Facts and Figures

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The scramble for Africa

In the last few decades of the 19th century the Portuguese, the British, the French, and Leopold II of Belgium were starting to embark on the famous ‘Scramble for Africa’. Germany had long eschewed the creation of colonies, and Bismarck is widely quoted as stating: ‘So long as I am Chancellor we shan’t pursue a colonial policy.’

However, in March 1878 the English government of South Africa’s Cape formally annexed an enclave around Walvis Bay. (The British had been asked earlier by missionaries to help instil order in the heartland of Namibia, but they didn’t feel that it was worth the effort.)

In late 1883 a German merchant called Adolf Lüderitz started to buy land on the coast. He established the town named Lüderitzbucht – usually referred to now as Lüderitz – and began trading with the local Nama groups. (It was news of this act that was said to have finally prompted Britain to make Bechuanaland a protectorate.)

Faced with much internal pressure, Bismarck reversed his policy in May 1884. He dispatched a gunboat to Lüderitz and in July claimed Togo and Cameroon as colonies. By August Britain had agreed to Germany’s claims on Lüderitz, from which sprang the German colony of South West Africa. Lüderitz itself was bought out a few years later by the newly formed German Colonial Company for South West Africa, and shortly after that the administration of the area was transferred directly to Germany’s control.

In May 1884, Portugal proposed an international conference to address the territorial conflicts of the colonial powers in the Congo. This was convened in Berlin, with no Africans present, and over the next few years the colonial powers parcelled Africa up and split it between them. Amongst many territorial dealings, mostly involving pen-and-ruler decisions on the map of Africa, a clearly defined border between Britain’s new protectorate of Bechuanaland and Germany’s South West Africa was established in 1890 – and Britain ceded a narrow corridor of land to Germany. This was subsequently named after the German Chancellor, Count von Caprivi, as the Caprivi Strip.

German South West Africa

After a decade of relative peace, the 1880s brought problems to central Namibia again, with fighting between the Hereros, the Basters, and various Nama groups, notably the Afrikaners and the Swartboois. However, with German annexation in 1884 a new power had arrived. For the first five years, the official German presence in South West Africa was limited to a few officials stationed at Otjimbingwe. However, they had began the standard colonial tactic of exploiting small conflicts by encouraging the local leaders to sign ‘protection’ treaties with Germany.

The Hereros, under chief Maherero, signed in 1885, after which the German Commissioner Göring wrote to Hendrik Witbooi – the leader of the Witbooi Namas who occupied territory from Gibeon to Gobabis – insisting that he desist from attacking the Hereros, who were now under German protection. Witbooi wrote to Maherero, to dissuade him from making a ‘pact with the devil’ – he was, perhaps, ahead of his time in seeing this German move as an opening gambit in their bid for total control of Namibia.

In 1889 the first 21 German soldiers, Schutztruppe, arrived. More followed in 1890, by which time they had established a fort in Windhoek. That same year Maherero died, which enabled the German authorities to increase their influence in the internal politics of succession which brought Samuel Maherero to be paramount chief of the Herero. By 1892 the first contingent of settlers (over 50 people) had made their homes in Windhoek.

A fair trade?

The 1890s and early 1900s saw a gradual erosion of the power and wealth of all Namibia’s existing main groups, in favour of the Germans. Gradually traders and adventurers bought more and more land from both Nama and the Herero, aided by credit-in-advance agreements. A rinderpest outbreak in 1897 decimated the Herero’s herds, and land sales were the obvious way to repay their debts. Gradually the Herero lost their lands and tension grew. The Rhenish Missionary Society saw the evil, and pressurised the German government to create areas where the Herero could not sell their land. Small enclaves were thus established, but these didn’t address the wider issues.

The 20th century

Namibian war of resistance 1904–7

As land was progressively bought up, or sometimes simply taken from the local inhabitants by colonists, various skirmishes and small uprisings developed. The largest started in October 1903 with the Blondelswarts near Warmbad, which distracted most of the German Schutztruppe in the south. See Further Reading for details of Mark Cocker’s excellent Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold which gives a full account of this war.

The Herero nation had become increasingly unhappy about its loss of land, and in January 1904 Samuel Maherero ordered a Herero uprising against the German colonial forces. Initially he was clear to exclude as targets Boer and English settlers and German women and children. Simultaneously he appealed to Hendrik Witbooi, and other Nama leaders, to join battle – they, however, stayed out of the fight.

