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Kalahari Bushmen, New Age Travellers and the paradoxes of state welfare.

They are not artefacts, they are not animals, they are not a tourist attraction, they are people. They do not belong where animals do, they belong in settlements, villages, towns and cities like you and me.
- Sydney Tshepiso Pilane

This is an account of my wildly fluctuating sympathies as I gradually found out more about a legal case launched by the Bushmen of Botswana.

I first saw the story on Ceefax. It’s disappeared from there, so I can not quote, but I got the impression that the Bushmen had been evicted from the Kalahari game reserve and that the (possibly dishonest) reason the Bostwana government had given for evicting them was that it could not afford to provide services. Riiight. I powered up for Welfare Rant #2 on the way that welfare systems start by offering their clients services and end by making the ‘services’ compulsory and demanding that people live their lives in such a way as to allow the government to fulfil its side of the forced exchange with minimum inconvenience.

Then I thought, not so fast, Natalie. Turning from Ceefax to the BBC Online story linked to above, it now appeared that the Botswanan government wasn’t evicting the Bushmen but merely refusing on cost grounds to continue to provide services to remote places. Not the same thing at all. The Bushmen were free to continue to dwell in the same place and manner as their ancestors, they just had to jettison modern conveniences to do it. Well, said I, there is no reason why other Botswanans, themselves most likely poor, should subsidise the Bushmen’s lifestyle choice, is there?

In the 1980s there was vast resentment here in Britain at the supine way in which mobile social security offices were set up to follow New Age traveller convoys to keep paying them their benefits; resentment redoubled when it was reported that the travellers seemed immune from many burdens that the state imposes on the rest of us. Their vehicles were frequently untaxed, and the drug laws and the requirement to be ‘actively seeking work’ if on benefits were left unenforced. (For something of the other side of the story, see the account by a traveller linked to further down.) The Bushmen seemed a similar case. They wanted it both ways: piped water even though they had chosen to live in the back end of nowhere.

But the ride was not over yet. My sympathies swung back once more to the Bushmen as I read another BBC account: ‘Botswana’s bushmen battle for land.’ Maybe I had been revving up for the wrong rant. Now it seemed like a case of Welfare Rant #1: Dependency. Maiteela Segwaba, the old chief profiled here, presents a sad picture; a man for whom the first sip at a government-provided waterhole turned out to be almost the equivalent of the first injection of heroin.

Thousands of bushmen used to live traditional hunter-gatherer lives inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, but now there are just a handful. And few still wear their loincloths or use bows and arrows to hunt game.

The waterholes the government provided years ago changed them gradually into farmers – ironically the authorities’ refusal to continue supplying that water is now driving the bushmen from their land.

Not ironically. Predictably. Furthermore this account says that my first impression was right after all: the Bushmen were forcibly evicted, with threats and violence, possibly because there may be diamonds under their land and certainly because the government wants to tidy them up and make them proper modern Botswanans. Rants #1 and #2 fused into one when I read this attempt at justification by a government official, Sydney Tshepiso Pilane. It is sickening.

“Every government in every country formulates a policy for the development of all its people. They are not artefacts, they are not animals, they are not a tourist attraction, they are people. They do not belong where animals do, they belong in settlements, villages, towns and cities like you and me,” he said.

Doublethink is not dead: the use of force to make a minority live like the majority is dressed up as a pseudo-indignant declaration of their equality with that majority.

One of the myriad reasons for thinking that it is an evil for the government to lay on services for one is that when the services are withdrawn it hurts, just as part of the evil of drugs is that withdrawal from them hurts. The hurt has two components: first the fact that something you have come to depend on goes away at all, and secondly that the way that the end comes tends to be chaotic and acrimonious.

The reason that withdrawal is rarely phased and planned comes from the politics of the attempt to make services universal. At first the government provides some service or other to most people, those it can reach easily. Then it gets a little richer and has enough spare capacity to get logical. It makes strenuous efforts to provide the service to everyone, whatever the expense. Officials often display a sort of manic determination akin to that of a mother determined to ensure none of her children will ever have cause to complain of fewer ballet lessons or football coaching sessions than another. The first stirrings of resentment from the paying majority start now. They will be ignored because the principle of universality seems so important. But resentments ignored have a way of building up. The pressure rises and rises and then explodes. Suddenly politicians are clutching their parliamentary majorities. Something has to be done to appease the ordinary folk, and quick! But because the minister placed in charge of withdrawal does not wish to have his own universalist platitudes of ten months earlier quoted back at him he has a strong motive to avoid debate. Thus it is Cold Turkey when you are lucky, force and fraud (as seems to be going on in Botswana) when you are not.

