis were “cleaning up Rwanda . . . by throwing Hutu in the Nyabarongo River.” Shortly after the speech, many Tutsis were thrown to their death in that river. It was a perfect example of inversion.

In November 1992, Mugesera delivered an impassioned speech to his fellow Hutus, warning that they were about to “exterminated” by “cockroaches”, and he urged them to act. The following day, several killings took place. In one speech, Mugesera stated, “If justice therefore is no longer serving the people… we must do something ourselves to exterminate this rabble.”

The language is consistent with various examples of AiM – referring to people as cockroaches, or rats, urging “extermination” of pests.


Tribal differences have always been a part of Kenyan life, but in 2007, it was the Kikuyu people who faced down their fellow Kenyans, most notably the Kalenjin tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya. The Kikuyu have a very old grievance, and once again, it dates back to colonial times when they were forced to leave their traditional highlands and settle in the Rift Valley amidst the Masai. Until that time, the Kikuyu had been a dominant force, independent and fierce – most notably towards Arab slavers, who found themselves on the wrong end of the spear when trying to involve the Kikuyu in the trade. The British were determined to control the population and take over their fertile land for agriculture. In response to their defiance, the Kikuyu were tortured and killed by the British, and, in order to survive, finally started to get involved in politics to resist the British from within the political structure.

In the evening of the swearing-in of President Kibaki, a Kikuyu, who may or may not have won the election through fraudulent means, the Opposition leader from the Lou tribe, Raila Odinga, called for protests against the election results. His call hit the mark, and his supporters started to riot, rampaging through the city, seeking out and killing Kikuyu people. Scores of people were killed, and multiple inceidents of sexual violence and other atrocities, were reported. In one of the more horrific acts, 50 unarmed Kikuyu women and children were locked inside a church and burned alive.

In the violence that overtook Kenya during the elections, AiM became a most effective political tool. Media, as it had in Rwanda, played a dominant role in broadcasting to their listeners just how their opponents planned to “exterminate” them. Each side was convinced that the other was preparing for their slaughter – and therefore, they needed to “defend” themselves by killing the other side first.

After the violence of 2008, the report presented to the Waki Commission specified ways in which the media played a direct role in exacerbating the violence. The vast majority of broadcasters are not trained in conflict mediation or moderation, and are mostly partisan. This is true of every country in the world. Kenya’s main issue is not the freedom of speech on radio, but the lack of independence in broadcasting. Media in the country is state-controlled, and thus provided a platform for not only broadcasters, but also government politicians to spew their hate-filled rhetoric about the “Others” at will.

Listeners would opine about how they wanted to “liberate” themselves from certain communities; coded messages implicitly calling for violence against another tribe.

While what happened in Kenya cannot be compared to Rwanda in terms of scale or lives lost, the alarming fact remains that the media has a crucial role to play in encouraging violence, which can lead to genocide.

The International Criminal Court is hearing the case against Kenyan broadcaster Joshuha Arap Sang, a prominent supporter of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, and who has been charged with crimes against humanity. Sang’s radio station, Kass FM, was instrumental in spreading messages of hate and incitement to violence and, in true AiM fashion, falsely reported news regarding the murders of Kalenjin tribe members.

While there have been reports that Kenyans have learned their lesson from the violence of 2008, it is hard to imagine that they – or another generation – won’t fall for the same rhetoric as before. Despite Kenya having passed laws banning hate speech and taking steps to hire 120 police officers to assist in monitoring hate speech for this election period, there is already an increase in the rhetoric that is threatening the 2017 presidential elections.

When people are forced into voting for one particular party because of tribal affiliations, there can only be one outcome: that party/tribe becomes dominant, and instead of uniting a country beyond ethnic boundaries, the country is then split into smaller pieces, with the larger groups struggling for an increased share of the cake.

