The Republic of Namibia is located in southwest Africa, astride the Tropic of Capricorn and beside the South Atlantic Ocean. Its main borders are with South Africa, Botswana, and Angola, though it also adjoins Zambia.
Consider Namibia as falling into three distinct topographical areas. Inland a 2,000m-high central plateau runs north to south down the spine of the country. This is hilly, verdant country where most of Namibia’s best farmland is concentrated.
To the west of this plateau, the land drops off a dramatic escarpment to the Namib Desert, which stretches for 1,600km beside the Atlantic Ocean. This narrow coastal strip of gravel flats, isolated mountains and sand-dunes is one of the world’s oldest and most interesting deserts.
On the eastern side of the plateau, the land gently descends to the great sand-sheet of the Kalahari Desert, which lies at about 1,000m and merges into Botswana. This is rolling country with vegetated sand-dunes.
Namibia is very large country, covering about 824,292km²: much larger than Kenya, and more than twice the size of Zimbabwe. In Western terms, Namibia is more than a third larger than the UK and Germany combined, or twice the size of California.
Namibia has a sub-tropical desert climate. Rainfall occurs in the hottest season, generally from December to March, and can be heavy in northern Namibia. The further south or west you go, the drier it gets, with many southern regions of the Kalahari and the whole of the coastal Namib Desert receiving no rainfall at all some years. In this ‘rainy season’ temperatures occasionally reach 40ºC, and it can be humid in the north.
From April to September, in the ‘dry season’, it is generally cool, pleasant, clear and dry. Temperatures average around 25ºC during the day, but nights are much colder. Frost is possible in the higher areas and the deserts. October and November are still within the ‘dry season’, but then the temperatures are higher, especially in the lower-lying and more northerly areas.
Despite its aridity, Namibia is full of fascinating wildlife. Its national parks and concession areas have protected their flora and fauna effectively and offer some superb big game, far from the tourist hordes in more conventional safari countries. Namibia has been the most successful country in the world at protecting its black rhino population, and has Africa’s largest population of cheetahs.
Because the Namib is one of the world’s oldest deserts, the extraordinary way that plants, animals, and even human populations have adapted and evolved in order to survive here is fascinating. There are many endemic species; animals and plants not found anywhere else. From beetles and birds to big game like the famous ‘desert elephants’ and strange welwitschia plants – Namibia has unique and varied wildlife.
Namibia has rich deposits of diamonds, uranium and other minerals that are already being extracted extensively. There are also plans to tap into the Kudu gas field, in the South Atlantic Ocean off Namibia’s southern coast.
Namibia’s populations, estimated in 1996, was 1,677,000. At its present rate of growth, it will double in size in about 23 years. There are 11 main ethnic groups, of which the largest are the Owambos who make up half the country’s population. The population is densest in the north (near the Angolan border), where rainfall is heaviest.
Namibia’s doctor/patient ratio is one of the best in Africa, with one doctor for every 3,650 people. There are about five beds per 1,000 people, which is the third best ratio in Africa. For visitors with health insurance, there are several first-class private hospitals and an efficient company, MediRescue, which provides emergency air evacuations from the rural areas.
Literacy is estimated at about 40%. Since independence, the government has poured resources into an expansion of the education system, and at present about 89% of children (aged 6–16) attend school. There are small primary schools in the most rural of areas and large secondary schools in the regional centres. To help with this expansion, many foreign teachers came to Namibia with the help of NGOs and overseas aid agencies.
English is the official language and is taught throughout the education system, though Afrikaans is still the lingua franca amongst many of the older generation. The main ethnic languages fall into the Bantu and Khoisan language groups. Most black Namibians will also speak one or more African languages, whilst many white Namibians (especially those in the commercial farming communities) regard German as their first language.
Some 80–90% of the population follow a Christian religion. Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches are all common. However, most people will also subscribe to some traditional African religious practices and beliefs.
For thousands of years Namibia had been the preserve of Khoisan peoples who first hunted and gathered. Later, within the last two millennia, they also kept some livestock. Less than 500 years ago the first Bantu-speaking people arrived, originating from further north in Africa. They depended upon cattle and used iron-age technology.
By the early 1800s friction was developing between these groups, which was severely compounded by the arrival of missionaries, traders and colonists. By the late 1800s there was strong competition for the best land and resources. Germany claimed this land as their colony, German South West Africa, in 1884. They crushed local resistance and German colonists arrived. In 1915, because of World War I, the Germans surrendered to South African forces.
At the end of the war, South Africa received a League of Nations mandate to administer the territory, which it called South West Africa. Despite a UN vote (Resolution 435) to revoke the mandate in 1978, and increasing military pressure by the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) against the occupying South African troops, South Africa held on to the territory for a further ten years. Following extensive talks in 1988, UN Resolution 435 was implemented, and Namibia became independent on March 21 1990.
