Bushmen Take a Feud to 20th-Century Court

A rival tribe that calls them 'vassals' lays claim to Bushmen land

The past couple of centuries have not been kind to the Kxoe-speaking San or "bushmen" of northeastern Namibia. The descendants of free-ranging hunter-gatherers, Namibia's remaining 4,000 Kxoe now live in sprawling resettlement camps inside the West Caprivi game reserve, the shriveled heart of their traditional hunting range.

The Kxoe have fallen prey to 20th-century social scourges like unemployment and alcoholism. But what they say is their greatest concern is a feudal threat that should be impossible in a democratic society.

The chief of a neighboring Bantu-speaking tribe, which once enslaved the Kxoe, is claiming that they are still his vassals and that the land they presently occupy is his. And the democratically elected government, which wrested independence from apartheid South Africa in 1989, seems to be supporting the chief's feudal claim. To fight this, the Kxoe are employing a most modern tool: the courts.

At the center of the dispute is a small tourist campsite built by the Kxoe on the Okavango River's Popa Falls to raise funds for development. Constructed at the beginning of this year with the help of Western donors and local development agencies, the campsite was condemned from the outset by Chief Erwin Mbambo, leader of the neighboring Mbukushu tribe, on the grounds that his permission had not been sought.

The Kxoe ignored him, saying the Mbukushu chiefs had no jurisdiction east of the Okavango River. But in May the government abruptly announced that the camp would have to go: The prison ministry, it said, needed the stretch of scenic riverbank along the east of the falls to expand a neighboring penal farm.

Government-backed land grab?

Since then the Kxoe's campsite has become a cause clbre for Namibian environmental and social activists and a rallying point for the divided Kxoe people. They claim that key figures within the government are turning a blind eye to a land-grab.

Over the past two years, they allege, Mr. Mbambo has sent hundreds of Mbukushu peasants across the Okavango River to settle illegally within the reserve, where they can be seen openly grazing cattle and burning off bush for planting.

Kipi George, the elected chief of the Kxoe, says that some people within the government are still trying to punish the Kxoe for having taken the wrong side in the Namibian liberation struggle. Between 1975 and 1989 the South African Army used attractive wages and racial propaganda to persuade thousands of "bushmen" soldiers to serve as trackers and reconnaissance troops.

"They say to us, 'We remember you when you were killing us'," says Mr. George. "Every tribal group in Namibia has members who fought against [the government], but we are the only ones who are being blamed."

Their typically small and sallow appearance and distinctive "click" languages make the San tribes an easily recognizable minority.

The Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), a regional body, says that many of the remaining 90,000 San are still suffering the effects of racism, exploited by both blacks and whites for cheap labor and often singled out for violence and rape.

For the Kxoe this is nothing new. According to University of Cologne Kxoe scholar Matthias Brenzinger, accounts from early European visitors show that the Kxoe were already living as slaves to the Mbukushu when Europeans arrived in the former German colony, then called South West Africa.

Mbambo, chief of the Mbukushu, is a brusque man in a khaki safari suit. He is not interested in discussing the Kxoe, who are merely "gypsies," he says. They live in his kingdom, so they must submit to his rule. "Anybody who comes [here] is subject to me," he says.

The Prison Ministry's permanent secretary, Franz Kapofi, says its decision on the tourist site was out of concern for the safety of tourists, who should not camp so close to a prison boundary. He denied local rumors that the government intends to use the site for a visitor's center but confirmed that it had sought Mbambo's permission before building the prison inside the state-owned game reserve.

'Namibia is a free nation'

"As far as the government is concerned, the area in question is under the authority of [Chief] Mbambo, and the Kxoe are his subordinates," says Mr. Kapofi. "If there are people who are disputing that they are entitled to their views. Namibia is a free nation."

Last month, the Kxoe, backed by WIMSA and the nonprofit Legal Advice Center in Windhoek, the capital, took advantage of a new law on tribally held land to register George's claim to be a chief in his own right.

If the government recognizes this claim, it will also have to grant the Kxoe qualified title to their traditional lands, including control over the potentially lucrative tourism and hunting rights. If the government refuses, they will sue.

"In the past we were weak, we were afraid," says George. "But now we want to stay in this place, and we will not run away. We will turn back to fight them."

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