When the extremist al-Shabaab militia took responsibility for the attack in the coastal town of Mpeketoni in June 2014 which killed 56 people, President Kenyatta referred to it as having been perpetrated by his opposition tribe, the Kikuyu.


After Burundi’s President Nkurunziza decided to ignore the Constitution and run for a third term in 2015, violent clashes erupted – with many fleeing as refugees to neighboring countries including Rwanda. Media broadcasts controlled by the government started with targeting those opposed to a third term, but it soon escalated to an intimidation campaign and calls for violence, sparking fears that another “ethnic cleansing” was on the cards for the country.

Analysts and human rights activists sent up warning flags after the president of the Burundian senate started referring to “kora” meaning to “work” or “start work”, the same euphemism familiar to previous genocides. And then President Nkurunziza, in calling on people to hand in illegal firearms, referred to those who refused as “cockroaches”. Leaders of areas working with the government were promised land owned by the “traitors”. He included a desire to “exterminate and pulverize” opponents. Senate president Ndikuriyo: “Today, the police shoot in the legs. But when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work’, do not come crying to us.”

It became clear to all that the government was calling for a genocide; another version of a Hutu-Tutsi war, but this time along political lines, rather than tribal.

In April 2016, the International Criminal Court announced that it would be investigating the outbreaks of violence as possible war crimes.


There are clear warning signs when the line is crossing from expressing an opinion to the incitement of violence, and the world has surely seen enough examples to thoroughly understand what it is by now. Recently, xenophobic attacks in South Africa against those who have come from other parts of Africa, and to a lesser extent, other parts of the world, have received attention.

Zulu king Zwelithini was quoted as saying, “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.” His statements were mirrored in the actions by some of his subjects in violent attacks against foreigners in the Durban area, forcing them to flee their homes. While the king then condemned the attacks, there is little doubt that his followers were heeding his words.

The son of President Zuma was investigated for repeatedly stating his opposition to foreigners (he narrowed the definition to “illegal residents”), saying, “Remember when I said that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb…  You never know whether they are funding ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and al-Shabaab. However, I am not saying that they are.”

In the wake of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa in 2015, efforts are currently underway to introduce legislation that addresses racism and hate speech. The bill is called the “National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances” and appears to be aiming for a clearer definition than exists in the Constitution which states that freedom of expression does not extend to:
“(a) propaganda for war;

(b) incitement of imminent violence; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

Once one understands what hate speech is, the euphemisms and coded language become very obvious. But, after all, if it wasn’t so effective, would so many still utilize it?

For the podcast produced by Executive Editor, Leigh Barrett, on hate speech and its potential consequences, please visit the website’s Audio-Video-Links page for this issue.

This article appears in the June issue of "Perspective: Africa", published by RDSHumanitas/MIPJ, and distributed globally by Ingram Book Group.

The First People - by Leigh Barrett

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Botswana: a country of proud history, stunning landscapes, and home to a semi-desert region that extends far beyond its colonial-drawn borders, to South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. This sparse landscape hides some exceptional diversity of life: from Africa’s largest mammals to 240 species of birds, all finding a home in the Kgalagadi, this “waterless place”. The Kalahari Desert.

The Kalahari occupies 70% of Botswana, and the only permanent river running through it is the fourth longest river system in southern Africa. Born in the Angolan highlands after the January rains, the Okavango snakes its way over 1,000 miles, forming the border between Angola and Namibia, crossing the Caprivi Strip into Botswana, where after a 4-month journey,  it empties into a swamp in the Kalahari Desert. In the rainy season, the swamp becomes an extraordinary delta, a wetland that sustains the grateful life that flocks to it. In ancient times, the Kalahari was a lake, which the Okavango would have fed as a tributary, but now, it simply peters out in the sand.

Ancient fossil river beds, or “omaramba”, now exist in mere moments of time and yet provide the sustenance for all living beings in the region, attracting one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of game.