Mining is the mainstay of the economy, accounting for about 25% of Namibia’s GDP. There are important reserves of uranium, lead, zinc, tin, silver, copper and tungsten as well as very rich deposits of alluvial diamonds. Fishing, agriculture and tourism also play important roles in the formal economy, whilst about 60% of the workforce works in agriculture. The country’s commercial agriculture is limited by water, while large sections of wetter northern regions are already farmed intensively by subsistence farmers. Economically Namibia remains dependent on South Africa; its other main trading partners are Germany, Switzerland and the UK.
Rates of Exchange in June 1998:
£1 = N$8.20 (Namibian dollars) = R8.20 (South African rand).
US$1 = N$5.13 (Namibian dollars) = R5.13 (South African rand).
Namibia changed its currency in September 1993, from the South African rand to the Namibian dollar. However, this has remained pegged at exactly the same value as the rand. Namibian dollars and rand are interchangeable in Namibia, whilst in South Africa you must change the dollars at a bank, and may be charged a small premium for doing so.
The Republic of Namibia’s modern constitution, adopted on independence in 1990, was hailed as one of the world’s most democratic. Its entrenched Bill of Rights provides for freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion. It also set up a bicameral Westminster-style parliament, with a strong executive and independent judiciary.
General elections for the first House of Parliament, the National Assembly, are held every five years. The members of the second House of Parliament, the National Council, are drawn from 13 Regional Councils, which are elected every six years. The constitution limits the president to a maximum of two terms of office.
In December 1994, the incumbent president, Sam Nujoma, was re-elected to a second five-year term of office. He heads a multi-party government in which his party, SWAPO, has 53 of the 72 elected seats in the National Assembly. The main opposition party is the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), which has the majority of the remaining seats.
Tourism to Namibia remains small-scale, but has been growing steadily by about 15% per year since 1993. Statistics for arrivals from overseas in 1997 indicate about 28,000 visitors from the UK, 14,000 from the USA, and 80,000 from Germany. Namibia has tremendous potential for sustained growth in tourism, provided the increases are steady and well managed.
Namibia’s main attractions for visitors are stunning scenery, pristine wilderness areas and first-class wildlife. As long as the country remains safe and its wilderness areas are maintained – then the country’s potential for quality tourism is unrivalled in Africa. Already tourism is a powerful earner of foreign exchange and a vital support for numerous local community development schemes.
History and Economy
Namibia’s earliest inhabitants
Palaeontologists looking for evidence of the first ancestors of the human race have excavated a number of sites in southern Africa. The earliest remains yet identified are stone-age tools dated at about 200,000 years old, which have been recovered in gravel deposits around what is now the Victoria Falls. It is thought that these probably belong to homo erectus, whose hand-axes have been dated in Tanzania to half a million years old. These were hunter-gatherer people, who could use fire, make tools, and had probably developed some simple speech.
Experts divide the stone age into the middle, early, and late stone ages. The transition from early to middle stone-age technology – which is indicated by a larger range of stone tools often adapted for particular uses, and signs that these people had a greater mastery of their environment – was probably in progress around 125,000 years ago in southern Africa.
The late stone age is characterised by people who used composite tools, those made of wood and/or bone and/or stone used together, and by the presence of a revolutionary invention: the bow and arrow. This first probably appeared about 15,000 years ago, by which time the original Namibians were already roaming the plains of Damaraland and painting on the rocks at Twyfelfontein.
Africa’s iron age
Around 3000bc, late stone-age hunter-gatherer groups in Ethiopia, and elsewhere in north and west Africa, started to keep domestic animals, sow seeds, and harvest the produce: they became the world’s first farmers.
By around 1000bc these new pastoral practices had spread south into the equatorial forests of what is now Congo, to around Lake Victoria, and into the northern area of the Great Rift Valley, in northern Tanzania. However, agriculture did not spread south into the rest of central/southern Africa immediately. Only when the technology, and the tools, of iron-working became known did the practices start their relentless expansion southwards.
The spread of agriculture and iron-age culture seems to have been a rapid move. It was brought south by Bantu-speaking Africans who were taller and heavier than the existing Khoisan-speaking inhabitants of southern Africa.
By around the time of Christ, the hunter-gatherers in Namibia seem to have been joined by pastoralists, the Khoi-khoi (or Nama people), who used a similar language involving clicks. Both belong to the Khoisan language family, as distinct from the Bantu language family. These were pastoralists who combined keeping sheep, goats and cattle with foraging.
These stock animals are not native to southern Africa and it seems likely that some Khoisan hunters and gatherers acquired stock, and the expertise to keep them, from early Bantu tribes in the Zimbabwe area. As the Bantu spread south, into the relatively fertile Natal area, the Khoisan pastoralists spread west, across the Kalahari into Namibia. Their traditional gathering knowledge, and ability to survive on existing plant foods, meant that they didn’t depend entirely on their stock. Hence they could expand across areas of poor grazing which would have defeated the less flexible Bantu.