Initially the Hereros had success in taking many German farms and smaller outposts, and in severing the railway line between Swakopmund and Windhoek. However, later in 1904, the German General Leutwein was replaced by von Trotha – who had a reputation for brutal oppression after his time in East Africa. Backed by domestic German opinion demanding a swift resolution, von Trotha led a large German force including heavy artillery against the Hereros. By August 1904 the Hereros were pushed back to their stronghold of Waterberg, with its permanent water-holes. On 11 August, the Germans attacked, and the battle raged all day. Though not decisive, the Hereros’ spirit was beaten by the superior firepower and they fled east, into the Kalahari. Many perished. Sources conflict about exactly how many Hereros lost their lives, but the battle at Waterberg certainly broke their resistance to the Germans.

Thereafter, somewhat late to be effective, Hendrik Witbooi’s people also revolted against the Germans, and wrote encouraging the other Nama groups to do the same. The Red Nation, Topnaar, Swartbooi and Blondelswarts joined in attacking the Germans, though the latter were largely incapacitated after their battles the previous year. The Basters stayed out of the fight.

For several years these Nama groups waged an effective guerrilla campaign against the colonial forces, using the waterless sands of the Kalahari as a haven in which the German troops were ineffective. However, in 1905 Hendrik Witbooi was killed, and January 1907 saw the last fighters sue for peace.

German consolidation

With South West Africa under stable German control, there was an influx of German settler families and the colony began to develop rapidly. The settlers were given large plots of the country’s most productive lands, the railway network was expanded, and many of the towns began to grow. The non-European Namibians were increasingly marginalised, and simply used as a source of labour.

The building of the railway to Lüderitz led to the discovery of diamonds around there in 1908, and the resulting boom encouraged an influx of prospectors and German opportunists. By that time the mine at Tsumeb was already thriving, and moving its copper produce south on the newly built railway.

The German settlers thrived until the declaration of World War I, and between 1907 and 1914 the colonists were granted self-rule from Germany, a number of the main towns were declared as municipalities, and many of Namibia’s existing civic buildings were constructed.

World War I

At the onset of World War I, Britain encouraged South Africa to push north and wrest German South West Africa from the Germans. In July 1915, the German Colonial troops surrendered to South African forces at Khorab – a memorial now marks the spot. At the end of the war, Namibia became a League of Nations ‘trust territory’, assigned to the Union of South Africa as ‘a sacred trust in the name of civilisation’ to ‘promote to the utmost the material and moral well-being of its inhabitants’. The Caprivi Strip was incorporated back into Bechuanaland (though it was returned 20 years later).

The final colonists

South African rule

After overcoming their initial differences, new colonists from South Africa and the existing German colonists soon discovered a common interest – the unabashed exploitation of the native population whose well-being they were supposed to be protecting.

Gradually more and more of the land in central Namibia was given to settler families, often Boers from South Africa rather than Germans from Europe. The native population was restricted to various ‘native areas’ – usually poor land which couldn’t be easily farmed by the settlers: Bushmanland and Hereroland in the Kalahari, Damaraland and Kaokoland bordering on the Namib. Much of the rest of the black population was confined to a strip of land in the north, as far from South Africa as possible, to serve as a reservoir of cheap labour for the mines – which South Africa was developing to extract the country’s mineral wealth.

In 1947, after World War II, South Africa formally announced to the United Nations its intention to annex the territory. The UN, which had inherited responsibility for the League of Nations trust territories, opposed the plan, arguing that ‘the African inhabitants of South West Africa have not yet achieved political autonomy’. Until 1961, the UN insisted on this point. Year after year it was systematically ignored by South Africa’s regime.

The struggle for independence

Between 1961 and 1968, the UN tried to annul the trusteeship and establish Namibia’s independence. Legal pressure, however, was ineffective and some of the Namibian people led by the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) chose to fight for their freedom with arms. The first clashes occurred on August 26 1966.

In 1968, the UN finally declared the South African occupation of the country as illegal and changed its name to Namibia. Efforts by the majority of the UN General Assembly to enforce this condemnation with economic sanctions were routinely vetoed by the Western powers of the Security Council – they had vested interests in the multinational companies in Namibia and would stand to lose from the implementation of sanctions.

The independence of Angola in 1975 affected Namibia’s struggle for freedom, by providing SWAPO guerrillas with a friendly rearguard. As a consequence the guerrilla war was stepped up, resulting in increased political pressure on South Africa. But strong internal economic factors also played heavily in the political arena. Up to independence, the status quo had preserved internal inequalities and privileges. Black Africans (90% of the population) consumed only 12.8% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Meanwhile the inhabitants of European origin (10% of the population) received 81.5% of the GDP. Three-quarters of the agricultural production was in the hands of white farmers. Although average per-capita income was (and remains) one of the highest in Africa, whites earned on average over 17 times more than blacks. The white population clearly feared they had a great deal to lose if a majority government came to power and addressed itself to these racially-based inequalities.