In the largest-ever study of African genetic data, published in 2009, researchers at University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that the ancestral origins of humans lies in southern Africa, specifically near the South African-Namibian border, and it is from that point migration began, confirming that the San or Bushmen, are indeed the oldest continuous population of humans on Earth.

They are the oldest inhabitants of Africa, and have lived in southern Africa for anywhere between 20,000 and 45,000 years.  If “indigenous” is defined as originating in a particular place, they truly are the “first people”.

Some Namibian children, when asked, thought the San have always lived in the Kalahari, while the Bushmen have long since died out.

While the wide areas they traverse have often led western cultures to consider them nomadic, they are not. Nor have they settled in one spot, preferring to build temporary shelters in traditional areas, with each group “owning” their waterhole (although it is customary to never deny another access to it). With their hunter-gatherer tradition, they obtain most of their food from native plants, and around one-third of their diet coming from hunting antelope and small game.

Elizabeth Marshall-Thomas was a teenager when her anthropologist parents trekked into the desert in 1950 to begin their study of these extraordinary people, and she outlined the concept of the shelters:

“To my way of looking at things, there was a glacial period of 150,000 years ago, the forests dried up and grasslands spread… and there are only a certain number of ways you can live by hunting and gathering on a savanna – you have to live near water, you have to live within walking distance of water, you have to protect yourself against predators. To make nests, the great apes weave branches together and stuff them with leaves - but they just use them for a brief period of time and then move on. If they return to that place they make new nests. It seems to me that when people came down from the trees and lived on the savanna, they kept the nest-making practice: the nests are made from branches, stuck in the ground, woven together and covered with grass. If you look at a great ape nest it’s like your hand is cupped palm up, and if you look at a Bushmen shelter, it’s a hand cupped on its side – it’s the same thing. They don’t go back to the old shelters, they make new ones.”

She explained their interesting relationship with the big cats: “In those days, the lions in the interior didn’t hunt people. Even so, lions loomed large in people’s imaginations, and there were rules that they didn’t talk about lions in daytime, and you couldn’t use the word ‘lion’ – or you shouldn’t. Lions did not hunt people, and the people did not hunt the lions; they shared their living spaces. The lions used it at night, and the people used it during the daytime. At a waterhole, lions drank at night, and people stayed in the encampment. Leopards did prey on people, not much but they were very different from lions. The shelters protected the people from leopards, as they most frequently attack from behind, so if all the shelters face in different directions, someone is going to see a leopard.

“You don’t change things unless you have to. If there is a system that works, you keep it. You have enough to worry about without experimenting with different kinds of shelters. That aspect of their culture goes back a very long time and may have come from the nests that all the great apes build.”

Call it a good marriage:
They never fought in public,
They acted circumspectly
And faced the world with pride. ~ Call It A Good Marriage, by Robert Graves

Gender equality is a long accepted practice in Bushmen culture. Megan Biesele called it a “natural democracy”, with women and men engaged in decision-making and child rearing. Men played a role in hunting and fending off dangerous animals, but were just as capable of fetching firewood and water.

Marshall Thomas: “People were often betrothed as children, and married very young, not to have sexual relations until the girl had passed the menarch. Marriage is less for sex and more for the ties it brings – relationship ties. But, people didn’t have to stay married, and divorce is merely a matter of announcing that you’re divorced. Bushmen society recognized the validity of marriage, and the validity of divorce, but unlike us, they didn’t need a ceremony to bring it about. When young people married for the first time they had a little ceremony attended by other kids—adults weren’t supposed to attend. For later marriages people just announced their marriage, no ceremony. You entered the married state and stayed there, just as we enter the adult state. Marriage was a kind of state of being, as adulthood is a state of being. It is a very different concept of marriage from ours.”

