Namibia's history is a familiar African story, beginning with ancient peoples and the stories they told on remote rock walls, and entering the modern world with colonial repression and a brutal war of independence. But that's not where the story ends. Instead, Namibia has emerged from such turbulence as a confident, independent country where the future looks far brighter than its past.
In the Beginning
Namibia’s history extends back into the mists of time, a piece in the jigsaw that saw the evolution of the earliest human beings. The camps and stone tools of Homo erectus (literally ‘man who stands upright’) have been found scattered throughout the region. One archaeological site in the Namib Desert provides evidence that these early people were hunting the ancestors of present-day elephants, and butchering their remains with stone hand axes, as early as 750,000 years ago.
By the middle Stone Age, which lasted until 20,000 years ago, the Boskop, the presumed ancestors of the San, had developed into an organised hunting-and-gathering society. Use of fire was universal, tools (made from wood and animal products as well as stone) had become more sophisticated and natural pigments were being used for personal adornment. From around 8000 BC (the late Stone Age) they began producing pottery, and started to occupy rock shelters and caves such as those at Twyfelfontein and Brandberg, and the Tsodilo Hills in neighbouring Botswana.
The Settlement of Namibia
The archaeological connection between the late Stone Age people and the first Khoisan arrivals isn’t clear, but it is generally accepted that the earliest documented inhabitants of Southern Africa were the San, a nomadic people organised into extended family groups who were able to adapt to the severe terrain.
During the early Iron Age, between 2300 and 2400 years ago, rudimentary farming techniques appeared on the plateaus of south-central Africa. However, whether or not the earliest farmers were Khoisan, who had adapted to a settled existence, or migrants from East and central Africa, remains in question. Regardless, as the centuries came and went, Bantu-speaking groups began to arrive in sporadic southward waves.
The first agriculturists and iron workers of definite Bantu origin belonged to the Gokomere culture. They settled the temperate savannah and cooler uplands of southeastern Zimbabwe, and were the first occupants of the Great Zimbabwe site. Cattle ranching became the mainstay of the community, and earlier hunting and gathering San groups retreated to the west, or were enslaved and/or absorbed.
At the same time, the San communities were also coming under pressure from the Khoekhoen (the ancestors of the Nama), who probably entered the region from the south. The Khoekhoen were organised loosely into tribal groups and were distinguished by their reliance on raising livestock. They gradually displaced the San, becoming the dominant group in the region until around AD 1500.
During the 16th century, the Herero arrived in Namibia from the Zambezi Valley, and proceeded to occupy the north and west of the country. As ambitious pastoralists they inevitably came into conflict with the Khoekhoen over the best grazing lands and water sources. Eventually, given their superior strength and numbers, the Herero came to dominate nearly all of the indigenous Namibian groups. By the late 19th century a new Bantu group, the Owambo, settled in the north along the Okavango and Kunene Rivers.
European Exploration & Incursion
In 1486 the Portuguese captain Diego Cão sailed as far south as Cape Cross, where he erected a stone cross in tribute to his royal patron, João II. The following year, another cross was erected by Bartolomeu Dias at Lüderitz, but it wasn’t really until the early 17th century that Dutch sailors from the Cape colonies began to explore the desert coastline, although they refrained from setting up any permanent stations.
Soon after, however, growing European commercial and territorial interests were to send ambitious men deeper into Namibia’s interior, and in 1750 the Dutch elephant hunter Jacobus Coetsee became the first European to cross the Orange River. In his wake came a series of traders, hunters and missionaries, and by the early 19th century there were mission stations at Bethanie, Windhoek, Rehoboth, Keetmanshoop and various other sites. In 1844 the German Rhenish Missionary Society, under Dr Hugo Hahn, began working among the Herero. More successful were the Finnish Lutherans, who arrived in the north in 1870 and established missions among the Owambo.
By 1843 the rich coastal guano deposits of the southern Namib Desert were attracting commercial attention. In 1867 the guano islands were annexed by the British, who then proceeded to take over Walvis Bay in 1878. The British also mediated the largely inconclusive Khoisan–Herero wars during this period.
The Scramble for Africa
The Germans, under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, were late entering the European scramble for Africa. Bismarck had always been against colonies; he considered them an expensive illusion, famously stating, ‘My map of Africa is here in Europe.’ But he was to be pushed into an ill-starred colonial venture by the actions of a Bremen merchant called Adolf Lüderitz.
Having already set up a trading station in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1881, Lüderitz convinced the Nama chief, Joseph Fredericks, to sell Angra Pequena, where he established his second station trading in guano (excrement of seabirds; used to make manure and a gunpowder ingredient). He then petitioned the German chancellor for protection. Bismarck, still trying to stay out of Africa, politely requested the British at Walvis Bay to say whether they had any interest in the matter, but they never bothered to reply. Subsequently, in 1884, Lüderitz was officially declared part of the German Empire.
