officially Republic of Namibia, also called (internationally until
1968) South West Africa, Afrikaans Namibië, or Suidwesafrica
Country, southwest coast of Africa.
Area: 318,580 sq mi (825,118 sq km). Population (2005 est.):
2,030,000. Capital: Windhoek. About one-third of the people are Ovambo.
Others include Nama, Kavango, Herero, and San. Languages: English
(official), various Bantu languages (notably Ovambo), Afrikaans, San.
Religions: Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic, other Christians);
also traditional beliefs. Currency: Namibian dollar. Namibia may be
divided into three broad regions: the Namib Desert, the Central Plateau,
and the Kalahari Desert. The economy is based largely on agriculture and
on the production and export of diamonds. Namibia is a republic with two
legislative houses; its head of state and government is the president.
Long inhabited by indigenous peoples, it was explored by the Portuguese
in the late 15th century. In 1884 it was annexed by Germany as German
South West Africa. It was captured in World War I by South Africa (and
subsequently called South West Africa until 1968), which received it as
a mandate from the League of Nations in 1919 and refused to give it up
after World War II. A UN resolution in 1966 ending the mandate was
challenged by South Africa in the 1970s and ’80s. Through long
negotiations involving many factions and interests, Namibia achieved
independence in 1990. The country has been severely affected by the AIDS
epidemic; a large proportion of the population has become infected with
Official name Republic of Namibia
Form of government republic with two legislative houses (National
Council ; National Assembly )
Head of state and government President
Official language English
Official religion none
Monetary unit Namibian dollar (N$)
Population estimate (2008) 2,089,000
Total area (sq mi) 318,193
Total area (sq km) 824,116
1An additional 6 non-voting members may be appointed.
officially Republic of Namibia, also called (internationally until
1968) South West Africa, Afrikaans Namibië, or Suidwesafrica
country located on the southwestern coast of Africa. It is bordered
by Angola to the north, Zambia to the northeast, Botswana to the east,
South Africa to the southeast and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the
west. It ranges from arid in the north to desert on the coast and in the
east. The landscape is spectacular, but the desert, mountains, canyons,
and savannas are perhaps better to see than to occupy.
The only permanent rivers are the Kunene (Cunene), the Okavango
(Cubango), the Mashi (Kwando), and the Zambezi on the northern border
and the Orange on the southern. Only the northern frontier—and not all
of it—is readily passable. The coastal Namib desert, the treacherous
reefs and shoals of the coast (half aptly named the “Skeleton Coast”),
the near deserts along the Orange River, and the dry Kalahari region to
the east explain the late conquest of Namibia and form a geographic
frame around the country.
Roughly rectangular (600 by 300 to 450 miles [965 by 480 to 725
kilometres]), Namibia has a long, narrow eastern extension (the Caprivi
Strip) based on a German misconception that access to the
Zambezi—despite the Victoria Falls—meant access to the Indian Ocean.
After 106 years of German and South African rule, Namibia became
independent on March 21, 1990, under a democratic multiparty
constitution. The capital of the country is Windhoek.
Namibia is divided from west to east into three main topographic
zones: the coastal Namib desert, the Central Plateau, and the Kalahari.
The Namib is partly rocky and partly (in the central stretch) dunes.
While having complex flora and fauna, it is a fragile and sparsely
covered environment unsuitable for pastoral or agricultural activities.
Diamonds (probably washed down from the Basotho highlands by the Orange
River) and uranium are found at Oranjemund in the south and Arandis in
the centre. The Namib, 50 to 80 miles wide over most of its length, is
constricted in the north where the Kaokoveld, the western mountain scarp
of the Central Plateau, abuts on the sea.
The Central Plateau, which varies in altitude from 3,200 to 6,500
feet (975 to 1,980 metres), is the core of the agricultural life of
Namibia. In the north it abuts on the Kunene and Okavango river valleys
and in the south on the Orange. Largely savanna and scrub, it is
somewhat more wooded in parts of the north and is broken throughout by
hills, mountains, ravines (including the massive Fish River Canyon), and
salt pans (notably the Etosha Pan). Mount Brand (8,445 feet [2,574
metres]), Namibia’s highest peak, is located along the plateau’s western
In the east, Namibia slopes gradually downward, and the savanna
merges into the Kalahari. In the north, hardpan and rock beneath the
sand, in addition to more abundant river water and rainfall, make both
herding and cultivation possible.
Drainage and soils
As noted, only the border rivers are permanent. The Swakop and
Kuiseb rivers rise on the plateau, descend the western escarpment, and
die out in the Namib (except in rare flood years, when they reach the
sea at Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, respectively). The Fish (Vis) River
rises in the Central Plateau and (seasonally) flows south to the Orange.