Safety is the most important thing
When hunting with a bow or a gun
A terrible tragedy they can bring
When using them just for fun ~ Hunting, by Kevin Seals

“I was standing near a fire when men were poisoning their arrows, putting the remains of grubs in the fire when the poison was taken out, and somebody told me to get out of the smoke, so I did”, recounts Marshall Thomas. “But, I began to feel pain in my hand and up my arm. I had a hangnail and had bitten on it so it was open. Somebody came and sucked the poison out – it was a couple of molecules and I don’t know if it causes pain, but they were adamant about me getting away from the fire. They use a few drops on an arrow, and the arrow has a shaft and a point, so when the victim tries to remove it, the shaft comes apart and the poisoned head stays in.”

As much as it is a “natural democracy”, children are still disciplined to be quiet, listen, and learn. Babies stay close to their mothers, and the parents are excellent observers. This carried through to the children, and they learn to observe the smallest details.

“I never saw a kid do anything bad and be punished. An interesting thing happened: one little boy had an eye infection, and I was giving him medicine but he didn’t like it. One day, he saw me coming towards him with the medicine and he grabbed an arrow out of his father’s quiver – a poison arrow. There was a gasp and a hush fell over everybody. He realized that he had done something terrible, not from anyone punishing him, but how everyone reacted.

“They had real approval. Not in the way we do, but in a much more accepting way. Also, kids are spaced about 4 years apart, so they don’t have immediate rivals for their parents’ attention.”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. ~ Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake                                                 

To understand the ways of the Oldest People is to rethink almost everything we’ve learned since the Neolithic Age, and nowhere is there a better illustration than when Marshall-Thomas presented the group she visited with a Rorschach Test.

Photo: Max Bastard/African Eyes Photography

Photo: Max Bastard/African Eyes Photography

“We tend to see a whole picture – we’re used to looking at pictures. You see a whole picture and you know: that’s what it is, that’s what it’s for. When they look at a picture, they saw the details which made the collective picture. When you look at the natural world, small things will tell you a wide variety of stuff. They very much lived in the present, in the moment, and they noticed things – they had to. It was terribly important to pay attention and to be aware of (everything) around you. So, I got young boys – the girls didn’t want to do it – I got them to draw things. They drew tracks. Of course they drew tracks! It’s the only visual representation they ever encounter. That just made perfect sense to me. When they looked at a Rorschach picture, they wanted to see the details, they wanted to know what’s going on there.”

In the West dance silhouettes of small bodies housing large hearts
And the cosmic sense of one-ness
A cow yawns and a skinny dog barks and a fire flickers
A fire that induces the birth of stories about the master, the trickster and the hero
Chants and songs. Chants and songs.
Notes in a strange and peculiar combination escape their throats
A joyful noise to their creator that still remembered them.
They dance.
Yodels and circle songs reach a fervent peak.
And the stars begin to fall.
A jerk in the jugular string.
Umbilical anchor to the universal mind.
Brings a trance ~ from Khoisan-Ultra African, by Zena Edwards

The purpose of the trance dance is to eliminate “star sickness” – jealousy, a bad feeling within the group – and it works. As more so-called “advanced” cultures are recently starting to learn, dancing and music is good for the soul, and that is something the Bushmen learned many thousands of years ago. A common misconception is that they do “rain dances”. Marshall Thomas calls that one silly.

“Nobody thought a dance could bring the rain. They know their environment so well, they can feel the rain is coming, and they dance to use the power of the rain to affect the ‘star sickness’”. She continues, “Dances are a marvelous thing – on a moonlit night, around a fire, and people dancing, women singing, and clapping.”

“When I dance, I dance for the healing of all people. I dance for our traditions to stand up.
When I play, I speak of all I see and all that I am.” ~ !Gube, quoted from the Lianne Cox film, “Lion Shaman”.

Music has always played an important part in the lives of the Bushmen. Songs to commemorate events in their lives are composed in the moment, accompanied by instruments made from a hunting bow or a gourd rigged with sinews.

Those songs have changed since Marshall Thomas lived with the people in the desert. These days, the songs have turned to topics like forced relocations, and the government’s harsh oppression of this ancient people.