Some of the same themes emerge in this account of the New Age travellers (pdf document) by a man who was and is proud to be one. (The author, known as “Tash”, would very much dispute some of my interpretation below.) The traveller movement seems much reduced since the eighties. Do those mobile Social Security vans still trundle devotedly on? I doubt it – and that may have been the gentlest of the methods the State used to break up the peace convoys and the festivals. One does not have to be sympathetic to New Age stuff to feel disturbed by accounts of police brutality at the “Battle of the Beanfield.”

‘Tash’ also contends that in the early halcyon days the travellers had a functioning mini-economy of their own that was broken up by government action, pushing them onto benefits. Frankly I do not believe that they kept going solely by handicrafts, barter and busking. I did not dream those mobile social security offices, and a Joseph Rowntree foundation study says a later generation of travellers are somewhat welfare-dependent – but perhaps not as much as the press make out.

On the one hand, state welfare, along with the indifference to trespass, undermined the travellers’ claim to be living sustainably and independently. On the other hand, many travellers were liberated and sustained by the freedom to choose their own neighbours and live in their own way and who can argue with that? (Answer: loads of people, starting with Sydney Tshepiso Pilane, but not me.) I can well believe that politically-motivated disruption of the festivals circuit did push people who had been making something for and of themselves into complete dependency. Then that dependency was used to stoke up more anger against them and that in turn embittered the travellers.

Something like the traveller life ought to be an option. But for it to work it has to be visibly non-parasitical. It is not fair that this requirement should be so much stronger for them than for settled people – any libertarian worth his or her salt will point out that people in houses and boardrooms often have their noses in the government trough more deeply than the travellers. It is not fair, but it is true. Metaphorically, those mobile social security vans carried the riot police and the bailiffs within them. They rankled too much to last.

Turning to the Bushmen, perhaps their ancient way of life was doomed anyway by contact with modernity, but any slight chance it may have had to either adapt organically or fade away by consent was finished, and its end made more bitter, by government efforts to help.

14 comments to Kalahari Bushmen, New Age Travellers and the paradoxes of state welfare.

  • Della

    You talk of the problems of becoming dependent on Goverment services, yet you quote from Ceefax, and BBC Online, both Goverment Services themselves. You should attept to wein yourself from the BBC asap.

    I myself do my best to not watch the BBC, listen to their radio channels, or visit their website since the money used to fund these things is extracted by force. Channel 4 is also owned by the goverment, and the UKTV channels are a joint venture between the BBC and Flexitech (private company), however these channels are funded by advertising…so although these are idealogically suspect I will still watch them sometimes, but I avoid watching any News they might produce.

  • Joseph

    As far as I am aware the bushmen were happy to live out their anachronistic lives in the reserve ‘graciously provided’ by the government, with no need for piped water.

    The government later allowed non-bushmen to ranch on the reserve, which placed strain on the water sources. Only by providing piped water could the bushmen and cattle stay on the same land.

    The government really is at fault here, and the bushmen lifestyle will likely be wiped out in one way or another. Sadly predictable, but it has happened to us all at one time or another.

  • Guy Herbert

    It is interesting that the land on which the Bushmen’s ancestors have lived for thousands of years is classified as a Game Reserve. (It is said that early in the last century they were themselves sometimes hunted for sport by colonists in South West Africa.) In common with traditional tribal peoples all over the world and quite a lot of the very poor even in big cities, it seems they can’t get any recognition or respect of their property rights–let alone a free choice about how to live.

    The pillaging of the Bushmen’s lives by the benevolent states even gets EU grants as covered by Christopher Booker. There’s more here.

  • R C Dean

    On the other hand, many travellers were liberated and sustained by the freedom to choose their own neighbours and live in their own way and who can argue with that?