Various lesser rivers rise on the plateau and die out downstream in the
Namib or Kalahari desert.
Namibia’s soils range from barren sand and rock to low-quality
sand-dominated to relatively fertile soils. The best soils are in the
north, in the Otavi Mountains, in parts of the central and southern
portions of the plateau, and in the Caprivi Strip. Water—not soil
fertility—is the primary constraint on agriculture. Both in the densely
populated Ovambo region in the north and in the commercial farming
areas, overuse of land has reduced tree and bush cover, compacted soils,
led to serious erosion, and lowered the water table by as much as 100
feet in the 20th century.
Namibia is located on the southern margin of the tropics and has
distinct seasons. The coast is cooled by the Benguela Current (which
carries with it the country’s rich and recovering fish stocks) and
averages less than 2 inches (50 millimetres) of rainfall annually. The
Central Plateau and the Kalahari have wide diurnal temperature ranges,
more than 50° F (30° C) on summer days and less than 20° F (10° C) in
winter. In Windhoek, on the plateau, the average temperature for
December is 75° F (24° C), and the average maximum 88° F (31° C). In
July these averages are 55° F (13° C) and 68° F (20° C), respectively.
Humidity is normally low, and rainfall increases from about 10 inches
(250 millimetres) on the southern and western parts of the plateau to
about 20 inches in the north-central part and more than 24 inches on the
Caprivi Strip and Otavi Mountains. However, rainfall is highly variable,
and multiyear droughts are common. In the north and adjacent to
mountains, groundwater is as important as—but only slightly less
variable than—rainfall. Kalahari rainfall—in its Namibian portion—is not
radically different from that of the plateau, but, except in the
northern Karstveld and isolated artesian areas, groundwater is less
Plant and animal life
Both the Namib and Kalahari deserts are characterized by exotic,
fragile desert plants. The mountains are sparsely wooded, and the
plateau is predominantly scrub bush and grass. Trees are much more
frequent in the north. Varieties of aloe are common throughout the
plateau and the less sandy portions of the Kalahari.
Namibia is richly endowed with game, albeit poaching has seriously
diminished it in parts of the north. Throughout the ranching zone, game
(notably antelope and giraffes) coexists with cattle and sheep. The
Etosha Pan in the north is a major game area and tourist attraction.
Less than 1 percent of the country is estimated to be arable, though
almost two-thirds is suitable for pastoralism. Wasteland (mountain and
desert) and bush or wooded savanna, plus a small forest zone, constitute
About half of the entire population live in the far north, roughly 15
percent in the commercial ranching areas north and south of Windhoek, 10
percent in central and southern ex-black homelands, more than 10 percent
in Greater Windhoek, and the remainder in coastal towns and inland
mining towns. More than one-fourth of the total population live in urban
areas. Namibia’s population is young—about half are 16 years of age or
younger—and is growing at a relatively modest rate compared with those
of other African countries.
Ethnic and linguistic composition
About 85 percent of Namibians are black, 5 percent of European
ancestry, and 10 percent, in South African terminology, Coloured (Cape
Coloured, Nama, and Rehobother). Of the black majority, about two-thirds
are Ovambo, with the Kavango, the Herero, the Damara, and the Caprivian
peoples following in population size. Other ethnic groups have much
smaller populations. Afrikaners and Germans constitute two-thirds and
one-fifth of the European population, respectively. Most ethnic
Europeans are Namibian citizens, though some have retained South African
English is the national language, though it is the home language of
only about 3 percent of the population. Ovambo languages are spoken by
more than 80 percent of the population, followed by Nama-Damara with
about 6 percent. Kavango and Caprivian languages and Herero, as well as
Afrikaans, constitute about 4 percent of home languages. Many Namibians
speak two or more indigenous languages and at least a little of two of
the three European languages (English, Afrikaans, German) in common use.
Some 80 to 90 percent of the population at least formally adheres to
a Christian confession. The largest denominations are two Lutheran
churches, which together encompass about one-half the total population.
Roman Catholics comprise another one-fifth of the population, while the
Dutch Reformed and Anglican denominations make up about 5 percent each.
There are also smaller groups belonging to the African Methodist
Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.
Namibia’s annual rate of population growth is approximately 3
percent. The average life expectancy is about 55 years. Infant mortality
remains a serious problem, but the overall rate is about average for
countries in southern Africa and is below that of most countries in
sub-Saharan Africa. Like almost all other human welfare indicators, the
black-white disparity in demographics is very high—a legacy, in large
part, of the South African occupation regime’s practice of apartheid.