Water, water, everywhere (… for Elephants…. for Diamonds)
Nor any drop to drink ~ (with apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Botswana’s economy depends on mining, contributing 25% of the country’s economy, and forming the foundation that has marked the country’s history of being a stable, ongoing peaceful democracy. The other largest contributor is tourism, contributing around 12% to the GDP. Botswana is, in almost every way, one of Africa’s few success stories.

That achievement is tarnished when one examines their record on human rights in recent years. While the country rarely holds back in speaking out against abuses in other parts of the continent, Botswana has its own flaws: criminalization of homosexuality (rarely enforced), death penalty (where executions are generally unannounced and families unable to attend the burial of a loved one, nor visit the grave), and then there is their treatment of the First People.

Persecuted since 1800 when African pastoralists moved into the region, trekking herds of pasture-depleting cattle from northern parts of Africa, then confronted by white settlers who hunted them down as trophies and debated whether to declare them “vermin”, until recently, when this diamond of Africa turned on its people and drove them into the arms of the 21st century and all that comes with it: alcoholism, illness, poverty, and disengagement.

With the government of Botswana failing to recognize the uniqueness and anthropological value of the Bushmen, they seem to be repeating all that has come before: being dispossessed of land because they do not have cattle (a symbol of wealth amongst the pastoral African tribes), to being treated as sub-human because they do not value the materialistic and do not wield political power.

When the government trucks rattled noisily into Bushmen camps in 1997 (and many times since then), the wheels set in motion a change for the people that would be irreversible. Taken from a life that had sustained them for tens of thousands of years, into an unheard of poverty – all with the promise of health care, education, and jobs – the groups struggle to survive. A leaked cable written by the US Ambassador to Botswana in 2005 and released by Wikileaks said, “It is also clear that people have been dumped in economically absolutely unviable situations without forethought, and without follow-up support… The lack of imagination displayed on the part of the GOB (government of Botswana) is breathtaking.”

The promise the Botswana government made - that there would be no mining on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve - was reneged in 2014, when they approved a new diamond mine open just a few miles from a Bushmen village. The $5billion mining operation is in the middle of the ancestral land of the Bushmen, and exposes Botswana’s claim of a commitment to conservation as fraudulent.

Large tracts of the Reserve have also been opened up to fracking, with exploration covering around half the area of the Reserve, raising the specter of land grabs, using up any potable water (fracking cannot be done with the water accessible to animals as it is high in mineral salts), and irreparable damage to the already fragile ecosystem. Australian company Tiou Energy has started exploratory drilling for fracking wells on traditional hunting land, with no consultation with the Bushmen.

James Workman, author of 'Heart of dryness' and water management expert

James Workman, author of 'Heart of dryness' and water management expert

Water management expert, environmentalist, and author of the excellent book, “Heart of Dryness”, James Workman says, “The Kalahari is valuable to the government for 3 reasons: ecotourism, cattle ranching (selling beef to Europe), and diamond reserves. 90% of Botswana’s wealth comes from high grade diamonds. Is water more valuable for people or for diamonds? Botswana chose diamonds.”

Professor Robert Hitchcock considers another reason: “Some would argue that (the motivation for the forced removals) is partly commercial, and there are plenty of places in Botswana and elsewhere in the world where people can live in tourist areas and benefit greatly from tourism. The government policies only give rights to wildlife, not to other products and don’t give right of land – which is one of the issues that they’re facing. But, the argument that diamonds were the cause doesn’t hold water. I don’t think most people believe diamonds were the reason for the relocation, and the decision to relocate them was made independently of any consideration of minerals. Those mineral strikes had been known long prior to the time the decision was made. Those kinds of mining activities were taking place across Botswana and other parts of southern Africa without removing people.

