The first agriculturalists and iron workers of definite Bantu-speaking origin in southern Africa belonged to the Gokomere culture. They settled the temperate savannah and cooler uplands of Zimbabwe and were the first occupants of the Great Zimbabwe site, in the southeastern part of modern-day Zimbabwe, where a well-sheltered valley presented an obvious place to settle. Cattle ranching became the mainstay of the community and earlier hunting-and-gathering San groups either retreated to the west or were enslaved and/or absorbed.
At the same time the San communities were also coming under pressure from Khoi-Khoi (the ancestors of the Nama), who probably entered the region from the south. The Khoi-Khoi were organised loosely into tribes and raised livestock. They gradually displaced the San, becoming the dominant group in the region until around 1500.
During the 16th century, the Herero arrived in Namibia from the Zambezi Valley and occupied the north and west of the country. As ambitious pastoralists they inevitably came into conflict with the Khoi-Khoi over the best grazing lands and water sources. Eventually, given their superior strength and numbers, nearly all the indigenous Namibian groups submitted to the Herero.
By the late 19th century, a new Bantu group, the Owambo, settled in the north along the Okavango and Kunene Rivers.
Because Namibia has one of the world’s most barren and inhospitable coastlines, it was largely ignored by the European nations until relatively recently. The first European visitors were Portuguese mariners seeking a route to the Indies in the late 15th century, but they confined their activities to erecting stone crosses at certain points as navigational aids.
It wasn’t until the last-minute scramble for colonies towards the end of the 19th century that Namibia was annexed by Germany (except for the enclave of Walvis Bay, which was taken in 1878 by the British for the Cape Colony). In 1904 the Herero launched a rebellion and, later that year, were joined by the Nama, but the rebellions were brutally suppressed.
The Owambo in the north were luckier and managed to avoid conquest until after the start of WWI, when they were overrun by Portuguese forces fighting on the side of the Allies. Soon after, the German colony abruptly came to an end when its forces surrendered to a South African expeditionary army also fighting on behalf of the Allies.
At the end of WWI, South Africa was given a mandate to rule the territory (then known as South West Africa) by the League of Nations. Following WWII, the mandate was renewed by the UN, who refused to sanction the annexation of the country by South Africa.
Undeterred, the South African government tightened its grip on the territory and, in 1949, it granted parliamentary representation to the white population. The bulk of southern Namibia’s viable farmland was parcelled into some 6000 farms owned by white settlers, while indigenous families were confined by law to their ‘reserves’ (mainly in the east and the far north) and urban workplaces.
Forced labour had been the lot of most Namibians since the German annexation. This was one of the main factors that led to mass demonstrations and the development of nationalism in the late 1950s. Around this time, a number of political parties were formed and strikes organised. By 1960 most of these parties had merged to form the South West Africa People’s Organization (Swapo), which took the issue of South African occupation to the International Court of Justice.
The outcome was inconclusive, but in 1966 the UN General Assembly voted to terminate South Africa’s mandate and set up a Council for South West Africa (in 1973 renamed the Commission for Namibia) to administer the territory. At the same time, Swapo launched its campaign of guerrilla warfare. The South African government reacted by firing on demonstrators and arresting thousands of activists.
In 1975 the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) was officially established. Formed from a combination of white political interests and ethnic parties, it turned out to be a toothless debating chamber, which spent much of its time in litigation with the South African government over its scope of responsibility.
The DTA was dissolved in 1983 after it had indicated it would accommodate members of Swapo. It was replaced by the Multiparty Conference, which had even less success and quickly disappeared. And so control of Namibia passed back to the South African–appointed administrator-general.
The failure of these attempts to set up an internal government did not deter South Africa from maintaining its grip on Namibia. It refused to negotiate on a UN-supervised programme for Namibian independence until the estimated 19, 000 Cuban troops were removed from neighbouring Angola. In response, Swapo intensified its guerrilla campaign.
In the end, however, it might not have been the activities of Swapo alone or international sanctions that forced the South Africans to the negotiating table. The white Namibian population itself was growing tired of the war and the economy was suffering badly.
The stage was finally set for negotiations on the country’s future. Under the watch of the UN, the USA and the USSR, a deal was struck between Cuba, Angola, South Africa and Swapo, in which Cuban troops would be removed from Angola and South African troops from Namibia. This would be followed by UN-monitored elections held in November 1989 on the basis of universal suffrage. Swapo collected a clear majority of the votes but an insufficient number to give it the sole mandate to write the new constitution.
Following negotiations between the various parties, a constitution was adopted in February 1990. Independence was granted the following month under the presidency of the Swapo leader, Sam Nujoma. Initially, his policies focused on programs of reconstruction and national reconciliation to heal the wounds left by 25 years of armed struggle. In 1999, however, Nujoma had nearly served out his second (and constitutionally, his last) five-year term, and alarm bells sounded among watchdog groups when he changed the constitution to allow himself a third five-year term, which he won with nearly 77% of the vote.
In August 1999, a separatist Lozi faction in the Caprivi Strip launched a coup attempt –which was summarily put down by the Namibian Defence Force. In December of the same year the Caprivi Strip also suffered a spate of violent attacks on civilians and travellers, which were rightly or wrongly blamed on Unita sympathisers from Angola. These attacks destroyed tourism in the Caprivi Strip, but since Angola signed a peace accord in April 2002, the region is slowly starting to come back to life.
In 2004 the world watched warily to see if Nujoma would cling to the office of power for a fourth term, and an almost audible sigh of relief could be heard in Namibia when he announced that he would finally be stepping down in favour of his chosen successor Hifikepunye Pohamba.
Like Sam Nujoma, Pohamba is a Swapo veteran and swept to power with nearly 77% of the vote. He leaves behind the land ministry where he presided over one of Namibia’s most controversial schemes – the expropriation of land from white farmers to black citizens.
This ‘poverty agenda’, along with Namibia’s AIDS crisis and a nascent secessionist movement in the Caprivi Strip will be the defining issues of his presidency.