Namibia (German South West Africa and South West Africa)

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Namibia (German South West Africa and South West Africa)

Prior to the establishment of German South West Africa in 1884, a number of African states and peoples, including the Herero and Ovambo, had established themselves within the territory that would eventually become the Republic of Namibia in 1990. By the early 1840s Oorlam raiders, who had originated on the Cape's colonial frontier in what is presently South Africa, governed a string of small but highly centralized multiethnic polities in southern and central Namibia. In so doing, they conquered and incorporated the Khoisan-speaking Nama communities that had existed there before.

In the late 1860s, as Oorlam hegemony in central and southern Namibia crumbled, disenfranchised Basters (the term used to refer to the descendents of Africans and Europeans) from the Cape Colony trekked into central Namibia and established an independent Trekker republic centered in Rehoboth on the southern fringes of Hereroland. Alarmed by the establishment of this republic, Herero chieftains appealed for the establishment of a British protectorate over central Namibia. In 1876, anxious not to incur any excessive costs, Britain declared a protectorate over the immediate environs of Walvis Bay.

The late 1870s and early 1880s saw the reemergence of Nama polities in southern and eastern central Namibia. In southern Namibia, Hendrik Witbooi, the son of the chieftain of Gibeon, claimed to have received a vision from God, which instructed him to trek north with his followers to a promised land. As Witbooi trekked north, he and his followers were ambushed and driven off by Herero. As a result of this attack, Witbooi unleashed an unrelenting guerrilla war on the Herero. At the same time a German entrepreneur, Adolf Luderitz, sought to acquire land rights along the Namibian coast. In early 1884 the imperial German government granted protectorate status to lands acquired by Luderitz by means which it knew to be fraudulent. Shortly thereafter Germany annexed the Namibian coast, with the exception of Walvis Bay, from the Orange River in the south to the Cunene in the north. To fulfill the conditions agreed to at the Berlin conference in 1884, German officials were sent to central Namibia in 1885 to sign protection treaties with Namibian leaders. In the immediate aftermath of an attack by Witbooi forces, Maharero Tjamuaha, the most powerful of the Herero chiefs, agreed to sign a protection treaty with the Germans. Although the treaty proved to be ineffective in terms of protection, and the Herero annulled it and expelled the German officials from their territory in 1888, it proved to be the basis for further German involvement in Namibia.

In 1889 German troops landed at Walvis Bay and seized control of the trade routes leading from the coast into the interior. Thus cut off from arms and under continual attack from Witbooi's forces, the majority of Herero withdrew from central Namibia. In 1890 Tjamuaha died. In the ensuing succession dispute his son, Samuel Maharero, was able to mobilize German support against his Herero rivals, as well as the forces of Witbooi. In 1894 the future German governor, Theodor Leutwein, arrived in the territory. Through a mixed policy of divide and rule, and cooperation with a number of local chiefs at the expense of others, Leutwein was able to expand German control over the territory to the south of the Etosha pan. The rinderpest epidemic and ensuing drought and famine of 1897 and 1898 shattered the pastoral and pastro-forager economies of the indigenous communities of Namibia. Chiefs, who in the past had already sold large tracts of land to European settlers, were forced to sell more of their land and supply a greater number of their subjects as laborers to the new colonial economy.

In early 1904, following a series of misunderstandings, war broke out. Under the command of General Lothar von Trotha, the German army waged a genocidal war against the Herero. An estimated 80 percent of the Herero died as they were summarily hung or shot, driven to die of thirst in the Omaheke region of the Kalahari desert, or incarcerated in concentration camps. At the same time that a Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination order) against the Herero was issued in October 1904, the Nama chieftains in southern Namibia, under the command of Witbooi, waged war against the Germans. Nama survivors were also driven into concentration camps, deported to Togo and Cameroon, and forced to work as laborers under harsh conditions. An estimated 75 percent of the Nama were killed, and though some Nama leaders continued a guerilla war until 1908, the Nama, too, were defeated. After the war all Nama and Herero above the age of eight had to wear numbered metal tags, were prohibited from owning cattle or land, and were constrained within a web of inhumane labor laws.