“Certainly there are organizations that argue that diamonds were the reason, but all evidence suggests that pressure came mainly from conservationists. In some cases, there are organizations that are pro-indigenous people and work with them and support them. But there are others that take a harder line and say people and game reserves are essentially incompatible.”

However, as Workman explains: “What the Bushmen don’t eat, they barter. There is an element of trade which turns scarcity into abundance. They never waste a single drop.”

Marshall Thomas: “Their interpretation of the earth is 100% accurate. They knew more than anybody else, they know everything about their environment and every plant, every insect. They knew the properties of the plants, where they grew, what circumstances made them bloom or bear fruit, and they were never wrong.”

In a moment of surely unintended irony, current President Ian Khama, hailed internationally as a staunch environmentalist who claims to seek ways to avoid exploiting the country’s natural resources, reflects the old colonial way of seeing the Bushmen, “They have to be moved into the modern way of doing things. Give them livelihoods which will allow them and their children to live better lives and not do what Survival International expects, to continue living a very extinct form of life, a very backward form of life, denying them – and especially their children – opportunities to grow with the mainstream of our citizens.” 

It began as a casual quip at a border post. A woman spotted a portrait of Botswana's President and remarked that he "looks like a Bushman."
Security officers sprang into action. The woman was detained, interrogated at a police station, kept in custody for a night and a day and forced to pay a fine before being freed.
The reason: Her innocent comment about the leader's resemblance to the original people of Southern Africa was deemed "insulting" to the country.
As reported by Geoffrey York, Johannesburg — From Globe and Mail, Published Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

A spokesman for the Botswana government said, “It has been and remains Government’s view that the establishment of New Xade has increased both immediate and long-term opportunities for economic and social development of its residents, as is reflected in the village’s ongoing growth.” Among the Bushmen, however, these camps to which they have been relocated are commonly called “places of death” as they are forced to adapt to a sedentary lifestyle, homelessness, and high levels of alcoholism and illness (with HIV/Aids being rampant). The encouragement to accept paying work has resulted in almost chronic exploitation.

New Xade (Anglo-Saxon tongues find it easier to pronounce it “Ka-Day”, without the click) was established in 1997 when 1,239 Bushmen and other residents were forcibly relocated there from the CKGR in the largest resettlement ever undertaken in Botswana.  Possibly in an effort to ease their conscience, the government compensated the residents for huts, livestock and infrastructure left behind, although no compensation was given for land or entitlement. They received new plots of land in New Xade, thereby forcing them to comply with the government’s view that all people should be sedentary, settled, and dependent on paid labor to survive, that being the way of the civilized world.

In his report undertaken between 2000 and 2001, Japanese anthropologist Junko Maruyama was able to determine some fascinating results of the settlement as they transition from the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life to a more sedentary, pastoral economy. His report, “The Impacts of Resettlement on Livelihood and Social Relationships among the Central Kalahari San” concludes: “In spite of the drastic changes caused by the resettlement program, the San are coping with the changes through converting the settlement into a multi-faceted environment that they can live with. The most important way is to utilize diverse methods for earning a livelihood, and to maintain frequent shift from one residence to another, or one type of livelihood strategy to another….The solidarity based on co-membership of a camp has enabled the San to flexibly adapt to social changes. When it comes to the matter of land utilization, food sharing, and cooperation in livelihood activities, the crucial factor for the !Gui and !Gana people is that they belong to a group that previously shared camps frequently….”

While Maruyama’s report is generally positive, different opinions have been reported in the media. A BBC reporter interviewed Goiotseone, who had been relocated from the CKGR: "I miss my home and the way we lived. Life was easy, there were lots of fruits, animals and there were no bars and no beer. Now we are lost.”

"We are getting Aids and other diseases we didn't know about; young people are drinking alcohol; young girls are having babies. Everything is wrong here," Boitumelo says.