However, external South African economic factors had perhaps the greatest effect in blocking Namibian independence. South African and multinational companies dominated the Namibian economy and carried massive political influence. Prior to independence, the Consolidated Diamond Mines Company (a subsidiary of Anglo-American) contributed in taxes 40% of South Africa’s administrative budget in Namibia. Multinationals benefited from extremely generous facilities granted to them by the South African administration in Namibia. According to one estimate, the independence of Namibia would represent costs for South Africa of US$240 million in lost exports, and additional outlays of US$144 million to import foreign products.

In South Africa the official government view stressed the danger that a SWAPO government might present to Namibia’s minority tribes (since SWAPO membership is drawn almost exclusively from the Owambo ethnic group), whilst taking few serious steps towards a negotiated settlement for Namibian independence.

On the military side, South Africa stepped up its campaign against SWAPO, even striking at bases in southern Angola. It also supported Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces in their struggle against the Soviet/Cuban-backed MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government in Luanda. Meanwhile, Cuban troops poured into Angola and aggravated the situation further by threatening the South African forces in Namibia.

Resolution 435

On the diplomatic front, a proposal (Resolution 435) put forward by the UN security council called for, amongst other things, the cessation of hostilities, the return of refugees, the repeal of discriminatory legislation and the holding of UN-supervised elections. South Africa blocked this by tying any such agreement to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, and demanding guarantees that its investments in Namibia would not be affected. SWAPO refused to agree to special benefits for the European population and other minority groups, nor would it accept predetermined limitations to constitutional change following independence.

By 1987, all the states involved in the conflict were showing clear signs of wanting an end to hostilities. After 14 years of uninterrupted war, Angola’s economy was on the brink of collapse. (The war is calculated to have cost the country US$13 billion.) On the other side, South Africa’s permanent harassment of Angola, and military occupation of Namibia were costing the regime dearly both economically and diplomatically.

In December 1988, after prolonged US-mediated negotiations, an agreement was reached between South Africa, Angola and Cuba for a phased withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola to be linked to the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia and the implementation of Resolution 435.


The independence process began on April 1 1989, and was achieved with the help of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). This consisted of some 7,000 people from 110 countries who worked from nearly 200 locations within the country to ensure free and fair elections and as smooth a transition period to independence as was possible.

In November 1989, 710,000 Namibians (a 97% turn-out) voted in the members of the National Assembly which would draft the country’s first constitution. SWAPO won decisively, but without the two-thirds majority it needed to write the nation’s constitution single-handedly, thereby allaying the fears of Namibia’s minorities. The 72 elected members (68 men and four women) of the Constituent Assembly, representing between them seven different political parties, soon reached agreement on a constitution for the new Namibia, which was subsequently hailed as one of the world’s most democratic. Finally, at 00.20 on March 21 1990, I watched as the Namibian flag replaced South Africa’s over Windhoek, witnessed by Pérez de Cuéllar, the UN Secretary-General, F W de Klerk, the South African President and Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s first president.

The country’s mood was peaceful and, on the day, ecstatic. There was a tremendous feeling of optimism, as (arguably) Africa’s last colonial territory had earned its independence – after sustained diplomatic pressure and a bitter liberation struggle that stretched back to the turn of the century.

Politics since independence

Since started with every indication that Namibia would stand by its constitution and develop into a peaceful and prosperous state. Walvis Bay, previously disputed by South Africa, was transferred to Windhoek’s control on February 28 1994, and its relations with neighbouring countries remain good.

In December 1994 general elections for the National Assembly returned SWAPO to power, with 53 out of 72 seats, and extended Sam Nujoma’s presidency for a further five years. The main opposition continues to be be the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), although it is still haunted by the stigma of its co-operation with the former South African regime.


Before independence, the South African administration controlled the economy along traditional colonial lines. The country produced what it did not consume and imported everything it needed, including food. Namibia still exports maize, meat and fish, and imports rice and wheat. It exports minerals and raw materials and, since it is still establishing industries, meets most if its needs for manufactured goods by importing them from South Africa.

Namibia inherited a well-developed infrastructure and considerable remaining mineral wealth. The revenue and foreign exchange from mining is still used to provide the financial muscle for the government’s agenda. Realistically, Namibia’s economy is likely to stay closely involved with the South African economy, especially while Namibia continues to peg its currency to the value of the South African rand.