Independent African chiefs and chieftains ceased to exist in German South West Africa. Bureaucrats euphemistically referred to the destruction of Nama and Herero societies as having been dissolved (aufgelöst). German civilian administrators, in view of labor needs within the colonial economy, opposed the wholesale extermination of African societies, but were overruled by the military and the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

German administrators attempted to establish a single amorphous African working class bereft of, and indeed prohibited from having, an ethnic and cultural identity beyond that deemed acceptable to the colonial state. Lands cleared of African occupants were allocated as ranch lands to German settlers, many of whom had served as soldiers in the Herero and Nama wars. In 1908 diamonds were discovered in southern Namibia, and along with the already established copper and zinc mines in northern Namibia, this led to a blossoming of the Namibian colonial economy. An extreme shortage of labor in the colony due to the wars resulted in the recruitment of a large labor force from the northern territory of Ovamboland. There a rising population, declining hunting and export opportunities, as well as frequent battles with the Portuguese colonial armies in southern Angola, had led to economic hardship and impoverishment.

In the context of World War I, troops from the Union of South Africa invaded Namibia in 1915 and defeated the German troops. With the end of German rule in the territory, thousands of Herero and Nama left their sites of employment and migrated back to their ancestral homes. Ovambo, fleeing south in the face of extreme drought in Ovamboland, replaced them as the labor force. Anxious to extend their control over Ovamboland, something that Germany had not done, Union forces defeated and killed Mandume, the Kwanyama king in 1917.

By 1918 Nama and Herero had reacquired substantial herds of cattle and were able to pressure the new South African administration into assigning reserves to them. Following the Treaty of Versailles, Namibia was granted to South Africa as a class C mandate; while legally separate, in reality it became a fifth province of the Union of South Africa.

Throughout the 1920s South Africa sought to strengthen its hold over Namibia, in part through the resettlement of Afrikaner families on newly created farms in central Namibia. African resistance to the continued dominance of German missionaries in their churches led the majority of the Herero and Nama to establish independent Ethiopian churches. Dissatisfaction with the new South African administration meant that organizations such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), as well as the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of South Africa, were able to quickly and extensively mobilize in the territory. However, airplanes and brute force crushed all serious opposition, such as the Bondelswarts revolt in southern Namibia in 1922, the Rehoboth rebellion in central Namibia in 1924, and the Ukuambi revolt under Ipumbu in northern Namibia in 1935.

Although Namibian soldiers had died fighting fascism in World War II, this did not prevent the election of the Nationalist Party in the 1948 South African elections. Intent on acquiring Namibia as a fifth province, the South African government sought to convince the outside world that Namibia's population had agreed to their formal incorporation into the Union of South Africa. Hosea Komombumbi Kutako was able to successfully mobilize opposition to the intended annexation of Namibia. In one of its first acts after being created, the United Nations (UN) rejected South Africa's claim, but South Africa prohibited a UN commission from visiting the territory and prevented Herero delegates from presenting the Nambian case to the General Assembly.

In the 1940s the African Improvement Society, a direct descendent of the UNIA, was founded primarily among Herero intellectuals. It was partly from these same ranks that in 1959 the South West African National Union (SWANU) evolved. In Cape Town Ovambo migrant laborers, inspired by the Congress movement in South Africa, formed the Ovambo People's Congress. In 1958 OPC leader Andimba Toivo Ja Toivo was deported to Namibia, where in 1959 he founded the Ovamboland Peoples Organisation, which later became the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO).

In keeping with apartheid legislation, the South African administration set about clearing so-called black spots; Africans were cleared off lands and deported to new so-called homelands and locations. In December 1959 more than ten people protesting their forced removal from the capital city of Windhoek were shot. In the ensuing crackdown many SWANU and SWAPO members fled the country. Undaunted, the South African administration continued its apartheid policies and established the Odendaal Commission, which recommended "further extending apartheid throughout the Territory and to make it the basic political, economic and social principle of South Africa." In 1966 SWAPO guerrillas entered northern Namibia and an armed struggle against South African rule began. In 1971 and 1972 wildcat strikes in the mining industry marked a turning point in the territory itself.

In 1973 some one hundred member states of the UN, with the notable exception of a few European states and the United States, adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. With the independence of Angola in 1975, SWAPO forces became more effective. This, coupled with the continued petitioning activities of SWAPO at the UN, forced the colonial administration into reaching an internal settlement advantageous to South Africa.

The South African administration organized the Turnhalle Conference beginning in 1975. Namibians appointed by the South African powers to serve as representatives of administration-defined ethnic communities were expected to form the local authorities within the constraints of apartheid. Petty apartheid laws, such as the mixed marriages act were abolished, yet legislation continued to be applied on the basis of race. Control and ultimate power remained in the hands of the newly appointed South African administrator general.