Unemployment is high, and there is no shortage of customers at the village’s liquor store, with young men stumbling into the street, or simply passed out wherever they are, a not-uncommon sight. While the alarmingly high rate of HIV/Aids in Botswana, once putting it second highest in the world, is now slowly reversing, it is still a very real issue among the relocated Bushmen. The most obvious co-factor of HIV/Aids is displacement, with those still living in the CKGR at far less risk at contracting HIV than those in settlements like New Xade. In those ancestral areas, the encyclopedic knowledge of the groups is slowly being recorded, there is almost no alcohol problem, no prostitution, minimal domestic violence, and new partnerships are being formed between the generations.

In 2006, former House of Lords peer Jenny Tonge spoke passionately about the success of Botswana, having spent half a day with a group as part of a British Parliamentary delegation visiting a resettlement camp – a first class trip funded by Debswana, a joint diamond mining venture between De Beers and the government of Botswana, saying that Bushmen "were hunter-gatherers, with ancient tracking and water detection skills, killing animals with primitive bows and arrows; on our visit we saw some of them in action. It is very romantic stuff and sounds absolutely wonderful...Great if you are a successful Bushman, maybe, but not so great for the Bushwomen(sic) and Bushchildren (sic), who have a right to healthcare and education and who may not want to stay in the stone age with their families; they may want an opportunity for another life." Her ignorance of the Bushmen men, women, and children, can hardly be excused by the length of time she spent in the area, and her views of their lack of sophistication, perhaps compared to her own noble status, were not greeted warmly.

The Botswana minister for local government, Margaret Nasha echoed those views, saying in 2002: “You know the issue of the Basarwa? Sometimes I equate it to the elephants. We once had the same problem when we wanted to cull the elephants and people said no.”

These characterizations of the Bushmen as animals, or primitive, gives many in the governments of the region the excuse to devalue their contribution to the world, most especially in terms of their extensive understanding of the environment.

Say it with a click…
The click of a rifle.
The click of a tongue.
One never silenced; one forever on the run.

"We are used to feeding ourselves - now dependent on government hand-outs, we are being made lazy and stupid," says Roy Sesana, a Bushmen leader and activist living in New Xade. Sesana co-founded the group, First People of the Kalahari, which has won major court battles against the Botswana government.

In an effort to confirm his eco bona fides, President Khama banned all hunting outside of game farms or ranches, effectively ending a lifestyle that has lasted tens of thousands of years. While wealthy tourists are able to skin and behead an animal to hang on a wall, the local people are unable to kill one animal that would feed them and their family for a month.

The argument for ending all hunting is not without some basis: wildlife species populations have declined in the CKGR over recent years: ostrich population is down by 95%, 90% of wildebeest, 84% antelope tsessebe, 81% warthogs and kudus, 75% of giraffes have been wiped out, and lion hunting was suspended in 2007. The loss of wildlife is due to excessive hunting and poaching, and it is to Botswana’s credit that they have realized there is more money in eco-tourism than in big game hunting. During his successful re-election bid in 2014, Khama was met with protests at a Bushmen eviction camp, where his government had made efforts to starve the people off their land. They demanded the right to hunt to feed their families – something they had been doing within every considered and acceptable understanding of best conservation methods: taking what they need, using everything they take – and while the High Court overturned the government in a 2006 ruling maintaining the Bushmen’s right to hunt for food, the government continued to arrest them and charge them with poaching, while at the same time, accepting tens of thousands of foreign currency from big game hunters who take little more than a head or a skin after the animal has been killed, leaving the meat to rot in the sun. However, what they fail to grasp is the Bushmen’s method of hunting for food, is not anti-conservation; it is self-regulatory and maintains a natural balance. It is not the First People who are decimating the animals.

"This life hasn't improved any of their lives. We still get a lot of people going inside the park to hunt and they get arrested. Some of us here are facing court penalties for hunting. It just proves that you can't force change on people," says Mr Galekebone.