Internal migration is primarily from rural to urban areas, a result of
rural poverty, war dislocation, and removal of residence restrictions.
Many exiles have returned to the country since independence, while some
10,000 Europeans and almost as many black South African hired troops and
auxiliaries have departed.
Nominally Namibia is a lower-middle-income economy with a per
capita gross domestic product (GDP) that is significantly above average
for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But that summary is misleading.
Only one-quarter of all Namibians and only one-sixth of black Namibians
have adequate incomes; up to two-thirds live in abject poverty with
limited access to public services. Economic growth remains problematic
because of a shrinking productive sector, lack of capital stock, and
severe world market problems for base metals and uranium oxide.
Furthermore, the prudent fiscal policy instituted by the government
after independence means that, unless foreign assistance commitments
rapidly turn into large actual inflows and private external investment
in mining, manufacturing, and fishing emerges, the one segment of the
GDP that grew rapidly in the 1980s will decline. Superimposed on these
factors are near-stagnant wage employment and the collapse of the local
economy that arose owing to the presence of South African troops and,
later, UNTAG units in the northern towns.
Agriculture and fishing
Commercial farming (undertaken predominantly by white settlers) is
concentrated on the production of karakul sheep and beef for export. It
has been damaged by drought and drops in world prices, but in the early
1990s karakul prices, a commitment by the European Community (EC) to
purchase beef, and relatively good weather improved short-term
prospects. Crop raising is a distinctly secondary activity on commercial
farms, but it is almost coequal with livestock production on small
African family farms (many of which operate at sub-subsistence level and
are headed by women) in the north. Rural development efforts aimed at
small farmers and a 1991 land conference to explore land policy point to
agricultural improvements in favour of black (and female) farmers, but
major results are expected only in the medium term. The 11 percent of
GDP produced by the agricultural sector contrasts sharply with the 35
percent of Namibians dependent on it for employment.
Fishing is limited by depleted stocks. Better conservation controls
and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone have improved its outlook. By
1990 it accounted for more than 3 percent of the GDP and could triple in
real terms by the year 2000.
Mining is central to the economy: it accounts for just under 30
percent of the GDP, though less than 10 percent of the labour force is
employed in this sector. Diamonds, uranium oxide, and base metals
dominate mining; however, gold and natural gas are increasingly
significant, and oil production (offshore and in the Etosha basin) is
potentially so. Namibia supplies about 30 percent of the world diamond
output, but the value of this contribution varies with world prices.
Uranium production is also important, but the key Tsumeb/Matchless mine
complex near Windhoek faces problems in reaching new ore bodies, and new
mines are needed to avert loss of output in the medium term. Other
important minerals include tin, lithium, lead, cadmium, zinc, copper,
tungsten, and silver. While the offshore Kudo natural gas field is
proven, development will be costly. The appropriate uses appear to be
domestic ammonia-urea production or sale to South Africa.
Manufacturing produces about 5 percent of the GDP. It is dominated by
meat and fish processing, brewing, and light engineering work
(especially metal fabrication). Strategic growth areas include light
engineering, building materials, and salt- and natural-gas-based
chemical processing, plus import substitution and consumer goods.
Tourism began to expand in the 1990s, and, given the beauty and
diversity of the landscape—especially on the coast, at Etosha, and in
the Fish River Canyon—its development may be significant.
Finance and trade
Two commercial banks, First National Bank of Southern Africa and
Standard Bank Namibia (subsidiaries of South African parent companies),
account for most banking business. Reorganization of land, housing, and
development banks was begun after independence. The Central Bank of
Namibia launched an independent currency, the Namibian dollar, to
replace the South African rand in the mid-1990s.
Exports constitute up to 90 percent of the goods produced. Diamonds;
uranium oxide; meats, furs, and other animal products; base metals;
fish; and gold are shipped to the United States, South Africa, Japan,
and western Europe. Imports originate predominantly in South Africa as a
result of long-standing business links, proximity, and, until 1992,
Namibia’s membership in the Southern African Customs Union. Major
imports include food, consumer goods, fuel, and capital goods.
Transportation is dominated by Trans-Namib, a public-sector rail,
road, and airline operator. Transport infrastructure is reasonably good,
with main routes through the Caprivi Strip (and thence to Zambia and
Zimbabwe) and to Botswana being upgraded. Air Namibia flies to national
and regional destinations and to Europe. There is an international
airport at Windhoek. A handful of large road-transport companies compete
with larger numbers of small haulers.
Administration and social conditions
Under the constitution of 1990, Namibia is a multiparty democracy.
The constitution, which took effect at independence, is highly
rights-conscious and aimed at achieving a durable separation of powers.