Initially, German interests were minimal, and between 1885 and 1890 the colonial administration amounted to three public administrators. Their interests were served largely through a colonial company (along the lines of the British East India Company in India prior to the raj), but the organisation couldn’t maintain law and order.
In the 1880s, due to renewed fighting between the Nama and Herero, the German government dispatched Curt von François and 23 soldiers to restrict the supply of arms from British-administered Walvis Bay. This seemingly innocuous peacekeeping regiment slowly evolved into the more powerful Schutztruppe (German Imperial Army), which constructed forts around the country to combat growing opposition.
At this stage, Namibia became a fully fledged protectorate known as German South West Africa. The first German farmers arrived in 1892 to take up expropriated land on the central plateau, and were soon followed by merchants and other settlers. In the late 1890s the Germans, the Portuguese in Angola and the British in Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana) agreed on Namibia’s boundaries.
Reaping the Whirlwind
Meanwhile, in the south, diamonds had been discovered at Grasplatz, east of Lüderitz, by South African labourer Zacharias Lewala. Despite the assessment of diamond-mining giant De Beers that the find probably wouldn’t amount to much, prospectors flooded in to stake their claims. By 1910 the German authorities had granted exclusive rights to Deutsche Diamanten Gesellschaft (German Diamond Company).
For all the devastation visited upon the local populace, Germany was never to benefit from the diamond riches it found. The outbreak of WWI in 1914 was to mark the end of German colonial rule in South West Africa. By this time, however, the Germans had all but succeeded in devastating the Herero tribal structures, and had taken over all Khoikhoi and Herero lands. The more fortunate Owambo, in the north, managed to avoid German conquest, and they were only subsequently overrun during WWI by Portuguese forces fighting on the side of the Allies.
In 1914, at the beginning of WWI, Britain pressured South Africa into invading Namibia. The South Africans, under the command of Prime Minister Louis Botha and General Jan Smuts, pushed northward, forcing the outnumbered Schutztruppe to retreat. In May 1915 the Germans faced their final defeat at Khorab near Tsumeb and, a week later, a South African administration was set up in Windhoek.
By 1920 many German farms had been sold to Afrikaans-speaking settlers, and the German diamond-mining interests in the south were handed over to the South Africa–based Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM), which later gave way to the Namdeb Diamond Corporation Limited (Namdeb).
South African Occupation
Under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany was required to renounce all of its colonial claims, and in 1920 the League of Nations granted South Africa a formal mandate to administer Namibia as part of the Union of South Africa.
While the mandate was renewed by the UN following WWII, South Africa was more interested in annexing South West Africa as a full province in the Union, and decided to scrap the terms of the mandate and rewrite the constitution. In response, the International Court of Justice determined that South Africa had overstepped its boundaries, and the UN established the Committee on South West Africa to enforce the original terms of the mandate. In 1956 the UN further decided that South African control should be terminated.
Undeterred, the South African government tightened its grip on the territory, and in 1949 granted the white population parliamentary representation in Pretoria. The bulk of Namibia’s viable farmland was parcelled into some 6000 farms for white settlers, while other ethnic groups were relegated to newly demarcated ‘tribal homelands’. The official intent was ostensibly to ‘channel economic development into predominantly poor rural areas’, but it was all too obvious that it was simply a convenient way of retaining the majority of the country for white settlement and ranching.
As a result, a prominent line of demarcation appeared between the predominantly white ranching lands in the central and southern parts of the country, and the poorer but better-watered tribal areas to the north. This arrangement was retained until Namibian independence in 1990, and to some extent continues to the present day.
Throughout the 1950s, despite mounting pressure from the UN, South Africa refused to release its grip on Namibia. This intransigence was based on its fears of having yet another antagonistic government on its doorstep, and of losing the income that it derived from the mining operations there.
Forced labour had been the lot of most Namibians since the German annexation, and was one of the main factors that led to mass demonstrations and the increasingly nationalist sentiments in the late 1950s. Among the parties was the Owamboland People’s Congress, founded in Cape Town under the leadership of Samuel Daniel Shafiishuna Nujoma and Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo.
In 1959 the party’s name was changed to the Owamboland People’s Organisation, and Nujoma took the issue of South African occupation to the UN in New York. By 1960 his party had gathered increased support, and it eventually coalesced into the South-West African People’s Organisation (Swapo), with its headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In 1966 Swapo took the issue of South African occupation to the International Court of Justice. The court upheld South Africa’s right to govern South West Africa, but the UN General Assembly voted to terminate South Africa’s mandate and replace it with a Council for South West Africa (renamed the Commission for Namibia in 1973) to administer the territory.