The government is developing structural changes to make the economy more equitable, and to diversify its components. Better living conditions for the majority of Namibians are being realised by increasing the productivity of the subsistence areas, particularly in the populated north. However, there remains an enormous gap between the rich and the poor, which must be closed if the country is to have a secure and prosperous future.

The Guano Trade

A poem quoted in The River Okavango by CJ Andersson:

‘There’s an island that lies on West Africa’s shore,

Where penguins have lived since the flood or before,

And raised up a hill there, a mile high or more.

This hill is all guano, and lately ’tis shown,

That finer potatoes and turnips are grown,

By means of this compost, than ever were known;

And the peach and the nectarine, the apple, the pear,

Attain such a size that the gardeners stare,

And cry, "Well! I never saw fruit like that ’ere!"

One cabbage thus reared, as a paper maintains,

Weighed twenty-one stone, thirteen pounds and six grains,

So no wonder Guano celebrity gains.’

Chapter Four

The Natural Environment



Most of Namibia is classified as an arid to semi-arid region (the line being crossed from semi-arid to arid when evaporation exceeds rainfall). Most of it has a sub-tropical ‘desert’ climate, characterised by a wide range in temperature (from day to night and from summer to winter), and by low rainfall and humidity. The northern strip follows the same pattern, but has a more moderate, less dry climate.

Temperatures range widely from very hot to very cold, depending on the height of the land above sea level and the month. Note that although the terms ‘summer’ (November to April) and ‘winter’ (May to October) are sometimes used, they are not as applicable as, say, in a European maritime climate.

Most of Namibia’s rain falls in the summer, from around December to March, and it can be heavy and prolonged in Owamboland and Caprivi. The further south or west you go, the drier it becomes, with many southern regions of the Kalahari receiving no rainfall at all some years.


The beginning of the year, in January and February, is midsummer. Then it’s hot and fairly damp with average maximum temperatures around 25–35°C and average minima around 10–20°C (depending exactly where you are). These averages, however, hide peaks of well over 45°C in the desert.

On a typical day during the rains, the sky will start blue and by early afternoon the clouds will appear. In the late afternoon there will be an hour’s torrential rain on some days. Such tropical storms are spectacular; everything feels terrifically fresh afterwards. However, you wouldn’t want to be caught outside. By the early evening the sky will usually begin to clear again.

The frequency of the rains decreases, and they cease around March or April. From then the heat is waning and the land gradually cools and dries out. The nights quickly become cooler, accentuating the temperature difference between the bright, hot days and the clear nights. May is a lovely month: there is minimal chance of rain, nights are not yet too cold, and many of the summer’s plants are still lush and green.

By June the nights are cold, approaching freezing in desert areas where night game drives can be bitter. July and August are winter, when the average maximum temperatures are around 15–25°C and the average minima are around 0–10°C. That said, you’ll still find yourself wearing shorts and a T-shirt during the day, and getting sunburnt if you are not careful. Clouds will be a rare sight for the next few months.

September is another super month, dry and clear, yet not too hot. By then most green vegetation is fading as the heat begins to build. Everything is dry. All through October the heat mounts, and by November it is very hot during the day. However, the humidity is still exceedingly low, so even the high temperatures feel quite pleasant.

By November the air seems pregnant with anticipation. Everything is dry, awaiting the rains. Though the clouds often build up in the afternoon, they won’t usually deliver until at least December. When (and if ) the rains do arrive, they are a huge relief, dropping the temperatures at a stroke, clearing the air and reviving the vegetation.

The coastal strip

Temperatures on the Namibian coast follow a similar overall pattern, though it may seem very different from one day to the next. Here the climate is largely determined by the interaction between warm dry winds from inland and the cold Benguela Current. The sea is too cold for much evaporation to take place and, consequently, rain-bearing clouds don’t form over the coast. Most of the coast is classified as desert – rainfall is an extremely low 15mm per annum on average, and in some years there may be none.

However, hot air from the interior mixes regularly with cold sea air to produce a moist fog that penetrates up to 60km inland. This happens regardless of season, and has done for millennia. It is this periodic morning fog which provides the desert’s only dependable source of moisture, and the Namib’s endemic flora and fauna have evolved to take advantage of it.


Geologically, Namibia forms part of an extremely old region, with Pre-Cambrian granitic and metamorphic rocks dating back over two billion years. These shield or ‘basement’ rocks are usually covered by more recent sedimentary rocks, mostly deposited during the Mesozoic era (65 to 235 million years ago). Tectonic activity or movement in the earth’s crust over the last 100 million years or so created a number of rifts through which magma was able to reach the surface (see the box on Diamond pipes) and resulted in the uplifting of most of the area above sea level.

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