In 1977 all Namibian men above the age of seventeen became eligible for conscription in the South West African Territorial Force, formed as a South African proxy force in the territory. By 1980 there were an estimated 80,000 men bearing arms in the service of the South African government in a territory populated by little more than a million people. An estimated 100,000 Namibians fled to neighboring states. Operating out of northern Namibia, South Africa sought to eliminate SWAPO bases in southern Angola and became directly involved in the Angolan civil war. Northern Namibia was transformed into a war zone in which all forms of civil government and administration were ended and made subservient to the South African military.

In the war both sides committed numerous human rights abuses. South African forces, which ranged from regular conscripted soldiers, to shadowy para-militaries and officially sanctioned death squads, freely roamed northern Namibia and southern Angola. In crossborder raids South African forces targeted refugee camps and killed thousands of civilians. Within the war zone thousands of people were detained without formal charge and were tortured. Thousands more were forced to move from their homes. In this manner the whole of the northern strip of Caprivi was cleared of its civilian population. No less than 10 percent of the Namibian population fled into exile, and thousands of people disappeared without a trace. During the course of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings, it was revealed that many people captured and detained without charge or trial in Namibia and southern Angola had been thrown out of aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, many others had been summarily executed and left in the bush, or buried in unmarked graves.

The People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the military wing of SWAPO, also committed human rights abuses in its operations from bases in Angola and Zambia. In internal feuds and spy-scares, hundreds of SWAPO members were detained, tortured, and killed. In the interests of propaganda hundreds of young recruits were sent to their certain death on military operations doomed to failure. Within the organization all forms of dissent were prohibited and silenced. As with the thousands of missing attributed to South Africa, many hundreds of Namibians who were detained by SWAPO are still unaccounted for.

Between 1977 and 1989 the Namibian economy went into decline, and the country's gross domestic product, an estimated $1 billion, barely covered the annual military expenditure. At the same time the South African economy continued to decline, in part because of international boycotts and sanctions. Social expenditure was equally high; in 1986 an estimated 2,500 white South African soldiers lost their lives—this coupled with continued urban unrest in South Africa served to bring about less and less support for government policies from the white electorate. In 1988 Angolan government forces, supported by Cuban forces and SWAPO guerrillas, were able to turn the tide and inflict a heavy defeat on South African forces at Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola.

In April 1989, on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 435, the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG), operating in conjunction with the South African administrator general, took over the administration of Namibia. A UN-supervised ceasefire got off to a shaky start as UNTAG forces were unable to confine South African forces to base and prevent them from attacking SWAPO guerrillas seeking to report to UNTAG forces. Subsequently, elections under UN monitoring took place. SWAPO won 57 percent of the vote and representatives were chosen for an assembly authorized to draft and adopt a constitution guaranteeing minority, property, civil, human, and religious rights. South African troops were withdrawn, and on March 21, 1990, Namibia gained its independence as the South African flag was lowered and the new Namibian flag raised in the national stadium.

Independent Namibia has been largely peaceful and able to establish good relations with its neighbors. Walvis Bay, Namibia's sole deep-water harbor, was handed over to Namibia shortly after independence and is being developed as a free trade zone. Following independence, tourism expanded with an average annual growth of 30 percent. Together with relative industrial stability and continued investor confidence, this ensured the Namibian economy showing an average growth of 2 percent in the first five years of independence. Unfortunately, since the elections in 1995, the rule of law in Namibia has come under increasing threat. In 1996, without parliament's approval, soldiers of the Namibian Defence Force (NDF) were deployed in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That same year the Special Field Force (SFF), a Namibian para-military force of demobilized PLAN fighters, started operating in northern Namibia and southern Angola. More often than not, SFF operated beyond the rule of law, with numerous documented cases of murder, torture, rape, and detention without trial. In 1996 the Namibian government entered into a dispute with Botswana regarding the delineation of their common border. In 1998 the regional government of Liambezi (formerly Caprivi) sought refugee status in Botswana, and in 1999 a political uprising in Liambezi was brutally suppressed by NDF and SFF forces. Human rights organizations have reported the reestablishment of detention centers, and there are numerous reports of detentions without trial. Another major problem is land distribution—over 85 percent of arable land remains in the hands of white settlers or their descendants, creating hardship and resentment.

The territories and peoples incorporated within the republic of Namibia, formerly known as South West Africa, have a long and troubled history of human rights abuse and ethnic conflict. As of 2004 Namibia stands at a historical juncture: It may descend even further into a spiral of even more blatant human rights abuses, or return to the stability and rule of law that were attained with independence in 1990.

SEE ALSO Apartheid; Herero; Historical Injustices; Slavery, Historical; South Africa


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Jan-Bart Gewald