In response, on 26 August 1966 (now called Heroes’ Day), Swapo launched its campaign of guerrilla warfare at Ongulumbashe in northern Namibia. The next year, one of Swapo’s founders, Toivo ya Toivo, was convicted of terrorism and imprisoned in South Africa, where he would remain until 1984. Nujoma, however, stayed in Tanzania and avoided criminal prosecution. In 1972 the UN finally declared the South African occupation of South West Africa officially illegal and called for a withdrawal, proclaiming Swapo the legitimate representative of the Namibian people.
In 1975 Angola gained independence under the Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Sympathetic to Swapo’s struggle for independence in neighbouring Namibia, the fledgling government allowed it a safe base in the south of the country, from where it could step up its guerrilla campaign against South Africa.
South Africa responded by invading Angola in support of the opposition party, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), an act that prompted the Cuban government to send hundreds of troops to the country to bolster up the MPLA. Although the South African invasion failed, and troops had to be withdrawn in March 1976, furious and bloody incursions into Angola continued well into the 1980s.
In the end, it was neither solely the activities of Swapo nor international sanctions that forced the South Africans to the negotiating table. On the contrary, all players were growing tired of the war, and the South African economy was suffering badly. By 1985 the war was costing R480 million (around US$250 million) per year, and conscription was widespread. Mineral exports, which once provided around 88% of the country’s gross domestic product, had plummeted to just 27% by 1984.
In December 1988 a deal was finally struck between Cuba, Angola, South Africa and Swapo that provided for the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and South African troops from Namibia. It also stipulated that the transition to Namibian independence would formally begin on 1 April 1989 and would be followed by UN-monitored elections held in November 1989 on the basis of universal suffrage. Although minor score settling and unrest among some Swapo troops threatened to derail the whole process, the plan went ahead, and in September 1989 Sam Nujoma returned from his 30-year exile. In the elections, Swapo garnered two-thirds of the votes, but the numbers were insufficient to give the party the sole mandate to write the new constitution, an outcome that went some way to allaying fears that Namibia’s minority groups would be excluded from the democratic process.
Following negotiations between the Constituent Assembly (soon to become the National Assembly) and international advisers, including the USA, France, Germany and the former USSR, a constitution was drafted. The new constitution established a multiparty system alongside an impressive Bill of Rights. It also limited the presidential executive to two five-year terms. The new constitution was adopted in February 1990, and independence was granted a month later, with Nujoma being sworn in as Namibia’s first president.
In those first optimistic years of his presidency, Sam Nujoma and his Swapo party based their policies on a national reconciliation program aimed at healing the wounds left by 25 years of armed struggle. They also embarked on a reconstruction program based on the retention of a mixed economy and partnership with the private sector.
These moderate policies and the stability they afforded were well received, and in 1994 President Nujoma and his party were re-elected with a 68% landslide victory over the main opposition party, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA). Similarly in 1999, Swapo won 76.8% of the vote, although concerns arose when President Nujoma amended the constitution to allow himself a rather unconstitutional third term.
Other political problems included growing unrest in the Caprivi Strip, starting in 1999 with a failed attempt by rebels to seize Katima Mulilo. Continued fighting drove Caprivians out (and kept tourists away) until the conflict ended in 2002.
In 2004 the world watched warily to see if Nujoma would cling to 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 Nujoma, Pohamba is a Swapo veteran, and he swept to power with nearly 77% of the vote. In 2009 he was re-elected for a second term. He left behind the land ministry, where he presided over one of Namibia’s most controversial schemes – the expropriation of land from white farmers. This policy formed part of the ‘poverty agenda’, which, along with Namibia’s HIV/AIDS crisis, the unequal distribution of income, managing the country’s resource wealth fairly and the challenge of raising living standards for Namibia’s poor, would become the defining domestic issues of his presidency.
In 2011 it was announced that Namibia had found offshore oil reserves amounting to 11 billion barrels, although it remains unclear whether the deposits will prove to be commercially viable. In the same year, the government's ongoing efforts to seek redress for colonial wrongs continued to bear fruit when the skulls of 20 Herero and Nama people were returned to Namibia from a museum in Germany.
In line with the constitution, and in keeping with Namibia's impressive postindependence record of largely peaceful transitions, President Pohamba honoured his pledge to stand aside in 2014. His successor, Hage Geingob, easily won elections in November of that year. Unusually for Namibia, political unrest marred the lead-up to the election and one protester was shot by police. Even so, international observers praised Namibia for its free and fair elections (and for its use of electronic voting, an African first). This, and the size of Swapo's electoral victory (Swapo won 87% of the vote in presidential polls and 80% of parliamentary seats), suggest that its dominance of Namibian politics is unlikely to change any time soon.