Executive power is vested in the president, who is directly elected to a
five-year term, and the cabinet, which consists of the prime minister
and other ministers who are appointed by the president.
Legislative power is vested in the bicameral Parliament. The National
Assembly is constituted to initiate and pass legislation. It consists of
72 members who are directly elected to five-year terms under universal
adult suffrage and 6 appointed members. The second house, the National
Council, serves in an advisory capacity on legislative matters and
comprises two representatives from each of Namibia’s 13 administrative
regions. National Council members are elected by Regional Councils and
serve six-year terms.
The judicial system comprises the Supreme Court, the High Court, and
Internationally, Namibia hastened to join regional organizations
(e.g., the Southern African Development Coordination Conference and the
Organization of African Unity, now the African Union) as well as global
bodies (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the EC Lomé
Conventions, and the Commonwealth). Its relations with South Africa have
been pragmatic and surprisingly noncontentious (on the South African
side as well).
The government offers seven years of primary education and five
years of secondary education. Primary education is compulsory and may be
completed between the ages 6 and 16. More than 80 percent of all
children of age for primary education are enrolled in school—a figure
higher than that in many African countries.
With more than 80 percent of its adult population literate, Namibia
has one of the highest rates of literacy in sub-Saharan Africa. Various
informal adult education programs have been implemented to combat the
remaining illiteracy. Higher education is provided by the University of
Namibia and the Polytechnic of Namibia, both located in Windhoek, and
four teacher-training colleges.
Health and welfare
Most Namibians are poor—about half of the population falls below the
poverty line—and nutritional standards are low. Undernutrition and
malnutrition are problematic, especially among children. Formal wage
employment engages less than half of the workforce, and unemployment is
high. An unfortunate legacy of Namibia’s colonial past is apparent in
the income disparity between blacks and whites, whose average incomes
are several times higher than those of black Namibians.
Namibia has one of the best health care systems in Africa, as
measured by both its population-to-doctor and its
population-to-hospital-bed ratios. Emphasis is placed on primary and
preventative health services, and the country’s system of regional
hospitals and mobile clinics has attempted to raise the level of
services available in rural locations.
The AIDS epidemic is a serious problem in Namibia. The country has
one of the highest infection rates in the world: by 2000 one in five
adults was infected, and the number of HIV/AIDS cases overwhelmed the
government’s health care system. To curb the spread of the disease, the
government developed prevention and treatment strategies and in 2003
began offering free antiretroviral treatment.
Women and children, being the most disadvantaged groups, have
received special attention in social policy. In the case of women,
ending legal and social discrimination and improving access to
education, land, and employment are stated goals toward which some
action has begun. The government has also sought to meet the child
health, education, nutrition, and other goals adopted by the 1990 World
Summit on Children.
Namibian cultures are diverse. Just as the culture of the Afrikaners
differs significantly from that of the German-speaking community and as
both of those cultures differ from that of the more varied
technical-assistance community, so do African and Creole cultures
differ. The Rehobothers closely resemble the rural Afrikaner culture of
the mid-20th century, while the Nama have more in common with the other
pastoral black communities, and the “Cape Coloured” have a distinct
urban culture with both black and European elements. The northern black
cultures—while distinctive as to language and forms of music and
dance—formed out of a mixed farming context unlike that of the Damara
and Herero. The San are a tragic case. Their culture was ruined by ranch
serfdom and wartime exploitation as trackers, and efforts to rebuild
from the fragments have been limited by lack of knowledge, resources,
and space as well as by the paternalism of many of their self-appointed
With the exception of the San, Namibian cultures appear to be alive
and evolving, not least in the urban areas. However, rising unemployment
may lead to the breakdown of neighbourhood and other social groupings
and to the anomie and lawlessness that characterize the townships of
many southern African cities, notably in both Zambia and South Africa.
The black cultures are not well supported by formal institutions or the
government, owing both to doubts as to what would enable rather than
smother their development and to a lack of fiscal resources.
A number of holidays and festivals are observed, most of which are
religious or historic in significance, albeit not necessarily of
specific current content. Sports are popular among both spectators and
participants. A wide variety of sports are followed by the white
communities, but the black communities concentrate on football (soccer).
Radio and television broadcasting services are government-owned, as
is one daily newspaper. All appear to have substantial intellectual and
programmatic freedom. A fluctuating band of party, semiparty, and (in
one case) independent newspapers exist and are not subject to
censorship, but the survival of most is in doubt for economic reasons.
They are supplemented by an array of religious, trade union, and other
specialized papers that also have complete freedom of expression.