In 2012, as the President flew over the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in his plane, he spotted four Bushmen hunting. The police were called and the men were arrested, their spears, bows and arrows, and domestic animals confiscated. The Botswana court threw out their case, recognizing the High Court ruling of 2006 that Bushmen have the right to live and hunt in the Reserve. Despite this order, no hunting licenses have been issued, and arrests for poaching are commonplace, leaving the hunter-gatherers to find legal assistance, with its accompanying, often prohibitive costs. The government has employed a “shoot-to-kill” policy against those suspected of poaching.

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

The balance of life is a precious thing, and what has been done to the Bushmen in the Central Kalahari is to disturb that balance. Interfering in nature has never been well-advised, and the long-term effects of Botswana’s actions have forever disturbed that natural order, with the Bushmen paying the immediate price.

The Plutocrat hoards up his treasures of gold
And smiles in his power and pride;
While he seals up his coffers, withholds his great store
From the paupers who wail at his side.
He has laid his foundation, and built it on “Wealth” -
A tower that never will fall.
Then he scribbles a will and he passes away,
And the lawyer, he gathereth all- The Song of the Gatherer, by Paul Laurence Dunbar

“There’ve been a number of (court) cases,” Professor Hitchcock explains. The Bushmen have been fighting the law for many years - a costly endeavor for people without a home. Each case creates the push-and-pull between a modernizing Botswana government, and this First People nation, struggling daily for survival.

Hitchcock outlines the various efforts, “The first case was settled out of court – the Quamare case in 1998 in the northern part of South Africa. That case was essentially over people being relocated out of Kalahari Gemsbok Park. The consequence of that was the people who’d been relocated in the 1930’s brought lawsuit against the government. They got rights to some land around the park and they got co-management rights to gate receipts inside the park.

“The second one was the Central Kalahari case – it started in 2002, then it was thrown out of court. It went back to court on appeal and began in July 2004, and finally resolved in 2006. There were three major conclusions on that:

-          The three High Court judges determined their right to return because it was their customary, ancestral land.

-          The right to special game hunting licenses for subsistence hunters.

-          They didn’t win the right to services, meaning water and rights to education, health assistance inside the Central Kalahari – and that continues to be an issue.

“They also got the right to represent themselves, and some negotiations began in 2008 as a result of the court’s decisions.

“And then, in 2010/2011, a case that was won by the San again, gave them the right to drill for water and to equip boreholes – and they can do this in all the communities where they reside.  Currently, that is 6 communities, including Gope, a diamond mining community.  The problem is that there are very high mineral salts in the water, so it’s not consumable for humans and the consequence is that there is only one borehole that people can drink from. There are plenty of boreholes animals can go to, but not for people.”

As the next generation of Bushmen move into a modern future, there is a deepening desire to learn the old ways.  Keeping one foot on the land as they navigate a cellphone world, they understand the importance of both a modern education and walking with the elders to learn the values and knowledge of the environment their people have been carrying for so many thousands of years.

!Gube, as featured on the cover of the Pops Mohamed album, 'How Far Have We Come". Music can be heard on the podcasts

!Gube, as featured on the cover of the Pops Mohamed album, 'How Far Have We Come". Music can be heard on the podcasts

The last word must go !Gube, the lion shaman featured so poignantly in Lianne Cox’s film:

“As I am here, my name is !Gube.  Our god that made creation, made one blood, one person – it is only language that separates us.
We are all the same – like the grain of the sand.”


Hear more about the Bushmen on the special 2-episode podcasts produced and presented by Leigh Barrett, featuring interviews with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, James Workman, Robert Hitchcock, and Clark Wheeler and including excerpts from “!Gube-Lion Shaman”, a film independently produced by Lianne Cox.


Leigh Barrett is the Producer/Host of MIPJ Podcasts and contributor to MIPJ multimedia journals. She is Executive Editor of “Perspective: Africa”, a quarterly print and digital publication focusing on all issues African. To submit content, email