    The landowners whose land they either infested directly as trespassers, or indirectly (through their noise and dirt) as nuisances?

  • Julian Morrison

    About the bushmen, it’s relevant to ask “whose land?” If it was not so much that they owned the land, but that they merely lived in it and off it, making use of resources that happened to be lying around, then can they validly assert a higher claim than the cattle ranchers?

  • Julian Morrison

    R C Dean: I have heard that it’s not quite so simple as trespass – the law actually prevents even a sympathetic land-owner from granting “travellers” permission to camp, and that police will ride roughshod over their objections to chase the travellers off.

  • Della: your level of libertarian purity is too severe for me. I am no admirer of the BBC or the license fee. (In fact I help run a website called Biased BBC.) However if my house catches fire I don’t intend to wait until private fire brigades evolve. I’ll just call the government- funded one. In a similar way I get my news from the sources that exist now even though I do not approve of the way they are funded. To consistently avoid all institutions that are funded by the taxpayer would mean living the life of a hermit.

  • R C Dean: the idea of choosing your own neighbours and living your life as you choose is the bit that no one should argue with. I thought the reference to “indifference to trespass” in the previous sentence made it clear that I did not approve of trespass.

  • The Bushmen’s tale is a tragic one, and shared by pretty much all nomadic tribes who live in areas which transcend national boundaries (Bedouin, Touareg, etc).

    The difference between the Bushmen and the “travellers” (aka Newspeak for gypsies) is that where the Bushmen travel, the crime rate doesn’t explode.

    “Trading and crafts”, my fat African-American ass.

  • Guy Herbert

    Julian Morrison:

    Whose land? The Bushmen’s claim lies in temporal priority, and existing usage as they see fit. If you only have a claim to property if you use it in some manner others deign to recognise as “fitting”, then we are in Gordon Brown’s universe.

    That is also the authoritarian implication in the Pilane quote: There is a way of life “appropriate” to people regardless of their own tastes. Once you are categorised as “person” you must be compelled to live according to the rules proper to people, and insisting on a choice is an illogical apostasy. Very rechtstaat. No wonder about the EU grants.

  • Julian Morrison

    Guy Herbert says: If you only have a claim to property if you use it in some manner others deign to recognise as “fitting”, then we are in Gordon Brown’s universe.

    No, my question was, had they claimed the property at all?

    I think it’s quite likely that in a typical hunter-gatherer way, the idea of land ownership never came up – for the same reason that, in “the west”, the question of air ownership doesn’t come up. For small tribes of hunter-gatherers, there’s plenty enough land, and the “tragedy of the commons” doesn’t apply. They can’t really be said to be “owning” the land which they live in and off, just like you can’t be said to be “owning” the air because you habitually breathe in this area rather than that area.

    If the land remained basically unowned, then there’s no special right to continue living on it in a “traditional” way, as versus living on it in a “newfangled” way like ranching cattle. Being picturesque is not a claim of ownership.

  • A_t

    …So by this logic, if I work out some way of claiming “ownership” of the air most of us breathe, & wish to start exporting it to the moon, that’s ok because no-one thought to put a formal claim on it? Methinks you’re too caught up in formal systems of ownership to see the larger principle upon which they are based.

  • Guy Herbert

    Precisely, A_t.

    Ownership of real property in England and France are formally very different, and the relevant legal concepts aren’t congruent either. But a Frenchman wouldn’t say landowning in England is impossible.

    Not every formal system of law is just in a sense we’d most of us accept. (Or there’d be very little objection on this site to the arbitrary impositions of states.) The rule of law breaks down where there are procedural barriers to entry. (Hernando de Soto has explained how this undermines the capacity of the poor participate in the formal economy in much of the third world.)

    Equally legal rights and freedoms can readily exist without formal assertion. As far as I know, murder is defined only at common law in England. There’s no formal statute forbidding it. It remains entirely unnecessary anywhere I know of to assert a right not to be killed in order for the law to defend that right, and would remain so even if the person concerned was unaware of the possibility of death, or believed themselves immortal.

  • james joyce

    ermm Travellers i.e. those arseholes who live in caravans not the new-age types but those skanging tinkers that hang around rural ireland trying to rob the shirts off your line. should all be relocated to britain or france. :->