Reginald Herbold Green
The history of Namibia is not well chronicled. Its isolated
geographic position limited contact with the outside world until the
19th century. Explorer, missionary, trader, conqueror, and settler
sources are neither comprehensive, notable for accuracy, nor unbiased.
Professional historiography is a post-1960 development in the country,
and the political events of the years since then have coloured most of
the written history.
Independence before the conquest
The earliest Namibians were San, nomadic peoples with a
survival-oriented culture based on hunting and gathering. Their clans
were small and rarely federated, and their military technology was so
weak that, even before the arrival of the Europeans, they had been
pushed back to the desert margins.
The first conquerors in southern Namibia were the Nama. They had a
larger clan system, with interclan alliances, and a pastoral economy.
Closely linked (usually in a dependent role) were the Damara, a people
from central Africa whose culture combined pastoralism, hunting, and
copper smelting. In northeastern and central Namibia the Herero (a
pastoral people from central Africa) built up interlocked clan systems
eventually headed by a paramount chief. The unity of the Herero nation,
however, was always subject to splintering. In the north the Ovambo
people developed several kingdoms on both sides of the Kunene River.
They were mixed farmers (largely because of a more hospitable
environment for crops) and also smelted and worked copper. To the east
the related Kavango peoples had a somewhat similar but weaker state
system. On the margins of Namibia—i.e., the Caprivi Strip in the far
east and on the margins of the Kalahari—the local peoples and groupings
were spillovers from southern Zambia (Barotse) and Botswana (Tswana).
Until the 1860s, European contact and penetration were slight. Diogo
Cão and Bartolomeu Dias touched on the Namibian coast in 1486 and 1488
respectively, en route to and returning from the Cape of Good Hope, but
there was virtually no contact until the 1670s. Afrikaner explorers
after 1670 and Afrikaner traders and settlers about 1790 came to Namibia
and eventually reached the southern boundaries of the Ovambo kingdoms,
notably at the Etosha Pan. They—together with German missionaries,
explorers of varied nationality, British traders, and Norwegian
whalers—did not play a dominant role before 1860. Instead, they created
the first avenues for trade (ivory and later cattle) and introduced
The latter heightened the destructiveness of conflicts among the
various clans and peoples. So did the arrival, after the first quarter
of the 19th century, of the Oorlam-Nama from the Cape. Their military
technology (which included horses, guns, and a small mobile commando
organizational pattern) was modeled on that of the Afrikaners. They came
to dominate the resident Nama (Red Nation) and Damara. In the middle of
the 19th century, a kingdom ruled by the Oorlam but partly Herero and
supported by the Red Nation and Damara was established near Windhoek by
the Oorlam chief Jonker Afrikaner.
Central Namibia was then an area of conflict between the
southward-moving Herero and the northward-migrating Nama. In 1870 a
peace treaty was signed with the Germans on the border of Herero
country. Meanwhile, largely as a result of war pressures, Maherero had
emerged as the Herero paramount chief. At this time a South African
Creole (“Coloured”) community, the Rehoboth Basters, had immigrated to a
territory south of Windhoek, where they served as a buffer between the
Herero and the Germans. Like the Oorlam, they were Europeanized in
military technology as well as civil society and state organization,
which were copied from the Afrikaners.
The German conquest
In the 1870s, British annexation of Namibia appeared imminent. A
treaty with the Herero and the raising of the British flag over Walvis
Bay were seen as forerunners of the northward expansion of the Cape
Colony. However, London proved reluctant to take on added costs in an
apparently valueless area, and the way was left open to German colonial
annexation as South West Africa in the 1880s. The acquisitions, by
exceedingly dubious “treaties” and more naked theft, did not go
smoothly, despite the employment of so-called “divide and rule” tactics
within and between peoples. The first major resistance—by the Herero in
1885—forced the Germans back to Walvis Bay until British troops were
By the turn of the century, German settlers had arrived, copper was
minable, railway building from Swakopmund and Lüderitz was under way,
and diamonds were soon discovered near Lüderitz. But from 1904 to 1907 a
great war of resistance broke out, nearly expelling the Germans before
it was quelled with extreme savagery by tactics including extermination,
hangings, and forced detention in concentration camps.
The first phase of the war was fought between the Germans and the
Herero (with a single Ovambo battle at Fort Namutoni near the Etosha
Pan). It reached a climax when General Lother van Trotha defeated the
main Herero army at the Battle of Waterburg and, taking no prisoners,
drove them into the Kalahari, where most died. By 1910 the loss of life
by hanging, battle, or starvation and thirst—plus the escape of a few to
the Bechuanaland protectorate—had reduced the Herero people by about 90
percent (80–85 percent dead, 5–10 percent in exile). The Nama resistance
war came late because a key letter from Maherero’s son and successor,
Samuel Maherero, to the Oorlam chief Hendrik Witbooi that proposed joint
action had been intercepted. The resistance was finally crushed in 1907,
and Nama survivors were herded into concentration camps. War,
starvation, and conditions in the camps claimed the lives of two-thirds
of the Nama.