By around the 9th century another group, the Damara, are recognised as living in Namibia and speaking a Khoisan language. They cultivated more than the Nama, and hence were more settled. Their precise origin is hotly debated, as they have many features common to people of Bantu origin and yet speak a Khoisan language.
The first Bantu people
By the 16th century the first of the Bantu-speaking peoples arrived from the east, the Herero people. Oral tradition suggests that they came south from East Africa’s great lakes to Zambia, across Angola, arriving at the Kunene River around 1550. However they got here, they settled with their cattle in the north of the country and the plains of the Kaokoveld. (Note that the Himba people living in the Kaokoveld today are a sub-group of the Herero, speaking the same language.)
Where the Herero settled, the existing people clearly had to change. Some intermarried with the incoming groups; some may even have been enslaved by the newcomers. A few could shift their lifestyles to take advantage of new opportunities created by the Herero, and an unfortunate fourth group (the Bushmen of the time) started to become marginalised, remaining in areas with less agricultural potential. This was the start of a poor relationship between the cattle-herding Herero and the Bushmen.
These iron-working, cattle-herding Herero people were very successful, and as they thrived, so they began to expand their herds southwards and into central Namibia.
The early explorers
Meanwhile, in the 15th century, trade between Europe and the East opened up sea routes along the Namibian coast and around the Cape of Good Hope. The first Europeans recorded as stepping on Namibian soil were the Portuguese in 1485. Diego Cão stopped briefly at Cape Cross on the Skeleton Coast and erected a limestone cross. On December 8 1487, Bartholomeu Diaz reached Walvis Bay and then continued south to what is now Lüderitz. However, the coast was so totally barren and uninviting that even though the Portuguese had already settled in Angola, and the Dutch in the Cape, little interest was shown in Namibia.
It was only in the latter half of the 18th century when British, French and American whalers began to make use of the ports of Lüderitz and Walvis Bay, that the Dutch authorities in the Cape decided in 1793 to take possession of Walvis Bay – the only good deepwater port on the coast. A few years later, France invaded Holland, prompting England to seize control of the Cape Colony and, with it, Walvis Bay.
Even then, little was known about the interior. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that explorers, missionaries and traders started to venture inland, with Francis Galton and Charles John Andersson leading the way.
By the latter half of the 18th century, the Dutch settlers in the Cape of South Africa were not only expanding rapidly into the interior, but they were also effectively waging war on any of the indigenous people who stood in their way. In Africa: A Biography of a Continent, Reader (see Further Reading) comments:
‘Khoisan resistance hardened as the frontier advanced during the 18th century. [The] Government [of the Cape’s] edicts empowered [commando groups of settlers]... to wage war against all the region’s Khoisan, who were now to be regarded as vermin. Slaughter was widespread. Official records show that commandos killed 503 Khoisan in 1774 alone, and 2,480 between 1786 and 1795. The number of killings that passed unrecorded can only be guessed at.’
By 1793 the settler population in the Cape totalled 13,830 people, who between them owned 14,747 slaves.
With this pressure from the south, it is no wonder that mobile, dispossessed bands of Khoisan, known as Oorlam groups, pressed northwards over the Orange River and into southern Namibia. They often had guns and horses, and had learned some of the European’s ways. However, they still spoke a Khoisan language, and were of the same origins as the Nama pastoralists who had already settled in southern Namibia.
At that time, the Nama in southern Namibia seem to have been settled into a life of relatively peaceful, pastoral coexistence. Thus the arrival of a few Oorlam groups was not a problem. However, around the start of the 19th century more Oorlams came, putting more pressure on the land, and soon regular skirmishes were a feature of the area.
In 1840 the increasingly unsettled situation was calmed by an agreement between the two paramount chiefs: Chief Oaseb of the Nama, and Jonker Afrikaner of the Oorlam people. There was already much intermingling of the two groups, and so accommodating each other made sense – especially given the expansion of Herero groups further north.
The deal split the lands of Southern Namibia between the various Nama and Oorlam groups, whilst giving the land between the Kuiseb and the Swakop rivers to the Oorlams. Further, Jonker Afrikaner was given rights over the people north of the Kuiseb, up to Waterberg.
The Oorlam people
Originating from the Cape, the Oorlam people were a variety of different groups, all speaking Khoisan languages, who left the Cape because of European expansion there. Some were outlaws, others wanted space far from the Europeans. Many broke away from fixed Nama settlements to join roving Oorlam bands, led by kapteins – groups which would hunt, trade, and steal for survival.
By around the middle of the 18th century, the Herero people had expanded beyond Kaokoland, spreading at least as far south as the Swakop River. Their expansion south was now effectively blocked by Oorlam groups, led by Jonker Afrikaner, who won several decisive battles against Herero people around 1835 – resulting in his Afrikaner followers stealing many Herero cattle, and becoming the dominant power in central Namibia. From 1840, Jonker Afrikaner and his Oorlam followers created a buffer zone between the Hereros expanding from the north, and the relatively stable Nama groups in the south.
In the early 1800s, missionaries were gradually moving into southern Namibia. The London Missionary Society and the German Rhenish and Finnish Lutheran Mission Societies were all represented. These were important for several reasons. Firstly, they tended to settle in one place, which became the nucleus around which the local Nama people would permanently settle. Often the missionaries would introduce the local people to different ways of cultivation: a further influence to settle in permanent villages, which gradually became larger.
Secondly, they acted as a focal point for traders, who would navigate through the territory from one mission to the next. This effectively set up Namibia’s first trade routes – routes that soon became conduits for the local Nama groups to obtain European goods, from guns and ammunition to alcohol. It seems that the missionaries sometimes provided firearms directly to the local people for protection. Whilst understandable, the net effect was that the whole area became a more dangerous place.
In 1811 Schmelen founded Bethanie, and more missions followed. By December 1842, Rhenish missionaries were established where Windhoek now stands, surrounded by about 1,000 of Jonker Afrikaner’s followers. The settlement soon started trading with the coast, and within a few years there was a steady supply of guns arriving.
In 1861 Jonker Afrikaner died, whilst returning from a raid he had mounted on the Owambo people (a group of Bantu origin who had settled in the far north of the country and displaced some of the Hereros). Jonker’s death left a power vacuum in central Namibia.
There were many skirmishes for control during the rest of the 1860s, and much politicking and switching of alliances between the rival Nama groups (some of Oorlam descent). The main protagonists included the Witboois from around Gibeon, the Afrikaners based in Windhoek, the Swartboois, the Blondelswarts, the Topnaar and the Red Nation.
By around 1850 many hunters and traders were penetrating Namibia’s interior, in search of adventure and profit – usually in the form of ivory and ostrich feathers. Amongst these, Charles John Andersson was particularly important, both for his own role in shaping events, and also for the clear documentation that he left behind, including the fascinating books Lake Ngami and The River Okavango (see Further Reading) – chronicling his great journeys of the late 1850s.
In 1860 he bought up the assets of a mining company, and set up a centre for trading at Otjimbingwe, a very strategic position on the Swakop River, half-way between Walvis Bay and Windhoek. (Now it is at the crossroads of the D1953 and the D1976.) In the early 1860s he traded with the Nama groups in the area, and started to open up routes into the Herero lands further north and east. However, after losing cattle to a Nama raid in 1861, he recruited hunters (some the contemporary equivalent of mercenaries) to expand his operations and protect his interests.
In 1863 the eldest son of Jonker Afrikaner led a foolish raid on Otjimbingwe. He was defeated and killed by Andersson’s men, adding to the leadership crisis amongst the Nama groups. By 1864 Andersson had formed an alliance with the paramount Herero chief, Kamaherero, and together they led a large army into battle with the Afrikaner Namas at Windhoek. This was indecisive, but did clearly mark the end of Nama domination of central Namibia, as well as inflicting a wound on Andersson from which he never fully recovered.
The peace of 1870
During the later 1860s the centre of Namibia was often in a state of conflict. The Hereros under Kamaherero were vying for control with the various Nama clans, as Charles Andersson and his traders became increasingly important by forming and breaking alliances with them all.
After several defeats, the Nama kaptein Jan Jonker led an army of Afrikaners to Okahandja in 1870 to make a peace with Kamaherero. This was brokered by the German Wesleyan missionary Hugo Hahn – who had arrived in Windhoek in 1844, but been replaced swiftly after Jonker Afrikaner had complained about him, and requested his replacement by his missionary superiors.
This treaty effectively subdued the Afrikaners, and Hahn also included a provision for the Basters, who had migrated recently from the Cape, to settle at Rehoboth. The Afrikaners were forced to abandon Windhoek, and Herero groups occupied the area. Thus the Basters around Rehoboth effectively became the buffer between the Herero groups to the north, and the Namas to the south.
The 1870s was a relatively peaceful era, which enabled the missionaries and, especially, the various traders to extend their influence throughout the centre of the country. This most affected the Nama groups in the south, who began to trade more and more with the Cape. Guns, alcohol, coffee, sugar, beads, materials and much else flowed in. To finance these imports, local Nama chiefs and kapteins charged traders and hunters to cross their territory, and granted them licences to exploit the wildlife.
The Hereros, too, traded; but mainly for guns. Their social system valued cattle most highly, and so breeding bigger herds meant more to them than the new Western goods. Thus they emerged into the 1880s stronger than before, whilst the power of many of the Nama groups had waned.