The Germans allocated about half of the usable—and apparently all of
the best—ranchland (except that of the Rehoboth Basters) to settlers and
restricted Africans to reserves. The Tsumeb copper and zinc mines opened
in 1906, and diamond mining (more accurately, sand sifting) began near
Lüderitz in 1908 and at the main fields at the mouth of the Orange River
(Oranjemund) a few years later. Railways linked Lüderitz, Keetmanshoop,
and Windhoek as well as Swakopmund, Windhoek, and Tsumeb.
German direct rule never extended to the north. The “red line”—now a
quarantine boundary—delimited the Police Zone from the Ovambo and
Kavango areas. In the latter, the near extinction of elephants, a
rinderpest epidemic, and the rising consumption habits of the kings led
to a migration of single male contract labourers to work in the mines
and ranches and in construction. The “contract labour system”—which was
to provide the cheap labour for the colonial economy and later provided
the national communication and solidarity links to build the liberation
movements of 1960–90—had begun.
The Boer conquest
In 1914–15 South African troops invaded and captured South West
Africa as part of the World War I conquest of the German colonies in
Africa. Except for diamond mines, most property—including Tsumeb—found
its way back into German hands. The rising De Beers colossus bought
Oranjemund and the balance of the diamond-producing area to bolster its
world domination; it was used as a market-balancing mine (that is, its
production was varied to control the price of diamonds, and it was
totally closed for more than two years in the 1930s), a role it played
into the 1980s. Afrikaner settlers were encouraged to come to South West
Africa for security reasons—to hold the inhabitants in check—at least as
much as for economic reasons.
The League of Nations awarded a Class C mandate (meaning no real
targets for development of the people toward independence were intended)
to the crown of Great Britain to be exercised by the Union of South
Africa authorities. That “sacred trust” was read as justifying
settlement, greater exploitation, and no rights for black (and precious
few for Coloured) Africans, plus a creeping annexation into South Africa
as a “fifth province.” The rail system was extended to Walvis Bay (the
one good natural port) and south to the South African border and to Cape
Town to tie South West Africa’s economy to South Africa’s on both the
import and export sides.
South Africa extended direct rule to the Kunene and Okavango
rivers—parallel to a Portuguese push south to the Angola-Namibia border.
Resistance there and elsewhere in South West Africa flared into violence
repeatedly until the 1930s, while trade union organizing and political
as well as economic resistance began in the 1920s. Until 1945 South West
Africa was not a productive colony—cattle and karakul were in
oversupply, diamond output was held low, and export prices for base
metals were not attractive. Governance, security, and settler survival
all had to be financed in large part from Pretoria.
The political economy of a colonial boom
From 1945 the economy of South West Africa grew rapidly, reaching a
peak of more than $1,000 per capita ($20,000 for Europeans and $150 for
black Namibians) in the late 1970s. The pillars were base metal
expansion at better prices and sharply increased output and prices for
cattle (largely in South Africa), karakul (via South Africa to the
European–North American fur market), and diamonds. Fourfold growth in
world demand after World War II led to increases in output at De Beers’
diamond mines. In addition, the fish catch (largely for fish meal and
canned pilchards) exploded to 1,102,000 short (U.S.) tons (1,000,000
metric tons)—a level that laid the groundwork for the present stock
depletion and conservation problems.
The European enclave boomed. The situation was quite different for
the other 90 percent of the people. Rising population was eroding
productive capacity—per capita and absolutely by ecological damage—in
African areas. Until the late 1970s, contract labour paid only enough to
support a single person at subsistence level. Black nurses, teachers,
and secretaries, as well as semiskilled workers, began to be trained and
employed on a significant scale only in the mid-1970s. Land
reallocations increased contract labour. A body called the Odendaal
Commission organized separate development, which led to the creation of
“homeland” authorities that benefited a new black elite (as in the 1980s
did government wages and salaries for teachers, nurses, and black-area
administrators and troops and a wage increase by large employers in
mining and finance). A rising proportion of black Namibians—two-thirds
by the late 1980s—was left in abject poverty. Further, contract labour
eroded the social and civil structures, giving rise to numerous and
usually very poor female-headed households in the “homelands” and the
From resistance to liberation struggle
From 1947, Namibians (initially via intermediaries) had begun to
petition the United Nations (UN) against South African rule. A series of
cases before the International Court of Justice (World Court)—the last,
in 1971, declaring the mandate forfeiture by the United Nations in 1966
to be valid—led to a de jure UN assumption of sovereignty and de facto
support via publicity, negotiation, and training for Namibian
In South West Africa the churches (numbering at least 80 percent of
black Namibians in their membership) took an early lead in petitioning
the UN and South Africa and created a climate of black social and civil
opinion favourable to the liberation struggle; they were slow, however,
to endorse its armed phase. From the 1950s to the ’70s the churches had
become increasingly national in staff and outlook, in some cases after
severe conflicts with the overseas “parent” bodies and local
Black trade union activity (illegal until the mid-1980s) began to
revive as well and focused rather more on political than on economic
mobilization. The major strike of 1971–72 was against contract labour,
the implementation of apartheid, and the 1966 failure of the initial
World Court case as much as it was for wage increases per se.
From 1958 to 1960 the political focus turned from resistance to
liberation, and leadership passed from traditional chiefs to party
leaders. SWAPO (nominally South West Africa People’s Organization,
although only the acronym has been used since 1980) was founded as the
Ovamboland People’s Organization in 1958; it achieved a national
following as SWAPO in 1960. In 1959 SWANU (South West Africa National
Union) was formed, largely by Herero intellectuals. Within a decade,
SWAPO had become the dominant party and had grown beyond its Ovambo
roots. The presence of Ovambo throughout the nation due to contract
labour was used to forge a national communication system and mobilizing
The parties had been formed because petitioning seemed ineffective.
The forced removal (with violence and deaths) of black Namibians from
the Old Location in Windhoek to the outlying township of Katatura
(sometimes translated as “The Place We Do Want to Be”) was perhaps the
key catalytic event. Until 1966 the parties sought—in the face of
increasing repression—to press for redress of grievances from South
Africa and via the United Nations. Indeed, until the 1970s the armed
struggle, then largely across the border from Zambia, was only a minor
nuisance to South Africa.
The 1971–72 strike marked a turning point in terms of national
solidarity and nationwide participation in the struggle. It greatly
alarmed South Africa; a rising crescendo of trials and summary
imprisonment and torture was pursued, though this process had already
begun when Herman Toivo ja Toivo and most other SWAPO leaders not
already in exile were tried for terrorism and imprisoned on Robben
Island in 1968. From 1969 SWAPO had operated along almost all of the
northern border—an operation that was easier after Angolan independence
in 1975—and in the north-central farming areas around Grootfontein.
Although set back by an internal leadership crisis and division among
fighting cadres in 1976, the armed struggle had become militarily
damaging and economically costly to South Africa by the end of the
The road to Namibia
From 1977 through 1988 the economy of Namibia stagnated overall and
fell by more than 3 percent per year per capita. Five factors influenced
this: six years of drought, decline in fishing yields (because of
overfishing), serious worsening of import-export price ratios, the slow
growth and mismanagement of the South African economy, and the impact of
the war on the budget and on both domestic and foreign investor
confidence. For white residents, real incomes (except in ranching)
stagnated or rose slowly; for blacks, they rose for perhaps one-sixth of
households in wage employment with government or large enterprises and
declined rapidly for others, especially for residents of the northern
“operational area” (war zone).
For South Africa, Namibia turned from an economic asset to a
millstone (with a war bill by the late 1980s on the order of $1 billion
a year—comparable to Namibia’s gross domestic product). Capital stock
was run down, and output of all major products—beef, karakul, fish, base
metals, uranium oxide, and diamonds—fell.
On the domestic side a long series of South African attempts to build
up pro-South African parties with substantial black support failed even
when trade unions were legalized, wages raised, and petty apartheid laws
(including abolition of the contract labour and residence restrictions)
relaxed. Indeed, after the failure of the alliance between moderate
black Bishop Abel Muzorewa and white Prime Minister Ian Smith in the
Zimbabwe independence elections, South Africa’s internal political
maneuvers looked increasingly desperate and lacking in conviction.
Internationally and militarily, decline was slower and less apparent.
While the UN Security Council had passed resolutions (notably resolution
435) demanding independence for Namibia, South Africa skillfully and
repeatedly protracted negotiations and played on U.S. fears of communism
and paranoia about Cuba (whose troops had defeated the 1975 South
African invasion of Angola and remained there to augment the defense
against South Africa and its Angolan allies or proxies).
Through 1986 about 2,500 South African soldiers had died, a figure
proportionally higher per capita than the U.S. death toll in the Vietnam
War. However, the South African government skillfully disguised the high
casualty rate as well as the fiscal burden of the Namibian occupation
and policy in Angola. The war, like the negotiations, appeared
The turning point came in 1988. South Africa’s invasion of Angola was
defeated near Cuito-Cuanavale, air control was lost, and the Western
Front defenses were tumbled back to the border (by a force consisting
largely of units of SWAPO’s People’s Liberation Army of Namibia [PLAN]
under Angolan command). By June South Africa had to negotiate a total
withdrawal from Angola to avoid a military disaster, and by the end of
December it had negotiated a UN-supervised transition to elections, a
new constitution, and independence for Namibia.
Reginald Herbold Green
The United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) opened
operations in April 1989. After a disastrous start—in which South
African forces massacred PLAN forces seeking to report to UNTAG to be
confined to designated areas—UNTAG slowly gained control over the
registration and electoral process in most areas.
The election of 1989, held under the auspices of the UN, gave SWAPO
57 percent of the vote and 60 percent of the seats. Sam Nujoma, the
longtime leader of SWAPO, became president. With two-thirds majorities
needed to draft and adopt a constitution, some measure of reconciliation
was necessary to avoid deadlock. In fact, SWAPO and the business
community—as well as many settlers—wanted a climate of national
reconciliation in order to achieve a relatively peaceful initial
As a result, a constitution emphasizing human, civil, and property
rights was adopted unanimously by the end of 1990, and reconciliation
with settlers and (to a degree) with South Africa became the dominant
mood. For the new government, the costs of reconciliation included
retaining about 15,000 unneeded white civil servants, deferring the
landownership and mineral-company terms issues, and offering de facto
amnesty for all pre-independence acts of violence (including those of
SWAPO against suspected spies and dissidents in Angola in the late
1980s). The benefits were the takeover of a functioning public
administration and economy (with growth rising to 3 percent in 1990) and
grudging but real South African cooperation on fishing and use of Walvis
Bay. Above all, South Africa forebore from mounting destabilization
measures or creating proxy armed forces.
On March 21, 1990, the South African flag was lowered and Namibia’s
raised at the National Stadium; Namibia subsequently joined the
Commonwealth, the UN, and the Organization of African Unity (now the
African Union). Diplomatic relations were established with many
countries. The Namibian Defense Force—which included members of PLAN as
well as the former South West African Territory Force—was created with
the assistance of British military advisers.
South Africa agreed to a transition to Namibian sovereignty over
Walvis Bay, which was effected in 1994. It also agreed to a revised
boundary along the Orange River, giving Namibia riparian rights; the
earlier border had been placed on the north bank and thus left Namibia
without water rights. Namibia remained a member of the Southern African
The political climate was calm. The main opposition party, the
Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (heir to South Africa’s puppet government
efforts and beneficiary of considerable South African funds for campaign
financing), held almost one-third of the seats in the legislature but
was neither particularly constructive nor totally obstructive. In the
1994 national elections, SWAPO consolidated its hold on power,
surpassing the two-thirds majority needed to revise the
constitution—which it did in 1998, passing an amendment that allowed
President Nujoma to run for a third term. Despite widespread disapproval
of the amendment, Nujoma was easily reelected in 1999.
SWAPO maintained its hold on power in the country’s 1999 elections,
in the face of allegations from the opposition—now headed by a SWAPO
splinter party, the Congress of Democrats—that the government was
engaging in authoritarian practices. Opponents also questioned the
government’s 1998 decision to dispatch troops to the Democratic Republic
of the Congo to support the government of Congolese President Laurent
Kabila during that country’s civil war. The government generated even
greater controversy in 1999 when it granted the Angolan government
permission to pursue Angolan rebels into Namibian territory, leading to
unrest along the border that did not subside until 2002.
At the beginning of the 21st century and after its first decade of
independence, Namibia stood apart from many other African countries as a
model of political and economic stability. Nevertheless, the country
still had serious matters to address. As in much of Africa, the spread
of AIDS was a concern: by 2000 one in five adult Namibians was infected.
Another issue at the forefront was land reform—the government program of
purchasing farmland owned by the white minority and redistributing it to
the historically disadvantaged and landless black Namibians. The
controversy surrounding land reform continued to escalate in the first
decade of the new century as the slow progress of the program frustrated
many, and the threat of forcible seizures of farmland loomed.
The new millennium also saw the democratic transfer of power in the
country. After leading Namibia since the country’s independence, Nujoma
stepped down from office at the end of his third term. Fellow SWAPO
member Hifikepunye Pohamba prevailed in the 2004 presidential elections
and was inaugurated the next year.
Reginald Herbold Green